Posted by Timothy Sandefur on June 22, 2005 04:29 PM

A student note in the latest issue of the Washington University Journal of Law And Policy, while better than the usual anti-evolution law review article (because shorter), is still rotten at the core. The unifying theme of these errors is the author’s unfortunate misconception that there are scientifically valid “alternatives” to evolution. This error infects the rest of the article—as they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch.

David J. Hacker, Warning! Evolution Lies Within: Preserving Academic Freedom in The Classroom With Secular Evolution Disclaimers, 16 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 333 (2004), begins with the claim that “[l]awmakers in Louisiana twice tried to create evolution disclaimers, once with sectarian motivations, and more recently, with secular motivations.” Id. at 334. The problem with this statement, of course, is that there are no legitimate secular motivations for textbook disclaimers about evolution. Evolution is—to put it simply—true; as true as anything we know about the world. Denying it can only be motivated by ignorance or religious faith. Legislators who claim that disclaimers are designed to “disclaim[ ] any orthodoxy and reduc[e] offense to opponents of evolution,” id. at 335, are either victims of, or engaged in, a sham, or are contending that private biases on the part of the general public may be given legal effect for their own sake—a proposition I think is highly flawed.

The blight of scientific illiteracy is more evident in his claim that “[t]he popularity of disclaimers increased in the past three years due to (1) changes in the science of origins, (2) ambiguous law concerning academic freedom, and (3) public pressure to teach alternatives to evolution.” Id. at 341. But only the third is true, and even it isn’t quite accurate. There have been no “changes in the science” challenging evolution’s place as the scientific explanation of the history of life—as Panda’s Thumb so frequently shows; there have only been changes in the publicizing of the weak arguments of creationists—and, simultaneously, an organized strategy to push the teaching of religion in classrooms. The Cobb County evolution disclaimer, for example, was not the result of any scientific doubts as to the origin of species; it was the result of lobbying by religious activists. The law on this issue is not ambiguous: it is patently unconstitutional to teach religion in a government classroom.

Relying heavily on Francis Beckwith (you know—the guy who claims he’s not a defender of ID), Hacker contends that “Intelligent Design is a scientific research program teaching that intelligent agency explains more about complex biological systems than does evolutionary theory,” id. at 342, although he provides no examples of any of the results of this alleged “research.” Indeed, Hacker fails to cite a single scientist in the article at all (except Gould, whom he rightly describes as a believer in evolution). He reveals a lot, however, when he cites a theologian’s “argument against evolution: ‘Suppose a fish evolves lungs. What happens then? Does it move up to the next evolutionary stage? Of course not. It drowns.’” Id. at 342 n. 51. This is the sort of “alternative view” that Hacker would suggest we teach children? Evolution, of course, does not suggest that any single fish ever suddenly “evolved” lungs, within a single instant or a single generation, whereupon it might drown. Rather, it posits gradual change though the inheritance of slightly altered genes: and, in fact, there are fish with lungs—called, get this, lungfish—that do not drown; rather, they can breathe above-surface air. Here is one of the most intriguing branches on the tree of life.

Hacker’s understanding of the religious issues is not much better. Textbook disclaimers, he writes, “relate[] to the secular purpose of promoting academic freedom and actually avoiding any advancement or entanglement with religion.” Id. at 347. He doesn’t explain this last statement, but it may be a suggestion of the oft-heard claim that evolution is itself a religious statement—a silly argument that has been dealt with here.

Mostly, however, Hacker wants to argue that evolution disclaimers are not really religiously motivated.

True purists of academic freedom prefer teaching evolution and its alternatives, and the first step in that direction is for school boards to create secular disclaimers that do not attempt to advance religion. Adoption of evolution disclaimers in public schools will pave the way for students to engage in intellectual arguments about origin theories and enable them to reap the fruits of academic freedom by enhancing their critical thinking skills. With the growing integrity of Intelligent Design, origin theory may be on the brink of a paradigm shift, and evolution disclaimers could enable exploration of the new perspectives. With the current hostility toward teaching anything but evolution, disclaimers ease the transition pains for most educators. Ultimately, the best solution to teaching the science of origins includes teaching many different theories.

Id. at 347-48.

The problem, of course, is that schoolchildren are not equipped to “engage in intellectual arguments about origin theories.” They are in school precisely because they do not have that equipment. The sophomoric plausibility of creationist arguments—like the old “tornado in a junkyard” argument—are enough to distract even many mature adults. But they are only brightly colored berries that give no nourishment. Introducing such misconstructions into biology classrooms can serve no legitimate educational purpose; they can only mislead—and send a message to children that evolution is some sort of atheistic conspiracy to which they need not pay any serious attention.

One might argue with equal plausibility that “true purists of academic freedom” would teach that the earth might be round, and it might be flat—or that phlogiston might be responsible for fire, or it might not be—or that the New World might have been discovered by the Chinese or it might not have been—or that the Holocaust might have occurred or it might not have—and that students ought to make up their own minds. The flaw in such hypotheses is the same: one does not reap the fruits of academic freedom until after they are ripe. And ripening those fruits requires care and attention—and not, unlike real fruit trees, just a load of horse manure.

The real reason for Hacker’s insistence that textbook disclaimers have a secular motivation is simply as part of the ID strategy of camouflaging itself as a scientific enterprise long enough to sneak through the door of a school classroom. This is why no scientific basis for the doubt expressed in such disclaimers is ever produced; vague references to undisclosed scientific bases, combined with arguments for accomodating religious prejudices, is part of a strategy to get us to swallow the seed along with the apple.

Hacker, only sees sour grapes: he concludes that “modern biology education has become a citadel of evolution, impenetrable to all attacks from ideas that may constitute differing perspectives on the origin of humanity.” Id. at 349. This, too, is simply not true. Science remains open to even the most maverick theorist to propose his revolutionary new theory—and support it with evidence. We all wait...but not breathlessly. After a century and a half, evolutionary science has only become stronger with the addition of new and better evidence. The “citadel” is instead a vast and fertile intellectual farmland; one that has sprouted countless theoretical crops, and one with busy highways to other scientific communities—in physics, in medicine, in economics, in psychology, in philosophy. But it is a land where snake oil and medicine shows aren’t very popular. It is understandable, then, that the proprietors of such establishments scorn us as “closed-minded” for ignoring their sophistical arguments.