ACSI v. Stearns, aka Wendell Bird vs. UC

It looks like Wendell Bird’s lawsuit against the University of California is going to trial. This is the lawsuit bought by some private Christian high schools (Association of Christian Schools International et al., or ACSI) against the U.C. (Roman Stearns, special assistant to the U.C. president, et al.), protesting the fact that the U.C. doesn’t give credit for certain courses taught at these private schools. Not all of the classes involved are science classes, but the science classes at issue make use of Bob Jones University textbooks which are full of fake fundamentalist “science.” Private religious high schools have the right to teach whatever silliness they want (although even many private Christian schools teach evolution without problems), but it is rather dubious to assert that a top institution like the U.C. should be forced to drop all of its standards and give credit for classes that teach creationist falsehoods.

NCSE is not involved in this case so I don’t know much more than anyone else about the details of it. The legal issues are rather different than in Kitzmiller v. Dover – here, the creationists are the plaintiffs, and as I understand it, the constitutional issue is not the Establishment Clause but the Free Exercise Clause. ACSI asserts that the U.C.’s standards amount to religious discrimination. However, I do have a rather direct interest in the case myself, since I will be a Ph.D. student at U.C. Berkeley this fall, and will be a teaching assistant in the evolution course. Will the undergraduates that the U.C. admits be prepared, or will they require tedious remedial education to re-do all the biology they were taught incorrectly the first time around?

Through the grapevine, I have heard a few tidbits about the case that will interest people. It looks like the trial will be another battle of the experts:

Plaintiffs (the creationists, represented by famous creationist lawyer Wendell Bird, of Edwards v. Aguillard fame)

* Derek Keenan (of ACSI) – standardized tests * Donald Ericson – various education issues * Paul Vitz – psychologist, History and Government textbooks * Sandra Stotsky – the American Literature anthology * Daniel Guevara – Religion and Ethics Policy * Michael Behe – Biology and Physics textbooks

Defendants:

* Francisco Ayala – UC Irvine, Biology * Donald Kennedy – Stanford, Biology * Gary Nash – UCLA, History * Mark Petracca – UC Irvine, Political Science * John Douglass – UC Berkeley, history of the UC’s a-g requirements * Michael Kirst – Stanford, Education * Samuel Otter – UC Berkeley, English * Robert Sharf – UC Berkeley, Religion

You read that correctly, our buddy Michael J. Behe is going to testify on behalf of the Bob Jones University science textbooks! Here’s the guy’s 72-page expert report. (It is mirrored in the ACSI v. Stearns folder at NCSE’s Evolution Education and Law website – feel free to post elsewhere, it is a largish PDF and we don’t want to crash these sites.)

Let’s have a look at the textbooks Behe is defending:

Life is God’s most marvelous and complex creation. Biology: God’s Living Creation presents life as God created it and now controls it. Historically, biology was the first major area of assault in the American classroom as evolution permeated the schools in the 1920s. Even today, evolutionism poisons biology textbooks and distracts from God’s glory in creation. high school students need to understand God’s living creation from a Biblical perspective, as God created it, and as man has learned of it.

This textbook is unique – different form any other biology text in print today. The study of life is presented in a traditional manner as it was discovered by the great naturalists of the past, a large majority of whom revered the Biblical account of Creation. Unlike other texts, which begin by confusing students with intangible, unseen, and theoretical topics such as biochemistry, subcellular structure, genetics, and philosophy, Biology: God’s Living Creation motivates students to learn by first presenting the living world around them.

[…]

Evolution is presented for what it is – a retreat from science. Students and teachers alike will feel more comfortable when they realize that it is not biology that is in conflict with Scripture, but rather the ungodly philosophy of some biologists.

Since the day that Darwinism invaded the classrooms, God’s glory has been hidden from students. Now there is an opportunity in the Christian classroom to declare that glory with Biology: God’s Living Creation.

And that’s just what I got from the very first page of text, the Preface, page iii. On pages 2-3, we have a bunch of Bible quotes and rhetoric about being traditionalist, and the authors mean it. Figure 1.1 divides biology neatly into…“Zoology”, “Anatomy and physiology”, and “Botany.” Yep, that covers it!

Chapter 1 is botany, done in the way of old-fashioned Linnean taxonomy plus an ag- and industry-heavy “practical” view of plants. However, it’s not all practical – p. 22 is an extended quote from Modern Science and the Genesis Record by Harry Rimmer, a leading evangelist/creationist from the mid-20th century. Every blade of grass, we learn, “shouts the fact of design” (p. 22, emphasis original). Maybe Behe’s support is not so surprising after all…

Skipping ahead to p. 88, we get to the old creationist “Species versus Kinds” distinction (well, this was actually invented by the Seventh-Day Adventist Frank Lewis Marsh in the 1940s once he and other creationists realized just how hopeless it was to maintain the fixity of species, but whatever). Here students learn:

The Biblical “kind” is usually a broader category than our modern term “species.” [the “usually” is there because for humans, species = kind for Biblical reasons – NJM] For example, it is likely that the gray wolf, the red wolf, the coyote, the dingo, the jackal, and the domestic dog (six different species) all belong to the same Biblical kind, and that they all trace their lineage to a single pair of canines. (Although these animals rarely interbreed in the wild, they can interbreed in captivity and produce fertile offspring.) Likewise, the domestic cat and several species of wild cats may share a common lineage, and we know that dozens of species of sparrows have sprung from the three pairs of sparrows that left the ark. Creationists recognize that the origin of new species within a kind does occur. The origin of new species within a kind, however, is not the same as changing one kind into another.

The “may” and “likely” bits are in there because creationists have found it completely impossible to come up with a rigorous, non-question-begging definition of kind. The creationist “science” of “baraminology” has, if anything, demonstrated that the creationists’ “kinds” are impossible to retrieve from biological data – e.g. an analysis of some asters suggested that they might be one kind – all 20,000 species, from minute herbs to full trees (see Matzke and Gross 2006 for more on “kinds” and their history).

Back to the “traditional” biology on p. 89:

The taxonomic work of Linnaeus was very successful. His basic system is still used today, although there is disagreement among taxonomists as to the number of kingdoms that exist, as Table 5.3 shows.

Table 5.3, by the way, asserts the the five-kingdom model of Plants, Animals, Protists, Fungi, and Monera is the “[s]ystem predominantly used today” (p. 90). If you believe that, I’ve got a covered bridge to sell you. Anyway, the creationist authors don’t much like even the outdated five-kingdom system. They continue:

Some of the disagreement has arisen from the fact that in the mid-1800s, some biologists began to abandon the idea of classifying organisms according to similarity of structure and tried to classify them based on alleged evolutionary kinships instead. Much disagreement has also stemmed from new discoveries about the structure of bacteria and certain other microscopic creatures, which were once assumed to be structurally similar to nonvascular plants but which are now known to be considerably different in structure. However, evne though there is disagreement on the kingdom level, there is much agreement on the other levels of classification. Some biology textbooks place a great deal of emphasis on kingdom classification, but this text does not dwell on the issue and is organized instead according to the basic fields studied by biologists. (emphases original, pp. 89-90)

By “basic fields”, they mean the “you got yur plants, animals, and humans” classification that was established back in chapter 1. Yep, that’s biology for the 21st century U.C. student right there.

Now we’re dealing with conifers. The following gives you a sense of what it’s like to read the book. Various passages contain plodding, repetitive basic descriptions (no organizing theory – theory is bad! Teach facts not theories! Long live naive Baconianism!) but then throw in something really wild just to make sure you are paying attention. For example:

Conifers are among some of the largest trees in the world. The Douglas fir is one of the biggest trees, reaching a height of almost 300 feet.1 It is native to the western United States and Canada,2 where it forms great forests. The giant sequoia [se.kwoi’a]3 in central California is another huge conifer; some of these trees are among the oldest living things on earth. The ages of many of these trees are estimated at between 2,000 and 3,500 years, and the gnarled bristlecone pines of California’s White Mountains4 – some of the oldest living things on earth – were already seedlings when Abram left Ur of the Chaldees to go to the Promised Land. The coast redwood is very similar to the giant sequoia and also grows in California and Oregon.5 These redwood trees are some of the tallest living things on earth – some are nearly 370 feet tall.6 The conifers furnish us with softwood lumber, the chief source of building materials for houses, doors, frames, panels, boxes, posts, planks, and beams.7 (pp. 92-93, formatting original)

[Gratuitous comments below] 1. 329 feet, actually, but whatever. 2. and Mexico, but whatever. 3. Approximate representation of weird pronunciation characters. 4. And elsewhere, but whatever. 5. Yes, the California coast redwood does sneak into southern Oregon, props to the creationists on that one. 6. Actually, 379.1 feet, but…you know. 7. I prefer to read this as “…panels, boxes, posts, planks…and beams!!!”

The oldest living bristlecones are ~4,700 years old, but counting dead trees, we have a continuous record going back 11,000 years, so I guess there was already a pretty good bristlecone forest up in the White Mountains when Abram left Ur.

After gymnosperms we have the other basal seed plants:

In 1994, a grove of unusual conifers was found growing in a rain forest in the deep recesses of Australia’s Wollemi National Park. In the fossil record, these trees (dubbed Wollemi pines) are often found in the same strata as the dinosaurs. Wollemi pines have unusual knobby-textured bark and waxy, fernlike leaves. In size, they are comparable to other pines, the largest living tree discovered so far is about 130 feet tall.

[…]

Fossil remains [of cycads] show that many varieties of cycads once lived which are not found today. As with many other kinds of plants and animals that lived in the past, they were destroyed by a major worldwide catastrophe such as the Flood of Noah’s time. The environment was apparently so changed by this event that most cycads were unable to reestablish themselves and became extinct.

[…]

The gingko is a species of gymnosperm known as a “living fossil,” because it is the only living species in its group. As with the cycads, most gingko species apparently did not survive the post-Flood environment.

By now you get the idea. I just went through part of the plants section and I don’t have the stomach to do everything else, but rest assured that all the other usual creationist stuff is in there – e.g., a page and a half of William Jennings Bryan (pp. 364-365, e.g. “If [common ancestry] were true, we would all be murderers if we swatted a fly or killed a bedbug, for we would be killing our kin, and we would be cannibals whenever we ate any of the mammals.”); “No true ‘missing links’ have ever been found to bridge the gaps between different kinds of organisms” (p. 367), “there is not a single place on the earth where you can go and see the geologic column” (emphasis original, totally bogus of course); “From a Biblical perspective, all of these ‘transitional forms’ can be considered either 100% ape or 100% human” (emphasis original, p. 376, also totally bogus).

This junk may make the Discovery Institute’s Paul Nelson proud, but why should the University of California give admission credit for it, since the Earth is not young, there was no global Flood, and common ancestry is massively supported by dozens of different independently testable lines of evidence? The U.C. might as well give Geography credit for a flat-earth class.

What does Michael Behe, expert biology/physics witness for the creationists, say when reviewing these books? Nothing much except “[I]t is also important to keep in mind that being generally accepted by the scientific community is no guarantee that a concept or purported fact is correct […]” (p. 28).

References

Matzke, N., and Gross, P. (2006). “Analyzing Critical Analysis: The Fallback Antievolutionist Strategy.” Chapter 2 of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools. Scott, E., and Branch, G., eds., Beacon Press, pp. 28-56.

Gregory Parker, Keith Graham, Delores Shimmin, George Thompson (1997). Biology: God’s Living Creation (2nd edition; 1st edition 1986). Published by: A Beka Book: A Ministry of Pensacola Christian College, Pensacola, FL., pp. 1-672.

Some of the other creationist books at issue are:

William S. Pinkston, Jr. (1999). Biology for Christian Schools (2nd edition, 1st edition 1991). Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, SC, pp. 1-694.

Rosemary A. Lasell and Paul Wilt (1998). Physics for Christian Schools. (listed as “copyright 1987, 1998”, but no indication that this is a 2nd edition). Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, SC, pp. 1-614.