Don’t Let Satan Fool You

GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has made a career out of waging the values battle in the culture wars.  A major part of that battle early on in Bachmann’s career was the battle over teaching creationism in public school science classes.  In fact, Bachmann got her start in politics on the board of a charter school that got in trouble for teaching biblical principles in class.  Angry over that, Bachmann then ran for the Stillwater school board as part of a group of religious conservatives that sought to take it over.  She failed, but it was the last election she has lost.  Today, the debate over “teching the controversy” has gone mainstream.

To understand where Bachmann is coming from, consider a cautionary cartoon from a conservative Christian book. It shows two castles, each on a tiny island. The castle on the left is on the island of “Evolution (Satan)” and flies the flag of Humanism, while the one on the right rests atop the island of “Creation (Christ)” and flies the flag of Christianity.

In balloons above the Evolution castle are listed social ills caused by the theory of evolution: “euthanasia,” “homosexuality,” and “abortion,” “racism,” etc. The bumbling priests on the island of Christ are stupidly firing their many cannons at these mere “symptoms” of Evolution, while the lone grim scientist, depicted as a pirate, is hammering away at their foundation.

fundamentalists vs evolutionist pirate

With this type of emotional portrayal, cast in the context of the education of children, one can begin to understand why some on the religious right oppose evolution and think of creationism as godly.

Classroom teachers often choose to simply skip the subject altogether rather than fight with creationist parents.  Similarly, more than one science museum director has told me about overhearing groups of homeschooled children about to enter paleontology exhibits being pulled aside by their parents and told, “Now, remember, those bones were put there by Satan to fool you.”

The problem is that modern medicine and biology are based on evolution—biology is essentially applied chemistry and physics in the context of evolution. It is the most fundamental principle in biology, the one that unified biology into an organized science.  It connects and provides a framework for understanding all the various disciplines within the life sciences, from genetics to virology to oncology to organic chemistry. It is, at its most basic, simply the understanding of how life changes over time in relationship to its environment.

Like other creationists Bachmann says that many people confuse evolution with natural selection,

and natural selection is not the same thing as evolution. No one that I know disagrees with natural selection, that you can take various breeds of dogs…breed them, you get different kinds of dogs…. It’s just a fact of life. … Where there’s controversy is, Where do we say that a cell became a blade of grass, which became a starfish, which became a cat, which became a donkey, which became a human being? There’s a real lack of evidence from change from actual species to a different type of species. That’s where it’s difficult to prove.

This is another classic misconception of creationists. Darwin coined the term “naturalselection” in order to distinguish it from the artificial selection done by breeders. The theory of evolution is not about selective breeding at all, which is the opposite of natural selection, and no evidence has ever suggested that human beings are descended from donkeys or blades of grass.

Creationists, including Bachmann, often refer to the writings of Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor and creationist and the author of Darwin’s Black Box, a book arguing that some structures, such as the human eye, are just too complex to be the result of evolution and thus must be evidence of “intelligent design,” a more recent version of creationism.  Behe has made the mistake of clinging to an a priori first principle rather than building his understanding with observational evidence, and so his conclusions are not science; they’re what Francis Bacon called “science as one would,” full of examples of “the vulgar Induction,” in which Behe cherry picks examples that seem to prove his point while ignoring the ones that seem to contradict it.  In other words, rhetoric.

One of Behe’s favorite arguments, and those of other creationists like Bachmann, is the “irreducible complexity” of the eye.  How, they ask, could something is amazingly complex as the eye have simply evolved?  When one looks at the greatness of creation, the eye seems to suggest that there must be a designer.  Here is a delightful, short video featuring evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that shows exactly how the eye did, in fact, evolve:

Why is this important?  Consider the advice of Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which fights creationist attempts to dumb down science class with ideology.  Scott told me that while she herself is “nontheistic,” others in her office, such as her colleague Peter Hess, are “theistic” but nevertheless hold strong convictions that creationism must not be taught in science class. “If we’re teaching creationism, we’re not teaching science,” Scott says. “The assumption of creationism is that natural phenomena require supernatural explanations. I’m not saying science is atheistic about ultimate reality. It isn’t. To say that you can explain something using natural causes is not the same thing as saying there are no supernatural causes. Science is atheistic in the sense that plumbing is atheistic. It limits itself to the study of natural causes.”

This is critically important. The United States has gotten as far as it has in terms of technology and dominance because of science. Because of our understanding that even if you haven’t figured something out, you can just keep plugging away, looking for those natural causes and sooner or later you’ll find them. Teaching creationism in school is teaching a habit of mind that is toxic to that problem-solving method. It teaches you to just throw up your hands and declare that the problem is unsolvable, particularly if that problem is tough or might have consequences for a particular religious belief. It teaches you to value not diversity of ideas, but conformity. If you do that, you’re basically giving up on science, and on the probability of finding those answers. That is not going to take America where we need to go.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is an internationally recognized science advocate, filmaker, and humanitarian who works for smarter politics on a global scale. His newest book, Fool Me Twice, will be available October, 2011. @ShawnOtto

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/06/2011 - 02:42 pm.

    Good article. Intelligent Design is not science.

    Leaving aside the difficulty of actually defining this thing we call “intelligence”, the thing which stops Intelligent Design from being a scientific theory is the unspecified nature of the “intelligence”. It is not considered necessary, or perhaps not possible, to examine the inner reasoning of that intelligence. It is regarded as a “black box”. As soon as this is accepted, then the “black box” is capable of literally anything. It can design any living thing, with any characteristics for any reason, because its reasons are forever hidden. If this is true, then we don’t even need to look at the structure of living things. We don’t need to examine DNA, or the functions of particular organs, or the position of particular species in the fossil record or anything else. We don’t need to demonstrate any irreducible complexity, because, whatever we discover it is all part of the unfathomable purpose of the designer. How could we ever conceivably discover something which is definitely not a part of the designer’s purpose if we cannot ever know what that purpose is? It doesn’t matter what we discover. It could, by definition, never contradict the theory, so long as the designer’s motives are hidden.

    Of course we can always say that the designer might have some motive to which we are not yet privy but which we could, in principle, discover later. But imagine using this line of reasoning with, say, the theory of gravity: Suppose our theory of gravity states that there is a reason why all objects tend to fall towards each other but we don’t yet know what it is because it’s hidden. This may be true, but it is not a scientific theory. It’s simply an admition that we don’t yet have a theory but might have one later. There’s nothing wrong with such an admition. We don’t know everything and should always be clear about what we don’t know. But a scientific theory is supposed to be about the small amount that we do know, not simply a declaration of ignorance.

    So why don’t we create a theory of Intelligent Design in which we are allowed to investigate the motives of the designer? Well, such a theory would end up solving exactly the same problems that Evolution solves in exactly the same ways. The addition of an Intelligent Designer would be incidental; a completely non-functional detail.

    So Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory.

  2. Submitted by Bert Perry on 07/06/2011 - 05:00 pm.

    Some thoughts about this;

    1. The author more or less proves the contention of Answers in Genesis that evolution is at the base of a secularist/liberal worldview by insisting that nothing else be tolerated in the public square.

    2. The author also does not give a citation, which is generally called “plagiarism.” Nor does the author actually provide any evidence that Bachmann has anything to do with AIG.

    3. Dawkins’ video only proves that there are a variety of eyes out in the natural world; his inference is that a variety of eyes must reflect evolution. As such, he’s basically begging the question by using his own theory as the basis for proving his own theory.

    4. The author greatly misstates the ID argument; it is not the presupposition that a creater must exist (that would be Dawkins’ error from a creation ist perspective), but rather is an attempt to apply the Darwinian model to find out whether it is statistically likely.

    OK, so I’m looking at this column; plagiarism, unsubstantiated allegations, begging the question, and a red herring; all basic fallacies of informal logic. If Mr. Otto wishes to see some habits which are toxic to the problem-solving method, he can re-read his column.

    If he’d like to be part of the solution, I’d suggest a course in basic informal logic.

  3. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/07/2011 - 07:29 am.

    I’d like to comment on some of Bert Perry’s points.

    1. Where did this idea come from that the theory of evolution is “liberal”? I don’t get it. What’s the political position of the theory of quantum mechanics? And isn’t the author really just saying that ID shouldn’t be taught in science classes? Surely that’s a fair point. The “public square” extends quite a long way beyond science classrooms. Plenty of room for ID elsewhere?

    2. Don’t know. Maybe a fair point.

    3. The purpose of the Richard Dawkins video is to refute the claim that the eye is irreducibly complex. This claim states that the eye must have been designed all at once because it cannot function without any of its constituent parts. The video simply points to examples of eyes that do just that and therefore demostrates that it is at least possible for the eye to have developed gradually whilst still functioning as an eye at every stage. It does not attempt to “prove” that the eye evolved in such a way.

    4. You say that the purpose of Intelligent Design Theory is simply to assess whether evolution is likely – whether there is evidence that some structures, organs or organisms could not have evolved. But surely the name of the theory – “Intelligent Design” – suggests that there’s more to it than that? I thought the theory postulated that such things were designed by an “intelligence”, by analogy with the “intelligence” that makes man-made objects?

    You criticise the author’s logic. Maybe on some points that’s fair, but could you explain why, if your assertion in point 4 is true, the theory of “Intelligent Design” is not simply called something like: “A critique of evolution”? And if, as you suggest, it does simply examine the likelyhood of the predictions of evolution, without proposing any alternative model, would you then agree that it is not a scientific theory?

  4. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/07/2011 - 07:43 am.

    Another comment on Mr Perry’s point number 3:

    Having read back thru the article I can’t see anything that obviously needs a citation or which is plagarism. To what were you referring? You yourself make a bold claim about ID in point 4. Where is your citation?

    And I don’t see where the author claims that Backmann is linked to Answers In Genesis (although I may have missed it). He just seems to accuse her of being a creationist, which doesn’t seem wildly unreasonable. Where does it refer to AIG?

  5. Submitted by Bert Perry on 07/07/2011 - 10:36 am.

    1. Yes, the author is trying to link Bachmann with Answers in Genesis, but isn’t providing any evidence. Sorry, it’s not subtle. He’s also trying to link her with our Senator’s “Church Lady” caricature; it’s a veiled ad hominem attack.

    2. Yes, the author does need to cite where this comes from, because quite frankly if he’s going to try and link Bachmann with those he considers radically otu of touch, he needs to make and understand the connection.

    3. Yes, Dawkins is trying to demonstrate that it’s not irreducibly complex, but the only evidence he actually presents is the diversity of eyes in the natural world–which he then assumes evolved to demonstrate the truth of evolution. He is more or less presenting a tautology. There is no series of logical steps that Dawkins attempts between “that which is” to establish “that is why it is.”

    4. No, ID does not need to proceed from a presupposition of theism; it rather simply needs to demonstrate that the alternative is scientifically untenable. If that point is established, there is, logically speaking, only one alternative–that there is something outside the system you’re looking at.

    More or less, the post here really demonstrates why we NEED a discussion of things like intelligent design in schools, not why we ought not have one. Or, more specifically, we need to bring logic back, and use Mr. Dawkins as the bad example that he is. There may be a compelling case for random evolution, but suffice it to say that Dawkins is not the one making it.

  6. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/07/2011 - 03:22 pm.

    Back again!

    1. Well, since there is absolutely no mention whatever in the article of A.I.G. I’d say it is quite subtle! He simply calls her a creationist. A.I.G are not the only creationists around. I don’t know about the “Church Lady” caricature, so I’ll take your word for that one.

    2. Cite where what comes from? I still don’t know which particular part of the article you’re talking about.

    3. I just think Dawkins is countering the argument:

    “the eye cannot function without parts A, B and C” by saying:

    “here is an example of an eye without part A, and here’s one without part B, etc”

    Of course it’s true that all of those different eyes exist now, not in the past, and there is no proof that they evolved. It’s just that nobody has yet come up with a different mechanism which fits the evidence. Maybe they will in the future. But they haven’t yet. Until they do, the current theory, which is not contradicted by any evidence found so far, holds sway. That’s how science works. ID doesn’t propose any new mechanism – it just critiques the existing one and proposes replacing it with a mysterious black box.

    4. I agree that ID does not need to presuppose theism and the author is wrong to suggest that it does. But demonstrating that a particular theory of biological development (evolution) is untenable does not logically necessitate an outside influence. It could postulate a different internal mechanism.

    Anyway, I didn’t say that ID presupposes theism, I said it suggests, by its very name, that life is created, in part or in whole, by an intelligent agent.

    I agree though that a discussion of Intelligent Design and Creationism in schools would be a good idea. It’s clearly a hot topic in which many people are interested. It’s silly to ignore it. And I wouldn’t see anything wrong with discussing it in science classes. But, in that context, I think it would be important to show the reasons why it isn’t science, because it really isn’t.

    I don’t see anything wrong with it not being science. Science isn’t everything! But to introduce it into science classes without pointing out that it’s not science would simply be misleading.

    The trouble is, having to point out that it’s not science would probably offend its proponents, which is why I’d opt to discuss it in some other kind of class, like philosophy or theology or something on current affairs.

    It’s interesting that you talk about the case for “random evolution”. Evolution is not random, but I’ve noticed that word is often added to it by people who are not comfortable with the fact that it is not guided by an “intelligence”. The word “accident” is also often used.

    I think the question of why people feel the need for there to be agency in the world is interesting.

  7. Submitted by Lee Meadows on 07/07/2011 - 04:53 pm.

    I appreciated Mr. Otto’s description of the territory of the problems with teaching creationism in public schools. I’ve done work for years on how to teach evolution here in America’s Deep South, where students have strong religious objections to learning about it. The key point in Mr. Otto’s piece for me is how science must stick to natural explanations, as described by Dr. Eugenie Scott. Allowing supernatural arguments opens the door to scientific chaos, especially since science then has to adjudicate which religions can be in the club. Creationists want Christian explanations to count, but we would then have to explanations of origins from every other religion as well. That would make for a huge mess, especially in the minds of children in public schools!

    Mr. Otto got it wrong, however, when he accused creationists of basically dumbing down thinking. When he said, “Teaching creationism in school is teaching a habit of mind that is toxic to that problem-solving method,” he took a swipe at millions of Americans who, like me, have deep faith and good minds. Creationism doesn’t need to be taught in public schools, period. But, that doesn’t mean people who have creationist leanings are a bunch of stupid rednecks. Trust me. I live among very bright people who have beautiful faith. It enriches their lives. Their faith doesn’t undermine America’s progress, as Mr. Otto insinuates.

  8. Submitted by Chris Weiss on 07/08/2011 - 10:04 am.

    The problem with saying that ID does not suppose theism is that not all animals have existed simultaneously. We know there are animals such as the giant insects of the past that could not survive today because of the lower oxygen levels in the atmosphere. Similarly, there are plants and animals alive today that clearly did not exist when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Regardless of how the composition of the earth’s species changed, the fact that they have changed is indisputable. Since ID assumes that certain biological mechanisms appeared complete with no predecessors, species must have “appeared” up and functioning. This logically implies there must be some supernatural entity or force that has put these functionally complete beings on the earth as the earth’s environment has changed beyond simple adaption within a species. Creationists call this “special creation,” but regardless of the name, it is not something we can verify in the lab or through direct observation. Consequently, ID is not science, but rather a tautological explanation that ends all scientific debate on the origin of a biological mechanism.

    We cannot teach ID in the science classroom because it does not lend itself to further discussion about biological change.

  9. Submitted by Chris Weiss on 07/08/2011 - 10:08 am.

    One of the many criticisms against evolution in favor of ID, is that evolution is supposedly not science. In fact, it is often called an unverifiable tautology. However, evolution is actually an area developed through observation, which is different from areas of science such as simple chemistry.

    There are many areas of science that are developed through observation and prediction and not through direct experimentation. Astronomy is our biggest example. Evolution is similar. We can watch rapid speciation and positive mutation in microorganisms, which can be monitored and manipulated in the lab, but the evolution of more complex species is through observation similar to the observations around celestial bodies and events. However, we can see clear examples of genetic drift resulting in speciation today in animals such a birds and fish. What makes evolution more like astronomy is that we can make predictions around where particular fossils should be found or the types of things we should find to verify common descent, and these predictions have been confirmed so often that evolution has moved from a collection of hypotheses to a full blown theory.

    Modern evolutionary biology includes genetics, molecular biology, comparative morphology, and a fossil record that is orders of magnitude larger than what was available in Darwin’s time. We should not be teaching “Origin of Species” as fact, but like Newton’s physics compared to Relativity and quantum physics, Darwin’s ideas were the foundation on which modern biological principles and theories have been built. To ignore this is discredit how modern biological research is performed today.

    Evidence of transitional species are alive and well today such as:

    * Egg laying animals
    * Fish with primitive lungs that can breath air and water
    * Amphibians with fish scales.
    * Reptiles with four chambered hearts
    * Birds with marrow filled bones and hair-like feathers

    I could go on, but the evidence of existing “transitional” species is overwhelming.

    Physical, reproducible, and explainable evidence supports evolution. Currently, there is no valid scientific theory which can be legitimately said to replace it. To do so would require:

    1. A theory that explains everything evolution explains.

    2. One or more observations that directly contradict evolution, which the new theory supports.

    3. Predictions that the new theory makes, and which are confirmed in direct contradiction to evolution.

    No such theory exists, including ID.

    Bachmann’s insistence that evolution is not science (she equated it to joining a cult at one point) stems from the conflict between here understanding of her faith and valid scientific theories. This has no place in school.

  10. Submitted by Shawn Otto on 07/08/2011 - 02:01 pm.

    Chris, excellent comments – please repost them over at my site so readers there can see them.

    I would suggest that evolution can be tested experimentally and often is, and not just in microbiology, but also just as Chris has described – making a bold prediction that we will find a certain piece of evidence in the fossil record which we do not currently have, and then going out and finding it. This is as bold as, say, Einstein’s prediction that gravity bends space, which was later verified by observing the changes in apparent star locations during a solar eclipse, and I think in this sense evolution qualifies as experimentally verifiable as well.

    Lee, my comments do not intend to imply that creationists are “stupid rednecks.” I merely state that the habit of thought of presuming a supernatural explanation will never lead one to create new knowledge – and thus power – of/in the physical world, because one assumes the causes are supernatural, not physical, and so stops looking. America’s strength has come from its ability to create power using science. To the extent that creationism is taught in science class, confusing the two, versus in, say, religious studies class, to that extent it trades kids’ ability to compete using science – to find those physical causes and that power – for parents’ ideological comfort. That is a trade often made, an accommodation to one’s culture and traditions, and I don’t see it as a problem unless we are representing faith as science. In my experience most people are not either/or but distribute along a continuum, and making this distinction – science in science class, religion in religious studies class – is not a problem for them.

  11. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/08/2011 - 05:36 pm.

    Chris Weiss:

    “We cannot teach ID in the science classroom because it does not lend itself to further discussion about biological change.”

    I agree that we shouldn’t teach it AS science, because it isn’t science. But I still think it should be talked about because:

    1. It’s of great interest to many people and it says something about a scientific theory. It’s important to engage students in science by showing them that it is relevant to contemporary issues.

    2. It might be instructive to examine exactly why it is not science. I think a very important part of science education is to examine exactly what constitutes science and why.

    I think the worst thing to do is to studiously ignore ID in classrooms. This just plays into the hands of the ID/creationism proponents who paint science in general as an arrogant enterprise which hands down absolute knowledge and ridicules ignorance.

  12. Submitted by Chris Weiss on 07/10/2011 - 09:19 am.

    @Stephen Howell:

    I couldn’t disagree more about your claim that ID should be taught as a counter-example in science. I think the best approach is a non-discussion.

    1. ID is not science, and every significant claim by this perspective (such as the books by Behe) has been exhaustively disproven. Should we then go into detail about every incorrect hypothesis around biology? Where does it end?

    2. Bringing up ID means tearing it down in a classroom setting. This means insulting those students in the classroom who believe in it. Why go through the effort of tearing those beliefs down? The job of teacher is not to tear down other people’s religious beliefs. The teacher should walk the students down the path and let each students draw his/her own conclusions around a particular religious belief.

    3. If a student brings ID up, I think it is fair and reasonable to simply say that the supreme court views ID as a religious point of view that cannot be taught in a public school science classroom setting.

    I think a better discussion would be to say that some people don’t believe in evolution, but to replace it requires a scientific theory. I would then recommend describing why evolution is a scientific theory, and the things a counter theory would have to do to replace evolution. This could be done without ever insulting anyone’s particular religious beliefs directly.

  13. Submitted by Stephen Howell on 07/11/2011 - 08:11 am.

    @Chris Weiss:

    Actually I think I generally agree with you. I was just exploring ideas.

    I take the point that it would be impossible to bring up ID in science lessons without having to show why it is not science and this would automatically create needless conflict with its believers.

    I like your idea of simply describing what criterea an alternative to evolution would have to fullfill in order to be scientific, without actually singling out ID as an example of something that doesn’t fullfill those criterea. Let them fill in the dots and come to their own conclusions.

    But I think your point about having to go into every detail of every incorrect hypothesis, in the interests of balance, ignores the “fact on the ground” that creationism/ID is different from other non-scientific mythologies in that it seems that a large proportion of students believe it, and see it as a reason not to believe the truth of evolution. So we get this strange situation where they disconnect the discoveries of science from what they regard as real life. Science becomes just a load of stuff you have to learn to pass an exam. But you don’t have to believe that it’s true.

    In a society with a high percentage of religious observance (like the US) it’s a problem that I think needs to be explicitly dealt with. I just don’t know how.

    One extra point: I don’t see how any of this has anything at all to do with the prohibition on creating a state religion as enshrined in the US constitution. I don’t think discussing religious issues in schools could be construed as setting up a state religion.

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