July 26, 2008

Evolutionary Biology and Morality: UC San Diego Sociologists Offer a Compromise

An opinion piece in today's Washington Post by UC San Diego sociologists Amy Binder and John Evans puts forth their idea for a compromise regarding how evolutionary theory might be taught in public schools. The crux of their argument is this:

We propose a compromise that would neither violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment nor limit the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Most defenders of evolution do not consider valid the critics' fears that evolution teaches values. Even so, teachers could take these concerns seriously by clarifying what evolutionary theory does not imply about values. To assuage the type of concern articulated by William Jennings Bryan, teachers could tell students that even though evolutionary science talks about the survival of the fittest organism, it is not a model for how humans should treat each other. They could explain that students should not make an "ought" about human behavior from an "is" of nature and that competition in contemporary society will not lead to increased survival rates. Moreover, they could explicitly note that just because mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random.

Evolving Toward a Compromise, Binder and Evans
July 26, 2008

I think I'd be counted among those that the authors call "defenders of evolution," and if that's the case then they're right about me. I have no trouble at all with teachers explicitly stating that the theory of evolution isn't the basis for human interaction, society, etc. I haven't taken a poll, but I don't think that most people who favor teaching biology in biology classrooms would see much of a problem in this. While it might be a bit clumsy in certain ways — no such statements are delivered regarding other theories, nor mathematics, nor any number of other subjects — it's accurate and doesn't inherently promote a particular religion nor religion in general. One might be able to pick out values that can fit into a broader moral system from evolutionary theory, (e.g., the preservation of diversity is a worthwhile goal), but those are additions to a preexisting value system, not its basis. One would have to place some value on life in the first place. To that extent, I agree with what Binder and Evans have written.

On the other hand, I have no reason to think that what they've proposed as a compromise would satisfy those who have a deep-seated, if not valid, confusion of evolutionary theory with moral teachings. Having followed these debates closely for a few years now, for many of those who support the teaching of Creationism, whether or not they call it Intelligent Design and wherever in the process they posit the role of the supernatural, the problem is that evolutionary theory doesn't include a particular code of moral behavior. Instead, they see it as a competing religion that seeks to replace their own. Their insistence is not that it be explained to students that evolution doesn't contain moral guidelines but that such codification be part of what students learn about diversity in the first place. In their religion, it is taught expressly that human life only has meaning if it was specially created by the same supernatural entity that formulated morality to begin with and that anything that doesn't include that deity in its explanation of human origins is not only amoral but anti-moral precisely for that reason. Stating that evolution isn't the basis for making behavioral choices wouldn't address that core concern. The same objection still exists and would continue to be at the heart of the debate.

Numerous well-known defenders of evolution, from atheists such as Richard Dawkins to evolutionary biologists who also maintain religious beliefs such as Ken Miller, have stated previously that evolutionary biology should serve as neither the basis for personal morality nor societal values. They haven't quelled faith-based efforts to insert notions of what should serve that role, however. The Creationist argument is based on a positive assertion, not just an objection.

While I don't see any problem with a teacher or a school board following Binder and Evans "compromise" and prefacing lessons about evolutionary biology with a statement like, "What we're about to learn only tells us how living things arose. It says nothing about the meaning of life and you'll have to look elsewhere for moral guidance," I disagree with the sociologists' argument that it would have the effect of "offer[ing] an olive branch that might result in less debate overall." It would more likely be seen by the fundamentalist theologically-inclined as a gap needing to be filled by the insertion of a combined creator of life and absolute law-giver. Would it hurt anything to offer such an olive-branch? I don't think so, but neither would it help.

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