I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Doncha just love that new-week smell? There was a lot going on this week that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed. Here are some of the stories we gathered to keep you up to speed:

Was he or wasn’t he? Creationists often insist that Darwinism leads to racism. Historian Ted Davis takes a careful look at Darwin and racism at BioLogos.

READING woman apple

Words, words, words…

Evergreen State professor Bret Weinstein advised to stay off campus for his own safety. He had protested against mandatory protests. Scott Jaschik gives the latest at IHE.

Closing the circle: Progressive school dreams result in conservative schools. Paul Ryan harts Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies.

Deeper than ever: Charles Lipson makes the case that our current political climate is more vicious and divided than it’s ever been. HT: MM

Is New York’s plan catching on? Boston announces new free-college-tuition plan.

Another picnic in No Man’s Land: A new Catholic association for religious scientists.

A conservative’s commencement speech without politics: Peggy Noonan tells Catholic University graduates to read books.

What can Betsy DeVos do to salvage her tenure? Free-marketeer Michael Petrilli collects advice from five education wonks.

Will the Trump administration allow a birth-control waiver for religious institutions? Leaked memo says they will.

Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.


Is Zinn the Darwin of the History World?

There are few things more troubling than a book ban.  Yet conservative activists keep trying to ban Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.  The latest effort takes place in Arkansas.  To us, this raises a tricky question: Is Zinn the Darwin of the history world?

Of course, that’s not the only question that might keep us up at night.  We might ask why this particular book is so offensive to conservatives.  We might even ask how banning books and ideas unites the left and the right these days.

Maybe we’ll get to those questions some fine day.  Today, though, we want to ask about the Zinn/evolution connection.

Who’s afraid of the big bad Zinn?

First, some catch up: If you don’t know Howard Zinn, you might get a tax break for your energy-saving under-a-rock lifestyle.  His People’s History has long been touted as a welcome correction to the flag-waving, Bible-thumping, chest-beating stories that so often get taught in US History classes.  In Zinn’s history, European explorers aren’t heroes, but exploiters and rapists.  In Zinn’s telling, “Manifest Destiny” was nothing but a shill for robbery and genocide.  In a word, Zinn offered a leftist counter-history to the standard textbook tale.

And opposition to Zinn has been ferocious.  A few years back, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels tried to ban the book from Indiana.  And now, Representative Kim Hendren has introduced a bill in Arkansas to ban everything written by Zinn since 1959.

As I argued in my book The Other School Reformers, conservative educational activists have always been a fractious bunch.  On one thing, though, they agreed without even having to talk about it: Schools must be “safe spaces” for students.  They must not introduce ideas that shake students’ religious faith, patriotic pride, or traditional notions of family.

The most obvious intellectual threat to the conservative vision of proper education has been evolution.  Since the 1920s, conservatives worked hard—often with great success—to have evolutionary theory banned or watered down in American public schools.

But history books have often come under fire, too.  Long before Zinn freaked out the squares with his People’s History, Harold Rugg’s textbooks were purged from millions of American schools.  Rugg’s books were yanked from shelves, and one hapless school board member in my sunny hometown of Binghamton, New York suggested they should be piled up and burned.

The parallels seem striking.  Like evolution, leftist history is seen as a deadly threat, a spiritual and intellectual contaminant.  Many conservative activists think they must eliminate it entirely in order to protect students.  Consider former Governor Mitch Daniels’ comments from Indiana.  “How do we get rid of [A People’s History],” Daniels asked, “before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or its neo-Darwinian progeny, many conservatives see Zinn’s historical ideas as a terrible threat to their children’s well-being.  They might well want their children to consider a broad range of diverse ideas, but Zinn’s telling of US history, like Darwin’s telling of the origins of humanity, seems to veer far out of bounds of acceptable thinking.  Like evolutionary theory, Zinn’s history sparks an immediate fear among conservatives.  Some activists worry that mere exposure to such ideas will harm their children.

Look out, children!

For reasons like these, it seems fair to conclude that Zinn does indeed serve as a sort of Darwin of the historical world.  Zinn’s vision of US history seems to match Darwin’s vision of speciation, in the perceived intellectual threat it poses to the helpless children of conservative America.

But we can’t stop there.  There are also important differences between Zinn and Darwin.  When it comes to evolutionary theory, academic biologists agree: the modern evolutionary synthesis is our best current understanding of speciation.  Banning evolution, or even watering it down by suggesting that it is only one idea out of many equals, means giving schoolkids worse science.

Fans of Zinn’s People’s History can’t say the same thing.  True, the American Historical Association condemned Governor Daniels’ ban.  But historians as a whole don’t love Zinn’s book.  Sam Wineburg, for example, has famously pointed out the problems with Zinn’s work.  Michael Kazin, too, agreed that Zinn’s book was “stronger on polemical passion than historical insight.”  Neither Kazin nor Wineburg liked Indiana’s attempted ban, but neither of them loved Zinn’s book, either.

So as Arkansas gears up to debate (again) the notion of banning leftist history, we can agree that banning Zinn is a bad idea.  Straight-up dumb.  But we don’t want to fall into the obvious trap.  Zinn is no Darwin.  Banning evolution means banning science.  Banning Zinn doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating good history.

Let’s say it again: Banning Zinn is a terrible idea.  It is good for students to consider different ideas about history.  His book, though, should be understood for what it is: a political book about history, not a history book about politics.

Darwin Denounced as “Jew” in Turkish Textbooks

Every now and again we hear from evolution educators that creationism is somehow unique to the United States.  In his recent popular video denouncing creationism, for instance, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” said exactly that.

Not so fast!  As scholars such as Ronald Numbers have documented, creationism has long been an international affair.  In places such as Australia and Turkey, for instance, creationism has strong and apparently growing support.

And, thanks to the Sensuous Curmudgeon, we come across a story from the international edition of the Financial Times demonstrating the durability of Turkish anti-evolution education.

The FT story demonstrates both the similarities and differences of creationism across national and cultural boundaries.  In some senses, the story could come straight out of the USA.  Other parts seem uniquely Turkish.

For instance, the story describes a controversy over the use of anti-evolution textbooks in Turkish schools.  A teachers’ union has taken legal action to block schools in Istanbul from using anti-evolution textbooks.  Just as in the USA, the Turkish government has made moves to loosen Turkey’s traditional government secularism in a strongly religious nation.  The government, according to the FT article, has allowed more schools to favor religious themes.

All of this sounds like it could have come directly from the evolution/creation controversies in the USA.

But other parts of the story have a uniquely Turkish twist.  The schoolbooks, for example, denounce Darwin as Jewish.  According to the FT, the textbooks warn students that Darwin “had two problems:  first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and  misshapen teeth.” The books mock Darwin’s lack of formal education, noting strangely that he preferred to spend his time with monkeys in the zoo.

Such anti-Semitic attacks do not usually appear in America’s evolution/creation controversies.  More common would be attacks on Darwin’s atheism.  For the record, Darwin was not Jewish.  However, a creationist attempt to discredit Darwin by “accusing” him of Jewishness makes some sense in a Turkish context.

Clearly, context matters.  Students in Louisiana’s publicly funded schools might read textbooks promoting creationism and evangelical Protestantism.  Students in Istanbul’s publicly funded schools had read that Darwin could not be trusted because he was Jewish.

Pro-Evolution IV: The Nature of Science


Science is not a simple discovery of truth.  It is a human process, a cultural process.  There have been scientific “truths” that generations of scientists have ardently believed.  Ideas such as phlogiston (although this can cut both ways; see the anti-evolution spin on phlogiston in this post) have convinced scientists and elbowed other ideas out of the realm of science.  This notion that science is somehow a social construction as much as a deduction of objective truth has led some evolution opponents to hope that evolution might be only a fashion among scientists rather than a basic truth about life on earth.  But even this understanding of the nature of science points out the fundamental truth of evolution.

Real science means continual skepticism.  The most ardent searchers for holes in the theory of evolution are not creationists; they are evolutionary scientists.  Any scientist who could come up with a big new theory that displaced evolution would be made an instant celebrity.  His or her career would be made forever.  It leads again to the question of the most likely: Which is more likely, a conspiracy of thousands of scientists over generations to keep a false theory as established science in order to undermine Christian faith (one of the implicit arguments of many creationists) or thousands of ambitious, aggressive scientists who have hammered evolution theory with every test imaginable, looking for a hole that would make their careers?

Take just one example to illustrate.  Stephen Jay Gould was one of the leading evolutionary scientists of the late twentieth century.  His writings attracted large appreciative audiences among both scientists and lay readers.  Yet he was also one of the fiercest critics of mainstream thinking about the nature of evolution.  Along with fellow evolutionist Niles Eldredge, when Gould found a weakness in standard scientific thinking about evolution, he pounced.  In 1972, Eldredge and Gould published a paper critical of the notion that species gradually evolved.  Rather, the fossil record seemed to argue for long periods of equilibrium punctuated by periods of rapid species change.  Rapid, of course, must be understood relatively.  Gould and
Eldredge did not argue—in spite of claims by later anti-evolutionists—that such change happened in sudden catastrophes.
They did not argue that there were no transitional fossil forms.  Rather, they argued that the pace of evolution must be understood to vary substantially over time.  The periods of change, Gould suggested, likely came in windows of between 50,000 and 100,000 years.  Nevertheless, their notion of punctuated equilibriums was a major criticism of contemporary thinking about the nature of evolution.  And it was suggested not by anti-evolutionists, but by evolutionary scientists themselves.  Far from conducting a campaign to enforce an evolutionary orthodoxy, scientists such as Gould and Eldredge continually probe the weaknesses of evolution.

The nature of science also tells us something about the origins of modern evolutionary thinking.  The idea of evolution is bigger than Charles Darwin.  Darwin gets the credit for introducing the modern notion of evolution with his 1859 book Origin of Species.  And he deserves a lot of credit.  His book spelled out a notion of changing species that could actually work.  But Darwin was not by any means the first to suggest that species had evolved from one another.  That idea was as ancient as Western culture itself.  Nor could Darwin claim all the credit for the notion of natural selection as the mechanism by which species changed.  Darwin finally published his book in 1859 after decades of working on it.
He was pushed to finally get it out into the public sphere by similar work by a man named Alfred Russel Wallace.  The fact that the two scientists came up with the notion of natural selection independently shows that the idea did not come from the unique genius of just one man.  Rather, it was an idea whose time had come.  Darwin’s patience in waiting for twenty years to publish his book and his elegant prose went a long way toward making his ideas credible.
But even without Darwin’s clout among the scientific community and his impressive style, the truth of natural selection would have made an impression on both scientists and regular readers.

Science is a competitive process.  It does not fit well with ideas of conspiracies.  It does not even fit well with ideas of ideology.  Scientists hope to establish themselves by proving something new.  If they smell a problem with the theory of
evolution, they will rush in to poke holes in it.


The TalkOrigins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy; http://www.talkorigins.org/; Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Anniversary Edition (New York: Signet, 2003); Stephen Jay Gould & Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered,” Paleobiology 3:2 (1977): 115-151; Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);  Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

Pro-Evolution II: What evolution DOES mean


Here are some of the things evolution DOES mean:

  • In its most advanced form, the modern evolutionary synthesis has been accepted by all mainstream scientists.  This modern evolutionary synthesis, briefly, contends that life on earth was not created all at once.  It developed by a series of minute changes
    over a long time.  For a long time, scientists, including Charles Darwin himself, couldn’t figure out how those changes could keep from being swamped by a larger population.  For instance, if one fish was born with fins that helped it climb up on land to eat plants that other fishes couldn’t reach, it would have an evolutionary advantage over those other fish.  It could eat more and get stronger.  It could have more offspring that would also be likely to have those leg-like fins.
    The problem for early evolution scientists was the idea that the tendency to have leg-like fins would be watered down by mating with fish that had fin-like fins.  Even if a fish had an evolutionary advantage with leg-like fins, its offspring would blend the
    characteristic of leg-like fins with the characteristic of fin-like fins.  Over time, the tendency to have advantageous leg-like fins would be swamped by the majority of fishes’ fin-like fins.  The solution to this dilemma came to scientists by the 1930s.  Scientists realized that life on earth doesn’t work that way.  Instead, the offspring of a fish with leg-like fins with a fish with fin-like fins would carry the genetic tendency to be born with leg-like fins, even if the fish itself had fin-like fins.  You may remember something like this from high-school biology. The idea was a little older, discovered in the 1800s by a monk named Gregor Mendel.  Mendel observed pea plants and noticed that there was a regularity to their characteristics.  About one in every four
    tall pea plants, for instance, was short.
    Mendel realized that the short characteristic was carried recessively even in the tall pea plants.  When two tall pea plants with that recessive characteristic produced new pea plants, every fourth offspring would end up short.  How would this work with our fish with leg-like fins?  The genetic tendency to have leg-like fins would be latent in fish even with fin-like fins.  That is, they would have the genes to grow leg-like fins, but most of their offspring would have fin-like fins.  Every once in a while, a fish with leg-like fins would be born.  When the circumstances changed and these leg-like fins became an advantage, fish with leg-like fins would have more offspring more often.  Their offspring would carry the genetic tendency to be born with leg-like fins.
    Over time, if there was more food accessible out of the water, and if food became scarcer and scarcer below water, those fish born with leg-like fins would prosper, and find more mates also with that characteristic.  Not soon, but over time, a new species of
    fish with leg-like fins would evolve.
  • Some of the most convincing biological arguments for evolution come from what scientists call ontogeny and homology.  Ontogeny means roughly the way animals develop.  Some steps of that development only make sense in an evolutionary framework.
    For instance, embryonic whales grow legs for a stage.  Why?  Especially vital for our argument here, why would whales go through a developmental stage with proto-legs if God had simply created them in their current form?  It makes no sense.  It would be an example of the kind of evidence that God would have had to have left behind in order to fool humans
    into thinking life evolved.  Because those embryonic legs make perfect sense in evolutionary perspective.  For a time, whales had been land-dwelling mammals.  They developed their ability to survive and thrive in water as an evolutionary niche developed for them.  Their embryonic history demonstrates that path.  Although early evolutionists such as Ernst Haeckel overstated their case for the importance of ontogeny as a path of evolutionary development in all animals, in some cases it still points to an
    evolutionary origin for different forms of life.
  • Scientists also note powerful homologies among very different kinds of animals.  By this they mean the underlying structure of many different forms reveals the same basic structure.  For instance, bats’ wings, human hands, and seals’ flippers share a basic bone structure.  Each of the organisms uses the form for very different purposes: flying, grabbing, and swimming.  But the similarity of the underlying bone structure makes sense if all the forms evolved from a common ancestor.  As each species developed and specialized over the millennia, the basic bone structure developed in markedly different ways to help the species take advantage of evolutionary niches.  Bats developed the ability to fly, humans to grab, and seals to swim.  But such underlying similarity is utterly confusing if we assume that each species was created as is.  Why would a designer use the same underlying bone structure for each instead of coming up with more efficient ones for each ultimate use?
    That is, if the bat was made to fly, why wouldn’t its bone structure be markedly different from the bone structure of a seal flipper?  Just as with the embryonic evidence, the only way it makes sense is if the designer deliberately set out to obscure its
    (His?  Her?) role in the design.  It only makes sense, in other words, if God not only designed the vast variety of life, but then made it look as if that variety had evolved from common ancestors.
    Which explanation makes more sense?
  • There are other specific examples that flesh out the argument.  One that Darwin used was that of the ichneumon wasp.  This is a
    type of wasp that lays its eggs directly into or on the body of a host, something like a caterpillar.  The mother wasp then paralyzes the prey.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae eat the living but powerless body of the host.  They first eat the non-vital organs such as fat cells.  That ensures that the host will stay alive as they feed.  Only after they have eaten the still living flesh do they finally eat the vital organs and kill the unhappy host.  Why, Darwin asked, would a benevolent God create such implacable suffering?  If the panoply of living things were created, why create such cruelty?  It makes no sense.  Of course, Darwin could have taken refuge in the traditional answer to such questions: God’s ways cannot be known to us.  He may have reasons beyond
    our knowing.  But for Darwin and evolutionists that followed him, there was a much more obvious answer.  The reason animal life could be so cruel was because it had not been designed in such detail.  God did not create the vampiric wasp as such.  Rather, the wasp evolved to take advantage of the flesh of its prey.  It evolved in its ability to feed its young in this peculiar and revolting
    way.  In other words, if God created the wasp this way, we are presented with a moral dilemma that we can only overcome
    with a series of difficult mental gymnastics.
    But if life forms evolved to take advantage of evolutionary niches, the process makes entire sense.
  • The idea of evolution is repeatedly confirmed by new evidence.  For instance, the basic idea of species changing by a long slow process of natural selection came from Darwin and Wallace in 1859.  They had no idea about a lot of how it might work.
    But as scientists today find out more and more about the nature of life, each new piece of information confirms the basic notion of evolution.  For instance, scientists have had great success in recent years in decoding the genomes of humans and other species.  They have charted the genes that make up the recipe of the human species.  And they have found that those genes are almost identical to genes from similar species.  They are even very similar to the genes of very different species.
    Sharing so much of the same genetic make up confirms the notion that life on earth descended from a single source.
    Darwin and Wallace had no notion that this evidence would ever exist.  But it fits perfectly with their predictions of how such genes should look.  It confirms their suggestions.  There was no way that Darwin could have understood the evidence from the human genome.  Yet it confirms the idea of evolution in vivid ways.  Even during Darwin’s lifetime, he doubted the feasibility of his evolutionary scheme.  Based on the best scientific understandings of his time, there was no way that the earth could be ancient enough for evolution to have occurred.  Later scientific discoveries established a far more ancient age of life on Earth than Darwin realized.  Thus, even when his own faith was shaken in the feasibility of his notion, he was still proven correct.
  • When evidence piles up this way, the only way around it is to imagine that God created a trail of evidence meant to fool humans.  He created a universe that pointed in a false direction, to test whether humanity could overcome the evidence of reason to cling to faith.  Why would He do that?  Why would He want to fool people?  And, if He wanted to give humans a test about whether they would hold fast to His revealed truth in the face of overwhelming rational evidence, why would He give the majority of humans a non-Christian tradition to cling to?  It would mean that God wanted people to cling to a lifeboat of revealed religion instead of walking on the land that was only a few feet below them, then provided them with a lifeboat that wouldn’t float.  That does not seem consistent with a God of infinite love.

Pro-Evolution Ia: What Evolution Does NOT Mean


What is evolution?  People use the term in a lot of different ways.  One of the things that will help explain why so many people believe in evolution will be clarify what people mean when they say it.  Here are a couple of things it DOESN’T mean:

  • Humans evolved from apes.  This idea has been curiously offensive and distracting to the real argument.  In the
    modern evolutionary synthesis, the consensus is that all living things on earth had a common ancestor.  Over millions of years, different forms of life developed from that common ancestor.  Humans and other primates all diverged from
    one another relatively late in this process. But humans didn’t evolve out of monkeys or apes.  Rather, humans and other hominids split off from the same “branch” of the “tree (or bush) of life” that monkeys and apes split off from.
  • “Darwinism.” A lot of confusion can come from using Darwinism as a synonym for evolution.  Those who are trying to
    obscure the truth about evolution—some of them merely to profit from the huge market for anti-evolution materials—often confuse the issue by telling audiences that “Darwinism” has been rejected by scientists.  That’s true enough, sort of.  Darwin’s original ideas about evolution have been tested and challenged vigorously since the publication of Origin of Species in 1859.  Some of them have been discarded.  Thus, it is easy to find examples of prominent scientists in various decades saying that “Darwinism” is dead.  What they mean is that Charles Darwin’s ideas about the mechanism of evolution have been challenged by scientists.  They do NOT mean that the fact of organic evolution has been rejected.
  • God is a lie.
    The fact of evolution doesn’t have a bearing on theology.  It does not disprove the Bible.  Some of the most famous theologians in history, such as St. Augustine, embraced an evolutionary worldview.  And many prominent evolutionists, including Dobzhansky, believe in God.  They simply believe that evolution is God’s method.  Nor
    does the theory of evolution shackle God in some way.  Just because there is a mechanism by which species can change and develop does not mean that God has been robbed of power.  A tree grows from a seed.  That does not imply that God has been locked out of the process.  It does not have any bearing on the possibility of miracles or God’s supernatural involvement.  It would be fair enough to say, in fact, that a tree developing from a seed is a miracle that requires God’s guiding hand.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution,”  The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar., 1973), pp. 125-129; Edward J. Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (New York: The Modern Library, 2006).