The heckler's veto over evolution

The Texas Tech Law Review recently published an article about evolution disclaimers, which contains some interesting arguments about the creationism/evolution controversy generally. Chad Edgington, Disclaiming Darwin Without Claiming Creation: The Constitutionality of Textbook Disclaimers And Their Mutually Beneficial Effect on Both Sides of the Origins Debate, 5 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 135 (2004). Edgington (whose article was published before the Cobb County decision) argues "not only...that disclaimers which call for a critical approach to evolution are constitutional, but that a liberal policy allowing for their placement in textbooks is the most satisfactory solution to controversy surrounding the teachings of origins."</b> Id. at 138.</p>

Edgington notes (rightly) that "[t]he actual motivation behind the ‘equal-time' laws and the disclaimer provisions is the concern that the exclusive placement of evolution in the science classroom provides de facto religious instruction because students are taught that science has proven that their religious beliefs are fraudulent." Id. at 154. This, of course, is only one motivation: the other is the belief on the part of many people that their religion ought to actually be promulgated in public school classrooms, and that the separation of church and state impairs this proselytizing. But Edgington is right that the reason many people complain about evolution education is because they believe that it is a kind of "religion" which is receiving preferable treatment over their own religions. "[B]y exclusively teaching evolution as fact and giving no credibility to the creation model in the classroom, school boards and teachers are inadvertently endorsing a belief system that is wholly incompatible with one of the central tenants [sic] of many religions, namely, that the universe is a special creation of a supreme being." Id. at 154-55.

There are three problems, however, with this argument. First, evolution, being science, differs from religion in that it is a testable, confirmable theory, which can be compared with observed results. The "creation model"--that is, a miracle story--is usually stated in an untestable way, and when it has been stated in a testable way (e.g., that the world was created in 4004 B.C.) such "models" have failed the tests. Second, evolution is taught as fact because it is a fact. It is as factual as any fact can be: it is a truth claim consistent with other testable truth claims. Teaching it as fact is therefore a legitimate enterprise. Creation, on the other hand, posits a supernatural entity which is allegedly "above" being tested for truthfulness. Third--and less abstract--the mere fact that a school teaches something that is "incompatible with" a religion does not mean that that thing may not be taught in the classroom. The government is certainly forbidden from teaching children that God does not exist; but it is not forbidden from teaching children that the earth orbits the sun, or that Israel exists, or that black people are not genetically inferior to white people. These facts may indeed be "incompatible" with the views of certain religious groups, but that does not mean the state may not teach them.

Any contrary rule would mean that religious people would have a heckler's veto over the classroom, or as I've put it earlier, a "get out of evolution free" card. Any time a fact challenged their preconceived religious notions, such people would be able not to silence the teacher and say "that is out of bounds, because we do not want to hear it."

An analogous argument was rejected by the Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith,</i> 494 U.S. 872 (1990). There, the petitioners were denied employment benefits because they had been fired for smoking peyote, which is illegal. They argued that their religion required them to smoke peyote, so punishing them for doing so violated their right to the free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court rejected their argument because it "mak[ing] an individual's obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State's interest is ‘compelling'--permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,'--contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense." Id. </i>at 885 (citation omitted). Just as Smith could not use his religious "disagreement" with the peyote law to block the state from prosecuting him, so parents should not be able to use their religious disagreement with the fact of evolution to block the state from teaching it.</p>

Ironically, Edgington follows his statement up with this sentence: "Because such teaching seeks to prove a theory that is ‘incompatible' with the religious beliefs of many students, it would seem to violate the prohibition issued by the Supreme Court that state action may not oppose religion." And this he follows with a footnote that cites Epperson v. Arkansas</i>, 393 U.S. 97, 107 (1968). But here's what the Epperson Court actually said:

[The Establishment Clause] forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma.... The State's undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.

Id. (emphasis added). Epperson said that religious objectors may not silence teachers from teaching facts that people believe contradict their religious views--it did not say that the state may not take any action that "oppose[s] religion," whatever that might mean.

Edgington next provides a rather inflammatory "case study" to demonstrate what he's talking about: "Rape as an Adaptation in Men." </b>Id. at 155. Edgington argues that evolution leads to the principle that morality is based on reproductive fitness: citing Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2000), Edgington argues that

evolutionary adaptations in humans evolve to help individuals overcome obstacles to individual reproductive success.... [Thornhill and Palmer]'s premise is that if males do not have the traits that are preferred by those granting the permission to mate, they are forced to rely on coercive measures.... [Therefore, a]ccording to the authors, the tendency of some males to rape women is an evolutionary adaptation that arose through random selection and has survived because it enhances male reproductive success by increasing the number of women with which a male can mate.

Id. at 155-56.

What this proves, Edgington argues, is that "[i]f people subscribe to the theory of evolution, they must be consistent with their reasoning concerning all living things and the behavior of all living things.... Thus, if evolutionists [sic] are logically consistent with their beginning assumptions, the end result is morally devastating because the theory of evolution and its implications are a package deal." Id. at 157. If you teach evolution, then "materialism" follows, and in its train, rape, robbery and ruin.

There are several problems with this. For one thing, it appears to commit the nudist fallacy. The mere fact that biology causes a phenomenon does not mean that that phenomenon is right or wrong. This fact is elementary for folks in the biological sciences, who deal with all sorts of biologically caused bad things, such as mental disorders which cause people to murder or rape others. For another, if morality is a product of evolutionary processes--which it is, in some way at least--then there must also be an evolutionary explanation for the notion that rape is wrong, also. Such explanations are, I'm sure, being proposed by evolutionary psychologists as we speak. I am not familiar enough with the controversy that Thornhill and Palmer's book sparked to comment more intelligently on the subject of rape specifically (although the fact that it was controversial is a crucial matter which Edgington ignores completely). But the mere fact that moral beliefs are evolutionary in origin does not denigrate from their rightness or truthfulness, as Daniel Dennett explains in his excellent example of the Boeing engineer.* Also, there are non-theistic explanations for the origins of individual rights and the wrongness of rape, which are perfectly consistent with evolution. And then, of course, many people believe that it is entirely possible to believe in biological evolution as well as theistic explanations for the personality, and of the individual rights that attach to the personality.

The point is, Edgington's argument that evolution = materialism = the destruction of morality is as baseless as when it was first proposed by William Jennings Bryan. It is not that evolution and "its implications" are a "package deal." It is that Edgington has performed a remarkable--though by no means rare--feat of intellectual gymnastics that combines such logical fallacies as the false dilemma, the straw man, and the undistributed middle.

But, of course, it is true that such fallacious thinking is very common among evolution's opponents.

Edgington concludes this argument by saying that "[b]y eliminating the possibility of a thoughtful planner who created the universe, or at least put the elements into motion, the theory of evolution has implications that are detrimental to theistic beliefs, even though it is not a religion or an anti-religion according to the courts." Id. at 157. Well, that may be true, but note the weasel word "implications." What Edgington's passive voice is meant to avoid is the fact that all facts can have "implications" to any number of people, based on their misunderstandings, their corrupt motives, or what have you. The mere fact that evolution can "have implications" (to whom?) which are "detrimental" (to what degree?) to "theistic beliefs" (why do these beliefs alone count in the consideration of this issue?) does not prove that teaching evolution is the same as propagating a religious viewpoint. One might easily construct any number of hypotheses along the same line to show the weakness of this "implications" argument: the fact that good, innocent people suffer from awful catastrophes is a fact that "has implications" that are "detrimental to theistic beliefs": many people turn away from religion because they think a just God would not allow the innocent to suffer. Ought we then to avoid telling students about the Christmas tsunami? Again, it is not a violation of the Constitution for a public school to teach children things that they find difficult to reconcile with their religious predispositions.

It may indeed be true that, as Edgington says, "[t]hese anti-religious implications cause parents and educators, who are trying to instill religious and moral values in their children, to find the theory of evolution repulsive." Id. at158. But a subjective feeling of discomfort is not enough to violate the Constitution. Again, if that were the case, people who are racists for religious reasons could cancel the teaching of Martin Luther King; anti-Semites could control the teaching of issues surrounding the Middle East--education would have to be tailored to suit the feelings of the most sensitive religious person.

Incidentally, Edgington senses a major flaw in his argument, and tries to avoid it when he says that "just because a critical approach to evolution may have religious implications, it is no more a religion or a violation of the Establishment Clause than is instruction on the theory of evolution, despite its religious implications." Id. at 159. But throughout his article, Edgington has argued that teaching evolution is an inappropriate form of indoctrination because it challenges folks' religious prejudices, and this makes them uncomfortable. If that is the case, neutrality would also require the government to avoid hurting the feelings of people who have non-religious prejudices. Since, in Edgington's argument, a way of thinking (i.e., science) is a way of "provid[ing] de facto religious instruction," id. at 154, it would seem that encouraging "critical thinking" would itself also be a form of "de facto religious instruction." It would, after all, offense people whose religions teach people not to think critically!

Edington's article is one of the best-written I've encountered on the subject, despite my disagreement with it. He is certainly correct in pinpointing the reason so many people find evolution education troublesome. But it's unfortunate that he does not also pinpoint their errors.

*--"[A] parody will expose the fallacy: ‘The people at Boeing are under the ludicrous misapprehension that they have figured out the design of their planes on sound scientific and engineering principles...when in fact memetics shows us that all these design elements are simply the memes that have survived and spread among the social groups to which those airplane manufacturers belong.'" Freedom Evolves 187 (2003).