A visit with an evolutionary psych class

Last week I spoke at an evolutionary psychology class at a local university. I had spoken there two years ago, and that had been successful enough that I was invited back to talk about various issues involved with anti-evolutionism.

There were about 45 students in the class, mostly upperclass psych majors, and they were quite attentive and engaged: we had lots of good discussion and lots of insightful questions.

Afterwards, the students were asked to reply on their class discussion board to the question, “What was the most significant issue for you” that came up during my presentation. The three most frequent issues mentioned were:

  1. The fact that there are different varieties of creationists, and that while the IDists are the public face of the movement, the vast majority of creationists are young-earth creationists.

  2. The political nature of the anti-evolution movement, and the fact that it is really an anti-science “worldview war” being waged to “overthrow materialism.” We carefully reviewed some key parts of the Wedge to get the big picture described in the IDists’ own words. (More on this later in this post.)

  3. The subject of theistic evolutionists, and the fact that the ID movement denounces this subset of their fellow Christians as sellouts to materialism.

Let me first say a few words about 1. and 3. above, then spend some time showing what I did with 2. Let me make it clear that the following are very broad summary statements about what they, the students, got from the presentation. I’m sure many of them knew about some aspects of the situation before, to varying degrees, but it seems like having a whole class on the subject helped raise their awareness of many issues.

1. The nature of the anti-evolutionists

The class knew that anti-evolutionism is driven by its perceived conflict with religion, but they hadn’t really thought about how pervasively anti-science YECism is. They were shocked to hear how large a percent of adults in the United States are YEC’s. And most importantly, they didn’t know how much anti-evolutionism is tied to the creationist idea that evolution is an atheist belief that is responsible for all of societies shortcoming. I showed them one of the typical “tree of evil” pictures: evolution is the trunk being hacked down by the “creation science message,” and the branches of the tree are abortion, homosexuality, genocide, eugenics, radical feminism and a whole host of other evils.

I also explained the “big tent” strategy, whereby the IDists have tried to become the public spokepersons for all the anti-evolutionists as part of their strategy to look like they are about science and not religion. I pointed out that this strategy is not working very well these days, partly because the IDists can’t disguise the religious nature of their agenda and partly because the YEC have become impatient with the IDists’ failures and want to quit having their (the YEC’s) overtly religious agenda take a back seat.

2. Theistic evolution

The students were quite interested to hear about Christians who accept science, about the general theological ways in which they reconcile science with their religious views, and most of all, about how the ID movement denounces theistic evolutionists. Several of the religious students in the classes said they appreciated my explanation of this, as they struggled some with this conflict within themselves, and they were glad to hear that they were in good company accepting their religion and science both. I recommended Keith Miller’s book “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation” to them.

We also had a very interesting discussion on the nature of religious belief, and about ways to understand and live with religious diversity.

The fact that the IDists denounce theistic evolution helped make it clear to the students that the ID movement (including its fellow travellers under the big tent) are trying to impose a specific religious view under the guise of science, and that the ID Wedge strategy claiming that science is fundamentally atheist is both wrong and unfair to millions of theistic supporters of science.

3. The Wedge document

One of the topics for the first couple of weeks of the class had been the nature of science, and the place of evolution (and thus evolutionary psychology) within science. The students had been assigned a paper (due the week after my visit) analyzing and reacting to the Alabama textbook disclaimer, as that disclaimer gets quite a bit wrong about all those issues. I then suggested that the students read in advance a portion of the Wedge document so that we could dissect the Wedge document a bit as an analog of what they might do with the Alabama disclaimer (and as Ken Miller did with the disclaimer, although I didn’t point that out to them.)

So here is a text recreation (not verbatim at all) of that exercise. All quotes are from the Wedge document. Many of us are familiar with the Wedge, but almost all of the students were not. This exercise had a big impact on the students - reading in the IDists own words what the IDists see as the main issues.

So as you read, try pretending that you are reading this for the first time. Also, remember that this was written over ten years ago - before Kansas, before Dover - and yet the whole scenario is just as relevant now as it was when it was written.

From the Wedge:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.

The main issues are raised immediately. A particular religious view of the nature of human beings - that we were created in the image of God - is declared central to our civilization. As I explained above, many people who accept science would also accept this sentence. The controversy, we will find out, is in the details: how were we created and in what ways are we made in the image of God.

(Note well here, and I made this clear to the students: I am not espousing any particular religious view, or advocating religious views over non-religious views. I am, however, trying to distinguish for the students the views of the IDists from other Christians and all the other people who aren’t trying to wedge us into this God vs. science dichotomy.)

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science.

Again, one of the the main issues is starkly drawn: The IDists see modern science as the enemy. Why is this?

Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment.

Well, that’s why - modern science sees human beings as merely biological machines with no free will and no inherent moral or spiritual nature. Science, as one of Pat’s students had worried aloud about the previous week, strips human beings of their humanity.

Note also that the concerns go beyond mere physical biology - they also are about the nature of our society, government and politics, about our minds and behavior. Even though evolution is ostensibly the key issue, we are currently seeing many expressions of the Wedge mentality in culture and politics as the fundamentalist right wages their “worldview war, “ and we are increasingly seeing non-scientific encroachments upon psychology.

But so what? Has this materialist view that they decry had any significant impact?

Well yes it has, they believe:

This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art. … The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating.

In particular, materialism has had three major consequences. First,

Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

First, note again that this is about much more than science - it has about all of culture.

And this first issue is really the most important one to them: the anti-evolutionists believe that if one does not believe in objective God-given moral standards and an “image of God” moral nature for human beings, one is started on the very slippery slope to not only moral relativism but to the bottom of the slope: moral nihilism, might makes right, survival of the fittest, and so on. This is of course a common theme in modern politics that mirrors this concern from the Wedge: one side is the Moral Majority, the holder of family values, and so on, and everyone else somehow lacks the ability to be moral and have values.

Issue #2:

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Same song - different verse. Accepting what modern science tells about human beings makes one incapable of believing that oneself or others can be held responsible for their actions - according to the Wedge and the IDists.

Issue #3

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Communism and socialism - the political consequences of materialism. Our democratic institutions, they believe, are founded on their “image of God” notions, and those that deny that nature are the natural supporters of communism and the enemies of democracy.

OK, so that’s the problem. What do the IDists plan to do about the problem?

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.

Well, that’s clear. But how will they do that?

Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

So here we see the precursor of what’s going on right now:

  1. a theistic interpretation of biology - Intelligent Design creationism

  2. physics - the strong anthropic arguments for design aimed at the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of the universe, as well as even the fine-tuning of our planet as described in the Privileged Planet, and

  3. psychology - for example, O’Leary’s “Spiritual Brain” or the thoughts (?) of Egnor.

The goal is to insist that scientific explanations for biology, cosmology and psychology are not only incomplete if they don’t include God, but that in fact not including God in these explanations is equivalent to denying that God exists: we can have either a materialistic science (with its devastating consequences) or we can have a theistic science.

And last, how do they plan on accomplishing their goal; what’s their plan?


However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. … We are broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

They are fighting a “worldview war” - materialism vs. theism - and the core place to attack is the nature of science. The Kansas Science standards say that “science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” This definition of science is, in their view, precisely the problem. To them, looking for natural explanations of what we observe in the world around us via science is the same as saying that natural explanations are the only type of legitimate or important explanations there are, and that everything there is can be investigated through science. Neither of these things is true.

At this point I mentioned that in another article from approximately the same time, Philip Johnson, in an article on the Wedge in Touchstone magazine, pointed out that within science, evolution is the most susceptible topic. Evolution is the small split in the log that the Wedge is to be inserted into, a main reason being, as we have already seen, that there is a vast body of young-earth creationists waiting to support anything that attacks evolution.

So there we have it: the Wedge document lays out the problem, the goal, and he plan. This is what the Intelligent Design movement is all about.

Last point: the quoted section ends with “and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

But as we have seen, this is not true. The views of the IDists are not consonant with the Christian and theistic convictions of millions of people, as I then went on to discuss. The short story is that the ID version of Christianity believes that God has created various aspects of life (they are not all in agreement which ones) through interventions in the natural world - special creations which override what they see as the limitations of natural processes. The IDists are special creationists, along with the YEC’s and OEC’s, and millions of Christians and other theists are not creationists in this same sense.

I concluded by stating:

“The Intelligent Design movement seeks to elevate one theological position (God intervenes in evolution in empirically detectable ways,) over another theological position (God acts continuously through natural processes in ways that are beyond our scientific scrutiny,) as well as over many other religious and non-religious perspectives.

It desires to insert this perspective into science, and thence into all aspects of society. People who care about science, education, politics and culture, religion, and the law should all be concerned about this, I think.”

Going through the Wedge document section by section like this was an effective exercise for these students, I think. The Wedge document is well-written, succinct, and gets all the big ideas on the table. Analyzing it, just as they were also analyzing the Alabama disclaimer, has given them a couple of clear pictures into the perspectives of the anti-evolutionists in our country.

So I was glad to have the opportunity to have this experience with this class. The students are now done with this part of the class and digging into the hard part of the course. I wish them all good luck. A good education should be unsettling, and I am sure all of them will have a broader and deeper perspective on human nature and our scientific attempts to understand it when they are done with their course.