The Uncertain Trumpet of the National Academy of Science

by Professor Phillip Johnson

In light of the stimulating discussion at this website of the NABT affair, I'd like to invite a similar discussion of the National Academy's long-awaited new guidebook for "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science" (hereafter Guidebook). My opinion is that persons who were critical of the NABT's reversal should be still more critical of the pablum that the National Academy is serving up to the public.

To begin this discussion, I'll provide this opening statement and invite responses. I expect that persons like Provine, Pigliucci, and Lewontin will agree to a considerable extent with my specific points, although of course they are aiming at a different conclusion. Here are some of the most important questions the National Academy might have been expected to answer, and here is now its Guidebook systematically fails to answer them.

1. Why is a new policy statement necessary at this time? If science education is currently failing to present the subject of evolution effectively, is it time to consider a new strategy?

The Guidebook at first identifies the problem as unbelief. Despite strenuous efforts by the science educators over many decades, "Fewer than one-half of American adults believe that humans evolved from earlier species." Most Americans think that some alternative to evolution should be presented in the schools, or that evolution should be taught as theory rather than fact -- by which they mean that it should be taught less dogmatically. The Guidebook responds to this perfectly intelligible point with a semantic quibble about what scientists mean by "theory."

When a strategy isn't working, the sensible response is to consider another approach. Why not try to communicate with the unbelievers, rather than just to overpower them? Instead of attacking the same old straw men, the educators might identify the most responsible critics of naturalistic evolution and incorporate their objections into the curriculum. That might be a more effective means of persuasion, and it certainly would make the subject more interesting for students. The Guidebook's authors opt instead for a head-in-the-sand approach that simply asserts that there is nothing to argue about. "There is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution occurred," they assert, " and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred." Since the Guidebook's definition of "evolution" is so broad that every birth could be cited as a confirming example, the statement is both obviously true and utterly uninformative.

The educational opportunity that is thereby missed is illustrated by one of the few good points in the Guidebook. Recognizing that many otherwise excellent students will refuse to believe the official theory, the Academy commendably tells teachers that students should be graded only on their understanding of the theory, not on whether they believe it. The Guidebook illustrates the point in the words of a teacher who says of a creationist student that "I told her I wasn't going to grade her on her opinion of evolution but on her knowledge of the facts and concepts. She seemed satisfied with that and actually got a A in the class." But if even "A" students are sometimes skeptical of the grander claims of evolution, doesn't this suggest that there are reasonable grounds for doubt which a good science teacher ought to explore? It is not likely that bright students will be persuaded, or even interested, by a curriculum that effectively tells them that "some examples of evolutionary change can be cited, and therefore there are no controversial issues to discuss." Students who hear that line will figure out that they have to go to outside sources to learn the other side of the story.

2. What exactly is "evolution?" Specifically, are the science educators merely telling us that some change in living organisms has occurred, or do they claim to be able to provide a complete naturalistic account of the history of life, from the emergence of the first living organism up to and including the human mind?

The Guidebook defines "evolution" as "change in the hereditary characteristics of groups of organisms over the course of generations." This is what is commonly called microevolution, and no one, including Biblical fundamentalists, denies its occurrence. The dispute concerns how new body plans and complex organs, including the human mind, came into existence. To the extent that the Guidebook addresses that issue at all, it does so only by persistently implying that the familiar examples of Darwinian microevolution illustrate a mechanism that, given sufficient time, is capable of creating all the immensely complex types of living organisms that now exist. The authors of the Guidebook know very well that there are many objections to this gigantic extrapolation from microevolution to a complete history of life, but they acknowledge the existence of scientific controversy only with the oblique statement that "Some of the details of how evolution occurs are still being investigated." The mechanism of biological creation is not a "detail."

Although the Guidebook makes no explicit concessions, it appears from significant omissions that the National Academy is retreating from earlier claims that evolutionary scientists know (at least in principle) how the first life emerged from a prebiotic soup through chemical evolution. We hear nothing about the famous Miller-Urey experiment, which is continually presented in textbooks, museum exhibits, and public television shows as if it demonstrated how chemical evolution can produce life. Instead of repeating the old claims about the origin of life, National Academy President Bruce Alberts conceded at a press conference that "That one is still up for grabs."

The Guidebook also has nothing to say about the origin of the cell, and it tells none of the usual "just-so stories" about the emergence of flight or vision. It does claim that whales descended from land-dwelling animals through three intermediate forms, and says that "it has been proposed that a small group of modern humans evolved in Africa 150,000 years ago and spread throughout the world." This kind of speculation does not address the main point. Even if we grant the evolutionary history as the Guidebook tells it, what was the source of the immensely complex genetic information required for the construction of a land mammal, a whale, or a human being? For that matter, what was the source of the genetic information required to construct even a bacterial cell? The Guidebook makes no attempt to answer.

3. Does evolutionary theory have significant religious implications? Does natural selection shape human thought and behavior, as writers like Edward O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett say in their influential books, or is sociobiology a pseudoscience with little basis in scientific fact? When the authority of "science" is invoked to buttress controversial theories about human nature, how can the public distinguish genuine scientific knowledge from political ideology?

The Guidebook gives students absolutely no help with questions like these, because of its authors' overwhelming concern to foster the impression that the scientists are agreed on all the important issues, and only debate the details. On the religious issues, the Guidebook provides only a bland evasion: "Within the Judeo-Christian religions, many people believe that God works through the process of evolution." No doubt they do. But does the National Academy consider the concept of God-guided evolution to be scientifically acceptable, or is this compromise position based on a misunderstanding that the scientific elite tolerates only for political reasons?

The Guidebook evades the religious questions and ignores altogether the scientific questions relating to the implications of Darwinism for human behavior. Informed persons know that the Darwinists are engaged in a civil war between the "fundamentalists" and the "pluralists," and that the hot-button issue in that war is the application of Darwinian theory to human behavior. Recall that Richard Lewontin described the sociobiology of Edward O. Wilson as resting "on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia." (See Lewontin's essay in the January 9, 1997 issue of the New York Review of Books.) Yet Wilson and similar thinkers appear in the media and in college curricula as scientific authorities, wielding the same Darwinian logic that the National Academy urges the public to accept unquestioningly when it applies to plants, animals, and the human body. Should a good education in evolution encourage young people to take sociobiology at face value as scientific knowledge, or to be suspicious of it as one of those fads like Freudianism that sometimes succeed for a while in counterfeiting the good name of science without ever incorporating the requirement that hypotheses be rigorously tested?

If the National Academy is serious about teaching evolution, as opposed to just promoting a vague orthodoxy, it has to be prepared to speak to the issues students as future citizens most need to understand.. One can sympathize with public school teachers who would rather encourage students to appreciate the virtues of scientific reasoning by presenting it in a less ideologically loaded context. But the overall message of the Guidebook is that "evolution" should be taught boldly as science, regardless of how many people object and regardless of who is offended. I actually believe in that message, and I am convinced that putting it into practice would be the best way of helping the scientific community to escape from the dead hand of Darwinian dogma. I only wish that the authors of the Guidebook had the courage of their own convictions.