The second coming: creationism reborn

On Friday, Nov. 6, evolution advocates detailed the latest efforts by opponents to allow for the teaching of religious-based criticisms of evolution in public schools.  In a somber series of remarks, experts on the American creationism movement described its recent successes and its effects on America’s ability to compete globally.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, described laws that allow the teaching of challenges to evolution as “coming soon to a community near you.”

Laws and curricula requiring the teaching of creationism and its more recent variation, intelligent design, previously have been deemed unconstitutional, but new legislation at the state level focuses on academic freedom and “critical thinking,” Scott said.

“Let me translate that,” said Scott.  “Critical thinking means criticizing evolution.”

Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana State University and expert on the history of the creationism movement, described the 2008 Louisiana science education act, which allows teachers to bring in “supplementary materials” that question the science behind evolution.

According to Forrest, constant lobbying by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, and the Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, along with the 2007 election of Bobby Jindal as Louisiana’s governor, helped create a “perfect storm” that resulted in the law’s passage.

But Forrest noted that the Discovery Institute’s efforts are nationwide. Similar legislation has been introduced in 12 other states, Forrest said.

Legislation like that passed in Louisiana’s is based upon the Academic Freedom Act.  According to Forrest, the academic freedom movement is a nuanced approach by the Discovery Institute to allow teachers to teach critiques of evolution in their classrooms.

While the act includes a clause claiming that it does not promote any religious doctrine or set of religious beliefs, it has grown directly out of the creationism and intelligent design movements, Forrest said.

Scott and Forrest agreed that because such legislation permits, rather than requires, the teaching of alternatives to evolution, it would be difficult to challenge legally.  “Teachers don’t have to teach critiques of evolution,” said Scott, “but if they do, they can’t be disciplined.”

“There is no constitutional protection against bad science,” Scott noted.

Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University and author of high school biology textbooks, gave a pointed critique of the purpose and effects of evolution opponents.

“This is a movement by people who want to repeal the Enlightenment,” Miller said.

Miller described “efforts to dethrone evolution” in the Kansas Science Standards by redefining science in ways that would allow for supernatural explanations of nature.

Such altered definitions “undermine the notion that science will help us,” Miller said.

Miller said he worried that laws that allow the teaching of religious-based evolutionary criticism will have a long-term effect on American society and global competitiveness.

“Are we raising children hostile to science?” Miller asked.  He argued that turning our backs on evolution and science would ultimately cede innovation and scientific breakthroughs to other world powers.

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