Casey Luskin: the new Wendell Bird?

I recently read Casey Luskin’s article (“Zeal for Darwin’s House Consumes Them: How Supporters of Evolution Encourage Violations of the Establishment Clause”) in the Liberty University Law Review. Most of it is tendentious as usual, and Tim Sandefur makes an excellent reply (PT: Luskin, laws, and lies).

However, I think it may be important for us to read Luskin’s article, as it looks like it is laying out a new lawsuit strategy for the ID movement, which would be to provoke parents into suing school districts that use a textbook that has some smidgen of (alleged) materialism, (alleged) endorsement of theistic evolution or accommodationism, or critique of ID/creationism somewhere within its hundreds or thousands of pages.

In support of his argument, Luskin pulls out all of the various (alleged) anti-religion, pro-materialism, pro-theistic evolution, etc. passages that the DI guys have dug up in textbooks over the years, and traces some of them to e.g. statements by major popularizers like Dawkins & Gould.

Luskin has a lot of examples, and when he strings them together he gives the impression that students are being drowned in various antireligious or religious indoctrination (many of the statements he cites contradict each other, but oh well). He entirely forgets that a biology class is very unlikely to use more than one textbook, and probably will only use portions of that. Also, some of his “textbooks” aren’t textbooks. (Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson 1975?!? In what sense is this a relevant “textbook”? It’s a famous book that founded an area of study, and might be used as a text in an advanced college course or seminar, but it’s a textbook only in the vaguest sense at best.) Some of them are upper-level college texts, some of them are decades old and out of circulation.

But more importantly, most of the quotes Luskin drags up are, well, quote mines. Once you’ve looked up a few of these passages in textbooks, you realize that many of the quoted statements have alternative, much less nefarious interpretations, compared to the interpretation they provoke in a naively ideological fundamentalist reader like Luskin or other ID promoters. To list some of the options:

* Some statements quoted by Luskin are descriptions of intellectual history, or descriptions of how many people saw e.g. the theory of evolution at a particular time. The passages that Luskin quotes from Futuyma’s textbooks are like this. It is true that many people in Darwin’s day were concerned about implications that arose for naive readers of the Origins – cruelty in nature, adaptation by natural law and random processes rather than by Design, etc. Describing these reactions is not endorsement of them. And the history of public reactions to evolution are a somewhat important thing for students of evolution to learn about. Sometimes, textbooks, which go through a long series of edits, editions, sometimes authors, etc., and where authors are responsible for producing a huge amount of material on a huge number of topics, not all of which they have huge expertise on, might be less than perfect about telling history in a way that is utterly impossible for a creationist to quote-mine and turn into an endorsement of materialism, cosmic hopelessness, or whatnot. Most people, most of the time, are not armoring their writing against creationist misinterpretation.

* Some passages in some textbooks are convicted for merely using words like random, directionless, blind, purposeless, etc. Creationist activists, and Luskin is no exception, just lose all vestige of critical faculties when these sorts of words are used in discussions of evolution. They go crazy and see these words as confirmation of what they already think, which is that evolution is basically a big atheist/materialist conspiracy. What creationist activists totally miss, incredibly and irresponsibly, is that such words do not always have a cosmic, metaphysical implication, and do not always mandate the interpretation that the author is endorsing the view that there is/is not some ultimate purpose behind existence. These words often have an entirely prosaic, non-metaphysical sense – scientifically, various evolutionary processes like mutation or mass extinction can be described as “random”, “blind”, “directionless”, etc., in the very same way that the results of rolling dice, the weather, earthquakes, etc. can be described in this fashion. The word “random”, in particular, is utterly ubiquitous throughout science and statistics, it is almost always merely shorthand for “process with stochastic, probabilistically-governed outcomes”, and its usage in describing evolution implies no particular extra-scientific endorsements by the authors.

Admittedly, some words, like “purposeless”, are more prone to be read or misread as metaphysical statements. I tend to think that, if some word is likely to be misunderstood, and better words can be found, then writers might as well do that. But an occasional failure to be completely perfect in matters of word choice is not evidence of metaphysical indoctrination in textbooks.

* In particular, some discussions of evolution being directionless, purposeless, random, etc., are addressing historical controversies in evolutionary biology – e.g. inheritance of acquired characters, orthogenesis, recapitulation, vitalism, and the like. Some of these ideas claimed to discern a “direction” and/or a cause for a particular “direction” in evolution, even though they were (typically) totally “naturalistic” hypothesis about evolution (read Gould 2002, Structure of Evolutionary Theory, for an account of some of these). It is totally legitimate for textbooks to describe these schools of thought and explain how and why they lost academic credibility – e.g. many of them were knocked off during the development of the Modern Synthesis.

* Futhermore, it is well known that students learning about evolution often make incorrect assumptions about how it is supposed to operate – e.g., several studies in education journals have shown that students often have an almost innate preference for a “Lamarkian” view of how adaptation comes about, or a simplistic orthogenetic or ladder-like linear view of evolution, e.g. from simple to complex, from fish to ape to man, or whatever. It is totally and completely legitimate for textbooks to address these common student misconceptions, which are very well known amongst evolution educators. And often language correcting these sorts of things will make statements about evolution being “random”, “without direction”, etc. And I think that, just for the purposes of having high-quality introductory science writing, and having a textbook that is actually readable, it is unfair to expect that every use of such words be accompanied with some elaborate disclaimer to head off quote-miners like Luskin and other naively selective readers.

* That said, *another* common student misconception about evolution is that its description as “random”, “directionless”, and the like, means that if they believe evolution then they have to adopt these words as metaphysical descriptors of reality, give up God, etc. This is an important misconception, one that definitely impedes the responsible secular purpose of learning about evolution, and about learning about what science is and what topics it does and does not address. So it is important for texts to address this misconception and rebut it. Of course, Luskin tendentiously *also* pulls passages out of context that do exactly this! And he portrays those as endorsing theistic evolution or whatnot. The kind of obfuscation Luskin is engaging in here would not impress a judge, should it ever come before one.

* Some passages which Luskin quotes are from interviews included in textbooks. If, in the course of an interview presented in a textbook (interviews of scientists seem to be an increasingly hot thing to put in introductory textbooks these days), Stephen Jay Gould or Francis Collins or someone drops a personal opinion on some metaphysical issue, is that really a constitutional issue? If it is, are textbook writers supposed to censor all the interviews? There could conceivably be some constitutional issues here, I don’t know if all 20 interviews in a textbook were univocal strong endorsements of the stupidity of Christianity or something, but if a textbook has a collection of interviews, it’s going to be a tough argument that quote-mining one of them is good evidence for a constitutional violation.

* Some passages that Luskin quotes are various statements opposing creationism/ID for being false, unfalsifiable, or both (proving that not everyone reads the Kitzmiller decision, which was very clear on stating that ID’s statements about evolution are falsifiable, because evolution is science and is a testable theory, but IDists’ almost nonexistent positive statements about ID are not testable, because, well, they are just vague invocations of the supernatural). Often there is not even a true internal contradiction in these statements. E.g. if a text says “there is no empirical basis for creationism/ID”, that’s not saying ID/creationism is false, it’s saying it is scientifically unsupported, which is true and which is not the same thing as saying it’s false. If a text says ID is wrong about transitional fossils, since such fossils actually exist, the only thing that has happened here is that the author has made the perfectly reasonable assumption that “ID” refers to the collection of ID arguments made by ID proponents. Ideally, people would distinguish between negative arguments against evolution and positive arguments for ID, but really this is pretty inside baseball, and the only place I’ve ever seen it done well is by the Kitzmiller plaintiffs and their experts, who are the ultimate ID wonks.

And as noted by Sandefur, statements about scientific facts are always legitimate secular endeavors, whether or not they offend or contradict some particular religious view or person who has decided that some aspect of reality is “against their religion.”

* Finally, some passages are just authors getting their wires crossed, or poor turns of phrase in early editions of a textbook. Luskin likes to quote e.g. Ken Miller’s first textbook (coauthored with Joe Levine), which had a somewhat confusing historical passage about cultural reactions to evolution, which could be read (by very unsympathetic readers like Luskin) as stating that evolution supported cosmic randomness, etc. But even that first edition passage (a) obviously wasn’t actually an endorsement of this view considering that Ken Miller was a theist then and now, and (b) the end of the passage contained a paragraph pointing out that, of course, it was a fallacy to say that evolution and religion are necessarily opposed.

Anyway, Luskin seems to think that extracting dozens of tiny bits from dozens of huge textbooks, and stringing them together, avoiding all ameliorating context, amounts to an argument. Since no student will ever have more than one textbook, this is extremely unlikely to be a relevant argument in court.

However, Luskin may well succeed in getting some ID-fan parent somewhere to sue based on the school’s use of one of these textbooks. Whether this would get anywhere at all would depend on all the details above and more. If one hypothetically had a highly ideological textbook that takes a Richard-Dawkins-like stance on religion throughout, you might have a problem, but I doubt that any common high school biology textbook does this. Textbook publishers, after all, prefer to sell books, not get them ruled unconstitutional by courts. For what it’s worth, the book that Luskin seems to get the most mileage out of is Strickberger’s Evolution. I haven’t read it and I don’t trust Luskin’s account of it, and it’s a college text anyway, intended for an upper-level biology majors course, so I bet its use in high school is nonexistent. If it crosses the line into metaphysics, then so much the worse for it; but college professors have a number of textbooks to chose from.

In conclusion: I don’t think Luskin has found a winning tactic here, but it could be a headache if this became a new creationist ploy. Perhaps Luskin is gunning to be the new Wendell Bird?