CSU Fresno professor of chemistry (emeritus!) George Kauffman is among the most-published fellas in the Central Valley, and in today's Fresno Bee he has yet another op-ed, this time on the upcoming Darwin Day celebrations.

Unfortunately, while Dr. Kauffman praises Darwin's influence, and identifies some things going on outside of Fresno, he fails to either explain the science or publicize any of the local events devoted to a discussion of the science. One can only hope that the Biology Department will get another piece in the Bee prior to Feb. 12th to address those concerns, but I worry that our efforts to reach out to the community will be defined by this gentleman's polemic. Kauffman seems less interested in Darwin or in evolution, than in explaining his opposition to creationism:

Paleontologist Kevin Padian's expert witness testimony at the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial (tinyurl.com/2nlgar) destroys creationism's false assertions of critical gaps in the fossil record. Judge John E. Jones III decided, "The evidence demonstrates that [intelligent design] is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.The overwhelming evidence established that [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.

Nevertheless, creationists who want religious ideas taught as scientific fact in public schools continue to hide their true aims under ever-changing guises. Despite President Obama's promise, "We will restore science to its rightful place," creationism is still alive in the United States, and, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which drafted a resolution. "The Dangers of Creationism in Education" (tinyurl.com/2knrqy), is on the rise in Europe. The resolution concludes, "There is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a central theory for our understanding of the Universe and of life on Earth. Creationism in any of its forms, such as 'intelligent design,' is not based on facts, does not use any scientific reasoning, and its contents are pathetically inadequate for science classes."

Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of Earth around the Sun, which were once theories. Yet creationists continue to play on the uncertainties shown by some citizens. Rather than wasting time and effort pursuing the impossible task of trying to convince creationists of the falsity of their changing positions, educators would do better to concentrate on enlightening those persons who are uncertain but still have open minds.

There may be no better way to celebrate Darwin's anniversary than to inform them of the incontrovertible evidence for evolution and to convince policymakers not to accede to creationist proposals.

Well, darn. While Kaufman's piece has some good things to commend it (notably several links to on-line sources for more info), the emphasis at the end leaves much to be desired. I wouldn't have written up a 'Darwin Day' piece that mentions some variant of 'creationism' 11 times, almost as many times (13) as 'evolution.' In fact, I wouldn't have mentioned 'creationism' at all, precisely because it has no scientific standing. Instead, I would've acknowledged that there are diversity of religious views on the topic of origins, but that many people from all walks of life have made their peace with evolution, and be done with it.

My caution on this point has to do with the fact that the purpose of 'Darwin Day' is to celebrate a great scientist's contribution to science and culture, rather than to provoke another exchange in the so-called 'Fish Wars'. Doubtless, no matter what we evolution enthusiasts say, there will be flack from the other side, but Kauffman's piece can be arguably said to have fired a preemptive strike toward the pews, whom Kauffman evidently feels are not worthy of engagment, anyway, since changing their minds is (in his words) an 'impossible task.'

No, sorry, Dr. Kauffman, but you are wrong. It is not an 'impossible task'. I know for a fact that people with deeply-seated creationist views can come to a place where their religious understanding is honored without placing them on a collision course with science education. But it takes tact and sympathy on the part of evolution's advocates to reach that point, not an upfront declaration that such folk are benighted and without hope.

Now, there is a time and a place for everything. Anyone who knows me will know that I agree whole-heartedly with the fact that legitimate science education has from time to time required public engagement. Creationism in all of its forms, whether called 'creation science' or 'intelligent design', has failed to pass muster as science with the scientific community.

Unfortunately, the courts are the wrong place to adjudicate what science should be taught in the public schools. There is no guarantee of quality science education in the Constitution. The court's task when such conflicts arise is essentially negative with respect to the exercise of religious speech, rather than positive with respect to science. This reinforces the understandable but false belief held by so many creationists, that they are increasingly besieged by a culture that is hostile to faith. 'Warning shots' aimed at some believers in an op-ed column may make people like Dr. Kaufman feel good about themselves, but they also unnecessarily narrow the possibility of dialogue. Evolution remains enshrined in the textbooks and defended by the courts, but misunderstood and mistrusted in the public square. Not exactly the best publicity for Charles Darwin!

Worse, the lack of respectful engagement leads to the real problem---which is not that creationism occasionally leaks into the curriculum, but that still so many teachers either omit, distort or truncate any discussion of evolution. I have said previously that much of the resistance to evolution education is not inherently religious or related to any particular understanding of scripture, but is instead conceptual in nature. These latter problems can not be addressed by eliminating any and all references to a Creator in the public schools. They require a renewed commitment to teaching the depth and breadth of evolutionary biology, first to the next generation of public school science teachers, and then students, and then their communities.


Stan said...

So many things to address as Saint Darwin Day approaches. I'll just address one here.

Scott said: "This reinforces the understandable but false belief held by so many creationists, that they are increasingly besieged by a culture that is hostile to faith.

Scott are you not aware of the constant pressure against religion that is being waged by the ACLU, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Gay groups of all stripes, and of course the Democrats (whose $800 billion pork bill includes atheist groups and specifically excludes religious groups?).

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Yes, Stan, there's a lot to discuss.

For starters, Darwin was not a saint, much less a deity. He was a loving father, devoted husband and hard-working upper-class gentleman whose life and thought have had a profound influence. Obviously, I admire Darwin, but I don't worship him. I'm sure you appreciate the distinction, but many in the pews are convinced that Darwin is our God, or that we're worshiping the Tree of Life, or some such nonsense.

As for 'constant pressure', I find it strange that someone who is attempting to engage atheists in a positive way would think that the pendulum of the culture has somehow swung decidedly against religion. That's...ludicrous. The truth is that Christians are in the majority in this country, obviously, and that historically that majority has been heavily-privileged in the public square.

See, Christians are used to having a privilege, at being given a leg up on other faiths, and so when someone has the nerve to disagree with them or ask them to revisit the Establishment Clause, they act as if they are having their rights violated...when of course the truth is that the privileging of their views in the public square is likely to violate the sensibilities (and perhaps the rights) of non-believers.

This is so obviously true I can't imagine that you could claim otherwise. There is a real difference between 'rights' and 'privileges' and dissent from this or that religious practice by a minority group does not amount to religious intolerance.