Why “You Evolved, Dammit!” Is Bad Ed. Policy

In a study released this week (“Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict”), Cato’s Neal McCluskey suggests that America could end its thus-far intractable public school wars (over sex ed, school prayer, evolution vs. creationism or “Intelligent Design”, etc.) by adopting well-designed state-level school choice programs.

The most intense opposition to this proposal comes from people who want the theory of evolution taught to all children regardless of parental wishes. Anything less, they argue, would doom America to a new Dark Age of scientific backwardness.

As someone who agrees wholeheartedly that a natural process of evolution is the best explanation of how human beings came to be, allow me to suggest why the ram-evolution-down-their-throats approach is illiberal, undemocratic, divisive, ineffective, and counter-productive.

Illiberal:

It is illiberal because it makes the government the sole arbiter of absolute truth, and this is wholly at odds with a founding principle of our nation: freedom of thought and belief. If we accept the principle that government is in possession of absolute truth, and that this truth is derived from the application of scientific methods to natural observations, then where would we draw the line? Why would we stop at mandating evolution? Why, in particular, would we allow parents to pass along any religious views at all to their children?

Is there more evidence that Moses, Jesus or Mohammed communicated directly with God than there is that human beings were created by him and in his image? If it is the government’s role to impart a secular scientific explanation of human origins to all children, why would we not also instruct them that their parents’ religious beliefs are unsupported by scientific evidence and should be discounted in favor of natural explanations of historical religious figures? Doing so would clearly be government as Orwell’s “Big Brother” rather than the government envisaged by our Founding Fathers. The same is true of the ram-evolution-down-their-throats policy.

Undemocratic:

This policy is also incompatible with democracy. Those who insist that the teaching of evolution should be mandated generally claim to be supporters of the democratic process. But the majority of Americans do not subscribe to our view of human origins. Here are some relevant polling data:

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey (conducted by Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas (SRBI). July 6-19, 2006. N=996 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.5.)
“Would you generally favor or oppose teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools?”
          .  
    Favor Oppose
Unsure
   
    % % %    
  7/6-19/06 58 35 7    

So if we chose to mandate what is taught about human origins, and we are true democrats, we should mandate equal time for creationism and evolution. Given the public’s views on the subject, exclusively mandating the teaching of naturalistic evolution is oligarchy, not democracy.

Divisive:

It is indisputable that mandating a minority view on human origins in the official government schools has been hugely divisive from the beginning. Advocates of such mandates contend that comity and consensus are fostered by the need to battle over what will be taught in public schools. But the Scopes “monkey trial” is now 80 years in the past and we are still arguing over the same question – and with just as much alacrity. As Neal McCluskey’s paper shows, the notion that our battles on the subject have promoted comity and consensus is patently contradicted by the facts.

Ineffective:

It. Doesn’t. Work. Proponents of mandating the teaching of evolution as the sole explanation of human origins assume that doing so ensures that view is learned. That belief is also contradicted by the facts. After well over half a century during which natural evolution has been the sole official explanation for human origins in the nation’s public schools, the American public’s beliefs on the subject break down as follows:
 

Gallup Poll. May 8-11, 2006. N=1,002 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
 
“Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? (1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Options rotated 1-3, 3-1
 
  Guided by God God Had
No Part
God Created in
Present Form
Other/
No Opinion
 
  % % % %  
5/8-11/06 36 13 46 5  
11/04 38 13 45 4  
2/01 37 12 45 5  
8/99 40 9 47 4  
11/97 39 10 44 7  
6/93 35 11 47 7  
1982 38 9 44 9  

 
CBS News Poll. April 6-9, 2006. Adults nationwide.  
“Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin of human beings? (1) Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process. (2) Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, but God guided this process. (3) God created human beings in their present form.” N=468 (Form X)  
  Not Directly
Guided By God
Guided By God
God Created In
Present Form
Unsure
  % % % %
4/6-9/06 17 23 53 7
10/3-5/05 15 30 51 4
11/18-21/04 13 27 55 5
                 

In other words, either a plurality or a majority, depending on the poll, reject the theory of evolution in its entirety. The next largest group believe evolution is just the way God decided to create the species, and only a small minority actually view an entirely natural process of evolution – what is ostensibly taught in our public schools – as the correct explanation.

The reasons for this are not hard to track down. In practice, public schools have marginalized and/or watered down the teaching of evolution to mitigate opposition to its teaching, which constrains how well it can be learned by students (and that means all students, not just those of creationist parents). Additionally, views taught in school are reconciled with those taught in the home, often to the detriment of the ones taught in school. There is only so much that formal schooling can accomplish when its teachings are at odds with the beliefs of parents. Those who approve of the mandating of instruction in natural evolution have a mistaken, romanticized view of how much “good” it actually does.

Counter-Productive:

The unstated assumption of the “You evolved, Dammit!” policy school is that the power to mandate a particular view on human origins will now and forever be exercised by likeminded souls people. Not likely. Given the public’s beliefs on the subject, already mentioned above, there will be intense pressure to massage the Constitution’s prohibition against establishments of religion and to work in so-called scientific alternatives to evolution such as “Intelligent Design.”

During the forum at which we released Neal’s paper, I pointed out that our sitting president favors teaching Intelligent Design and evolution along side one another. Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, disputed the significance of this observation, arguing that the president doesn’t set the curriculum. First, this misses my point. At whatever level of government is currently responsible for setting curriculum, it is possible that proponents of Intelligent Design or alternative views of human origins will succeed in getting their views into public school classrooms.

Second, Dr. Haynes’ objection may not hold true for much longer. There are several bipartisan moves afoot to set a national curriculum, particularly in math and science. The Dodd-Ehlers bill, which I critique here, would do just that. Furthermore, there is already public support for this idea (also from the Pew Research Center poll):
 

“Do you think the question of whether creationism should be taught along with evolution in public schools is something that should be decided at the national level, or is it something that each state should decide for itself?”
    National
Level
Each State Unsure
    % % %
  7/6-19/06 51 44 5

There is growing political support for a national science curriculum, the public wants evolution/creation decisions decided at the national level, and the public thinks evolution and creationism should be taught alongside one another. This is not what the evolution oligarchs have in mind, and they should think about it long and hard before continuing to argue for a government-imposed truth on the subject. It may not end up being their truth.

Conclusion:

Mandating the teaching of evolution does not accomplish what its proponents wish it to accomplish, and is undesirable and even dangerous for the reasons given above. There are many fields, including many sciences, in which it is entirely possible to work effectively no matter what one’s views on human origins. Just as it is entirely possible for religious believers to work in the sciences, though religious belief and the pursuit of truth through science are quite different (and arguably conflicting) epistemologies.

There is no evidence that a scientific Dark Age would ensue if families could easily choose schools that taught human origins as they wish them taught – any more than there is a Dark Age in America due to the far greater propensity of Americans to be religious believers than is the norm in Europe. The U.S. is both a world leader in science and technology and a leader among developed nations in religious belief. This may seem incongruous to many secular Americans, but it is the indisputable truth. Those who purport to care about truth might want to consider that one.