Oklahoma's OK, but not necessarily with evolution

This week I was invited out to Oklahoma to speak in the University of Oklahoma’s Darwin 2009 speaker series. It was quite a trip – I got to meet the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, and breakfast with Richard Dawkins himself. The evolution issue is still hot in Oklahoma, and my visit coincided with a general cultural fracas in the state over evolution, creationism/ID, and what attention these issues should receive in public schools and in universities. I’ll attempt to give a brief snapshot of how things currently look in one of the reddest of the red states.

Ever since 1923, when Oklahoma became the first state to ban the teaching of evolution (even before Tennessee, where the Scopes Trial took place in 1925), evolution has been a hot topic in the state, and 2009 is no exception.

As seems to happen every year in Oklahoma, in 2009 there was a battle in the State Legislature over a Discovery Institute-authored crypto-creationism bill. This time the DI’s trick was to use the guise of “academic freedom” to sneak bogus creationist/ID talking points into the biology classrooms of 14-year olds. As in previous years, the bill was defeated due to hard work by dedicated citizens, particularly OESE, and by good decisions by key legislators on both sides of the isle. But like every year it was a near thing. (This year, for the first time in recent memory or perhaps ever, Oklahoma had a Republican majority in both houses. The current governor is a Democrat, however, and vetoed an anti-evolution bill last year. Before the evolution issue gets characterized as an issue that is determined by whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, though, I should give a little context for readers from the bluer states. It is important to remember that Oklahoma Democrats are not exactly what you could call flaming liberals. In a recent U.S. Senate election, the right-wing, pro-life, pro-gun, socially conservative candidate was the Democrat. The post-WW2 re-alignment of the two parties, where Democrats came to be the party more favored by minorities, secularists, and liberals, and Republicans the opposite, took place very slowly in Southern states. Remember, back in the olden days, the Dems had a strong pro-slavery/pro-segregationist element, the Republicans were the abolitionist party and got 100% of the black vote, etc. Which party is “liberal” or “conservative” on many issues has switched over time. This is why we still have conservative Southern Democrats and liberal New England Republicans, although both groups have become critically endangered species after being targetted by the opposing party. The Republican takeover of the State Legislature probably means that the new alignment is finally dominant in Oklahoma also, but individual politicians can surprise you.

In addition to the usual legislative battle, the 2009 Darwin bicentennial events have added fuel to the fire in Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma has one of the most impressive lineups of speakers anywhere, and has taken advantage of the events to highlight some of the amazing collections held on campus – including a one-of-a-kind history of science collection which includes the first editions of most Darwin works, and actual books owned by Isaac Newton, complete with marginal notes written by him – and a Natural History museum full of dinosaurs and other fossils “native” to Oklahoma, which you cannot see anywhere else. While visiting campus, I was given a tour of the museum, and was impressed to see that the Natural History displays integrate evolution and a modern understanding of phylogeny from start to finish. Amongst many cool things, the museum contains a massive ceratopsian (Triceratops relative), native to Oklahoma and only on display in this one museum in the whole world. The skull of the critter is thought to be the biggest skull of any known land vertebrate ever.

With all of the great evolution stuff going on, there was bound to be a backlash. Just about the only active campus IDEA club (or maybe it is a community IDEA club, it is somewhat unclear) in the country is at the University of Oklahoma. (It is worth remembering that the UOk IDEA club was formerly known as the Creation Science club. Yep, ID really is different than creationism!) As it happens, the student leader of the club is also an editor of the student newspaper, and has published a number of articles and debates about “intelligent design.” The club has brought in several Discovery Institute speakers (reported on elsewhere in the blogosphere), and according to reports the speakers are sometimes innaccurately portrayed as having been invited by the University or various departments, rather than by a student group. They even brought in Dembski to “debate” Michael Ruse, piggybacking on the fact that Ruse was already visiting campus for a different event sponsored by the history of science department. According to reports, Ruse was true to form in the “debate”, basically saying Dembski was a great friend who was wrong about ID, but not giving the kind of hard-hitting, tightly documented analysis which is required for rebutting the superficially-science-y talking points of the ID guys. Ruse is an amazing scholar and speaker in many areas, but many have observed that he basically phones it in at these ID events, and precisely because of this, the ID movement keeps giving paid invites to him (and virtually no one else) for their “debates”, so that they can appear serious by appearing on the same platform as him. This is somewhat annoying, but I guess I can think of worse things for the ID movement to do with their money than put it in Ruse’s vacation account.

In the midst of all of this, I was scheduled to speak on Wednesday to the Zoology Department, and, somewhat more prominently, Dawkins was scheduled for a huge campus event on Friday (although, according to one IDist’s complaint, I am apparently in the same echelon of nasty eviolutionists as Dawkins, an insult which really made my day). My talk on how the history of creationism/ID is intimately tied to the court rulings against these views went quite well. It was well-attended despite the fact that my brain inexplicably malfunctioned on Wednesday morning, causing me to drive to the wrong airport at 4 am, causing me to miss my flight and making the incredibly nice and forgiving hosts at UOk reschedule my talk for Thursday. I wondered if any IDEA club folks would make the talk despite by unintelligently designed evasion manuever, and they did and asked a few useful questions. (Basically: 1. What would it take for ID to become science? My answer: basically, a testable, constrained model of the designer and design events, and then successful tests. 2. Doesn’t ID go back thousands of years? Answer: well, the classical Argument From Design for the existence of God goes back thousands of years, but the use of the conjunction “intelligent design” as a term and a phrase basically dates to Of Pandas and People in 1989, as do other notable features of “ID” not found in the older Design Arguments, notably the explicit denial that the Designer was necessarily God, the denial that this was a supernatural/creationist viewpoint, etc.)

After the talk I got to have dinner with the Klebbas, biochemists who work on the flagellum and related systems. Phil Klebba famously took on Dembski on the flagellum when Dembski visited in 2006. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a long discussion of biochemistry, bioinformatics, and phylogenetics over wine and sushi in Norman, Oklahoma. By the end of it I was drawing phylogenies and protein names on napkins and depicting evolutionary trees with chopsticks.

The next morning, guess who was staying at the very same bed and breakfast that I was at? Richard Dawkins himself, plus his film crew. The previous night, state representative Thomsen had filed a resolution in the State Legislature condemning the appearance of Dawkins and condemning the Zoology Department for having sponsored the event and for the general sin of teaching evolution unapologetically (inexplicably, various other departments who collectively played a larger role than Zoology in bringing Dawkins, such as Geology and History of Science, were left out.) Vic Hutchison, head of OESE, had called me that morning to tell me the news. A few minutes later I left my bedroom to go to breakfast, and across from me was the Dawk himself. We had corresponded on email, but I had never met him in person, so I introduced myself and then instantly the conversation turned to the legislature’s proposed resolution. Dawkins, for his part, couldn’t be more pleased – he has a list of places where he has been condemned or banned, including especially Turkey. What was more unfortunate was the undeserved linking of the Zoology Department to the whole issue – this was really just backlash from members of the legislature who were annoyed that members of Zoology had successfully argued against the “academic freedom” bill in months past.

Breakfast was occupied with discussion of the resolution and what to say about it. Vic Hutchison joined us at breakfast and explained what OESE was and the roll it played in defending science education in Oklahoma. Dawkins, out of the blue, decided to put in a plug for the group in his public lecture that night, and arranged for his Foundation for Reason and Science (which has the mission of science education and not atheist activism, we were told) to donate $5000 to the group. I doubt Vic had been so pleased since the time he figured out how to catch the world’s largest frog in West Africa (answer: get a big net, figure out which way the frog will jump when startled – important since they can jump over your head – and then catch them in mid-air).

In what was possibly the most complete change of pace in one day of my life ever, after breakfast Vic drove me to the airport to pick up a rental car so that I could drive up to northern Oklahoma to see my grandparents. My grandfather is a moderate old-fashioned Baptist, but my dear grandmother is a very conservative Lutheran and sent me creation-science materials when I was little; I am pretty much sure this is how I found out about the topic and became interested in the evolution/creationism debate – an interesting case of unintended consequences if you think about it. Anyway, the two have been married for 60 years and still go to different churches on Sunday, never having agreed to choose one or the other, so the family also provides an interesting example of the virtues of religious tolerance. We got caught up for a few hours and as I was leaving, I actually heard my grandmother make the first conciliatory statements towards evolution that I had ever heard. Evidently there was a new pastor at her church, and the pastor had given a sermon which, while not really endorsing evolution and the old earth, stating that it perhaps wasn’t the most important issue for God or man to have a theological dispute about. The statement that, for God, we are all still living in the seventh day of creation (which is obviously not a literal day) seems to have made an impact on her. I don’t really like to provoke inter-family debates about evolution, I get plenty of that in everyday life anyway, so I left it there. Like everyone else, she will have to reach her own position on these issues. But this anecdote is one small piece of additional evidence in favor of the idea that there is perhaps a trend occuring where conservative Protestant leadership (e.g. seminaries and pastors) are de-emphasizing and perhaps de-polarizing the evolution issue. If this trend is real, which is difficult to judge, it could have huge implications for the future of the societal conflict over evolution.

When I got back to Norman at 5 pm, there was already a huge crown in line to get seats for the 7 pm Dawkins lecture. The venue held 4,000 and was almost full. I was lucky enough to have a reserved seat up front with various Darwin bicentennial organizers. Dawkins opened his lecture with slides of the Oklahoma legislature’s proposed resolution and some remarks about the self-contradictory nature of politicans both invoking academic freedom and condemning a speaker with unpopular views at the same time. He put in a plug for OESE and its website, www.oklascience.org, and then went to the main body of his talk, which was devoted to the meaning of the word “purpose.” Dawkins advanced the idea that we can distinguish two versions of purpose – first, “archaeo-purpose”, which is basically the function which some adaptation serves, and then “neo-purpose”, which is the purpose in the brain of some organism. In some ways this is just the standard ethological distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of behavior (we eat because we feel hungry, but we have feelings of hunger because natural selection favored creatures that could tell when they were running low on food), but Dawkins applied the distinction to a variety of phenomena in human society, and repeatedly noted that neo-purposes can subvert archaeo-purposes for bad (e.g., Nazi use of familial language to encourage blind loyalty) or good (e.g., humans adopting geneticaly unrelated offspring, coopting parental care and love feelings which would normally be applied to genetic descendents).

The talk was reasonably good although pretty standard if you are familiar with Dawkins. The thing which was really surprisng was the crowd reaction – Dawkins got an opening and closing standing ovations and several long applauses. The amount of emotion, which I personally didn’t really feel – perhaps because I am way too into these issues already and have a pretty detailed idea about where I agree and disagree with Dawkins – was pretty impressive. There wasn’t chanting or cheering or anything like that, but you could tell that Dawkins was more than just a scientist and writer to many in the audience – he was a symbol of something much bigger. Although he didn’t emphasize anti-religion in this particular talk, my sense of it is that Dawkins represents that segment of the population which is just fed up with what they see as the pervasive influence of right-wing politics, conservative religion, and anti-intellectualism. I think people who live in a college town in a very conservative state may feel this more viscerally than those of us on the coasts.

The question and answer period was also mostly occupied with pretty familiar issues, most of the questions being about evolution, science, and Dawkins views on religion. It was during the religion questions that Dawkins brought out his sharper barbs against religion – saying it was “evil” to label children as being one religion or another, comparing God to Zeus and Thor and fairies, saying theology was not really even a subject, etc. At one point, one unstable person in he upper decks of the hall couldn’t take it any more and started shouting about how he wasn’t going to let Dawkins insult his God, and started advancing towards the podium, at which point security showed up and chased the man out. Dawkins didn’t seem flustered, I expect he has gotten this kind of thing before, and probably the film crew got it too.

My opinion on Dawkins’ critiques of religion is that they are just not hugely convincing. It is not at all clear to me that monotheistic religion is really on exactly the same low level of credibility as Zeus and Thor. I agree that the Bible isn’t good evidence for the truth of one religion over another, any more than any other holy book; but the bare notion that Mind is behind the Universe doesn’t seem that much more implausible than the idea that everything just exists or that reality has always existed, or that there are multiple Universes or whatever. These are all pretty much incomprehensible and incredible ideas, and probably however far human science advances, there will always be the question of why or how the starting stuff – quantum vacuum foam or whatever – exists. What I think is really lacking in Dawkins’s view is humility on this point. It’s fine if he thinks that “stuff just exists” is better than “God just exists”, but at best this is a parsimony argument, and parsimony is just a rule of thumb in science, not some absolute logical principle allowing deduction with certainty. If that is accepted, I think that even those who disagree strongly with theism should allow that it is not simply a stupid and crazy thing to believe. And, once you concede that, once you’ve got God as an option, the idea that God might find it interesting to interact with humans is not such a stretch.* Please note that I am not arguing for these positions, I am just trying to explain to the Dawkinses of the world how it might be possible that people could disagree with them on the religion issue and yet still be sane. Pretty much any conclusion about these ultimate cosmic philosophical issues is pretty darn crazy when considered in everyday terms, and I think a little allowance for that, instead of just insulting everyone who disagrees, would be beneficial in several ways.

Apart from the ultimate religious questions, where Dawkins himself sometimes seemed to show some awareness that the issues get squidgy when you get to ultimate origins (he even explicitly appealed to “intuition” at one key point, which is fine but not a basis for concluding that everyone religious is “deluded”), the one other question where Dawkins showed some weakness was when he was asked about the source of morality. For some reason, Dawkins did not go with what I think is the right answer – morality is based in innate human universal physical and emotional needs, tied to the capacity for reflection on short-term versus long-term consequences of actions and especially the need to maintain social ties in our species (see Bishop Butler’s “Sermon on Human Nature” and Darwin’s Descent of Man, chapter 4) – but instead had a long, rambling, and not very convincing answer about cultural change and how morality clearly comes from somewhere because cultures seem to be converging on liberal democratic values if you compare the present to a few hundred years ago. I think Dawkins has this position because he, like Huxley, is actually afraid of tying morality too close to genetics and natural selection, because Dawkins, like Huxley, is well aware of the danger of basing human society on the “rules” of natural selection. The other reason might be that the most cogent explainer of the human-nature/morality connection is Mary Midgley, who has long been an arch-enemy of Dawkins on various philosophical issues, sometimes probably based on a misunderstanding of Dawkins, despite her also being nonreligious, liberal, and a huge Darwin fan.

After the Dawkins talk we decided to forego getting in the 3-hour book signing line and instead went to beer with ERV and various OESE people. After an intense couple of days it was the perfect thing. ERV actually doesn’t swear every other sentence in person, which is kind of disappointing because ERVspeak-for-real would be quite a sight. But, like Dawkins, ERV is much snarkier in text than in person.

I’ve got to run. I’d like to thank everyone in Oklahoma for a great trip and a great experience. I may or may not get a chance to update this with links and corrections where I misremembered something, so I welcome edits/additions in the comments. Let me leave you with the website for OESE: they do good work.


* From here we can see easily why taking the further step of creationism/ID seems plausible to so many people. The reason these views are considered very unlikely is not some a priori metaphysical judgment, but long historical experience with coming up with better natural explanations.