Creationists Understand[ing] Evolution

[Editor’s note: To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, Dr. Don McLeroy needs no introduction. As the genial conservative former head of the Texas State Board of Education, Dr. McLeroy is well known especially for his firm creationist beliefs. As I finish up my new book about American creationism, I reached out to Dr. McLeroy to ask him about his ideas. He graciously responded with an explanation and some questions of his own. He asked me, for instance, why I had so much confidence in mainstream evolutionary science. For the past few months, Dr. McLeroy and I have been reading key works together. He has explained to me why he finds some of Kenneth Miller’s work problematic and finds some convincing. I suggested a few of my favorite books, such as Edward Larson’s Evolution and Kostas Kampourakis’s Understanding Evolution. Dr. McLeroy read both and offered his explanation of why he found Dr. Kampourakis’s book ultimately unconvincing. I thought Dr. McLeroy’s critique of Understanding Evolution would be interesting to others, so I asked Dr. McLeroy for permission to publish it here. It appears below, unedited and unmodified by me.]

A critique of Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2014

By Don McLeroy,

Kostas Kampourakis believes if you truly understand evolution—the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor as a result of unguided natural processes—you will accept it and to this end he wrote his book. He does offer a unique contribution to the literature; besides an original discussion of “the core concepts of evolutionary theory and the features of evolutionary explanations,” (p. xi) he specifically concentrates on explaining why he believes evolution is hard to understand and why it has not won widespread acceptance. He emphasizes the conceptual obstacles to understanding evolution, how it is counter-intuitive and why there is so much religious resistance.

As for explaining the core concepts of evolution, his book succeeds; I do have a better understanding of evolution. However, I do not find his discussion of the conceptual difficulties of understanding evolution very compelling. The main obstacle for the evolution skeptic is the evidence doesn’t support it. And, if evolution is false, rejection of evolution is not counter-intuitive. However, he may be right; conceptual obstacles could play a major role in the evolution controversies. Only I think he has it totally backwards and the conceptual difficulties lie with the evolutionist inability to reject evolution.

Understanding core concepts

He devotes two chapters of his book to the core concepts of evolutionary theory: “Common ancestry” and “Evolutionary change.” They are unlike any other evolutionary explanations I have ever read. They are challenging, interesting and I enjoyed studying them.  One reason is because Kampourakis has an excellent imagination and he uses it to create “imaginary” examples to help illustrate evolutionary ideas. He has imaginary beetles, imaginary families, an imaginary Gogonasus man, imaginary slides with rolling balls, imaginary “Jons and Nathans,” and an imaginary pizza shop evolving into an imaginary cookie shop. These examples do help in understanding evolutionary concepts, but I am left wondering, why not use actual examples to illustrate these ideas? Are simple real life examples unavailable to explain evolution?

Kampourakis’ book, like every other evolutionary apologetic book I have read, leaves me a stronger skeptic. The first thing I do when I read a new book on evolution is to look for any actual evidence cited that supports evolution. These books all claim they have lots of evidence, but when I read the books I do not find it. Kampourakis agrees the first requirement of a good scientific theory is the “empirical fit or support by data.” (p. 209) He claims “The fact that we do not know some details yet, as well as that we may never know all the details, does not undermine how strongly evolutionary theory is supported by empirical data.” (p. 209) Therefore, how many actual facts do we see included in this book? He presents some biology but not much evolutionary evidence. Interestingly, I find more imaginary examples than actual examples. His strongest example is Neil Shubin’s Tiktaalik.

The conceptual difficulties

The unique purpose of Kampourakis’ book is to focus “on conceptual difficulties and obstacles to understanding evolution.” (p. 62) I find it interesting his goal is not for everyone to “accept” evolution but simply to “understand” it. Again, he seems to believe if only we could understand it, then of course, we would accept it.  I believe I do understand evolution. And, the more I understand it the more skeptical I have become. What amazes me is how many intelligent, educated people understand evolution and then accept it. Therefore, let’s examine the conceptual problem in reverse. The question would now be: What are the conceptual difficulties facing the evolutionist in ultimately rejecting evolution. I believe they are easily identifiable.

Not knowing they don’t have enough evidence

This brings us back to the key issue—the evidence. I believe the first and most significant conceptual obstacle in preventing the evolutionist from rejecting evolution is in not realizing how much evidence is needed to show evolution to be true. To illustrate, how much evidence has evolution presented to demonstrate how the myriads of biochemical pathways have supposedly developed naturally? Kampourakis’ book is completely silent on this issue. But, Kampourakis provides for more evidence for evolution by referencing a “Further reading” section at the end of his first chapter. Here he begins “There exist numerous books which present the evidence for evolution as well as the main processes. A nice book to start with is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, which provides an authoritative overview of evidence and processes. Another book with several examples and useful information is The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins.” (p. 29) Therefore, based on Kampourakis suggestion, let us examine how well these two books explain the evolution of biochemical pathways.

In Dr. Coyne’s book, the only specific evidence he provides to demonstrate biochemical complexity is to hypothesize an imaginary common ancestor of sea cucumbers and vertebrates had a gene that was later co-opted in vertebrates as fibrinogen. (Coyne, ps. 131-3) Richard Dawkins presents even less evidence than Jerry Coyne. He describes the cell as “breathtakingly complicated;” stating “the key to understand how such complexity is put together is that it is all done locally, by small entities obeying local rules.” (Dawkins, p. 438) He also states some of the features of the cell descended from different bacteria, that built up their “chemical wizardries billions of years before.” (Dawkins, p. 377) These statements are not evidence. Click on the links associated with each picture to see what evolution must explain and decide for yourself how strong the evidence is for what Kampourakis’ experts present.mcleroy 1mcleroy 2mcleroy 3

In conclusion, Kampourakis, Coyne and Dawkins do not seem to be concerned about the lack of evidence supporting the evolution of biochemical pathways. And, this is only one small area evolution encompasses that needs explaining.

Not knowing how many just-so stories they tell

The second conceptual block the evolutionist faces in rejecting evolution is they don’t seem to realize or be bothered by how much they depend upon just-so stories in their explanations for how evolution actually happened. Kampourakis, to his credit, doesn’t spin too many just-so stories; he simply presents them as facts. Examine this table Kampourakis includes in his book (p. 172). These transitions are presented as facts, as the truth. Here, the conceptual block the evolutionist faces is the failure to ask the key question “HOW did this happen?” For example, can evolution answer these questions for the first four transitions?

  • HOW did repeating molecules arrive and HOW did these molecules become enclosed in a membrane?
  • HOW did these molecules become coordinated as chromosomes?
  • HOW did the RNA, DNA, and proteins develop protein synthesis and HOW did the genetic code information arrive?
  • HOW did the eukaryote cell arrive? Does the concept of endosymbiosis deal with enough of the complexities involved to assume the problem is basically solved?

kampourakis chartNot knowing the definition of science

Finally, the most foundational conceptual obstacle preventing the evolutionist from rejecting evolution is they have defined themselves into a box. Kampourakis, after a lengthy and excellent discussion of religion and how it relates to science concludes “Science is a practice of methodological naturalism: Whether a realm of the supernatural exists or not, it cannot be studied by the rational tools of science. Science does not deny the supernatural, but accepts that it has nothing to say about it. Science is a method of studying nature, hence methodological naturalism.” (p. 59) But, what if God really did create life? This would mean Kampourakis’ science would not be able to discover it. I find this an untenable situation for science.

The solution, as I see it, is to reject “methodological naturalism” and endorse “The National Academy of Sciences” definition of science. In its book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, 2008, the National Academy defines science as: “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” (p. 10) This wording is excellent: it supports both a naturalist and a supernaturalist view of science. With it, science must only limit itself to “testable explanations” not methodological naturalism’s “natural explanations.” Now, the supernaturalist will be as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. Let the view with the best empirical evidence prevail. Unfortunately, with Kampourakis’ purely naturalistic view, he and his fellow evolutionists are trapped in a box with only naturalistic explanations; they then must accept naturalistic evolution.  As a Christian, I am free to accept or reject evolution. Kampourakis even documents leading Christian scientists who accept evolution by quoting Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller. (p. 46)


Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution argues if you truly understand evolution you would come to accept it. For this to happen, he believes you just need to overcome conceptual obstacles standing in your way. I argue just the opposite; I believe if you truly understand evolution you will come to reject it. We agree though, for this to happen, you just need to overcome conceptual obstacles standing in your way.


Does Life Imply Creation? Don McLeroy Says Yes

Should mainstream scientists debate with creationists?  This morning we have another chance to discuss the nature of life, science, and evolution with a prominent creationist intellectual. Will anyone take it?

Don McLeroy

Science, c’est moi…

Some mainstream scientists affect a pose of exhaustion. Speaking with creationists, they say, is not worth the effort. Some folks criticize popularizers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” for deigning to debate young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Doing so, critics say, only feeds creationist pretensions to the label “science.” Doing so, critics insist, only gives creationists a win; it falsely implies that evolution is “controversial,” a controversy worth sharing in America’s classrooms.

Dr. Don McLeroy, erstwhile head of the Texas State Board of Education, has shared an essay he’s penned about the deficiencies of materialism.

I hope readers will take time to read and consider Dr. McLeroy’s intellectual claims. Dr. McLeroy, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill creationist. While other creationists fume and fuss over new evolution-heavy textbooks, Dr. McLeroy encourages kids to read em. Why? Because, Dr. McLeroy thinks, the truth will out. If students read about evolutionary science, they will quickly see that the evolutionary emperor has no clothes.

In his essay, Dr. McLeroy insists that only “biblical explanations” pass the test of science. As he puts it,

materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science.

Dr. McLeroy claims allies such as Richard Lewontin, who insisted in 1997 that only our “prior commitment” to materialism makes it seem convincing.

If we can only lay aside for a moment our faulty assumptions in favor of materialism, McLeroy argues, we can see how empty they really are. For example, the astounding suggestion that something—everything—could come out of nothingness only makes sense if we assume that God is involved as the Uncreated Creator.

As McLeroy concludes,

we do see a cosmos that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we do see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we do see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we do see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures. All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

Are you convinced? More important, if you’re not convinced, why not?

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them

For a society so drenched in sexual imagery and innuendo, we have a surprisingly difficult time talking about sex.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, our American sex paradox leads to one of the most difficult and stubborn issues of our educational culture wars.  This week, Trey Kay explores the question of sex ed at Us & Them.  Is it too much to ask of schools to fix a wider culture that can barely talk about sex?

Can We Talk...?

Can We Talk…?

Kay describes a talk at his alma mater by conservative sex education activist Pam Stenzel.  Watch out, Stenzel yelled at the assembled teens.  If you get an STD, you could be ruined for life.

Kay also chats with a mother who wants kids to learn about sex in a rational, non-judgmental way.  Kids will be having sex, she thought.  It was criminal to leave students floundering without basic information about it.

Other conservatives such as Texas’s Don McLeroy weigh in, too.  If we really want to heal our sex-ed problem, McLeroy argues, we need to do more than teach a class or two about it.  We need to reform our whole society top to bottom.

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman might not agree with McLeroy on much, but he agrees that schools do not take the lead in sex education.  Zimmerman talks with Kay about his new book, Too Hot to Handle.  In that work, Zimmerman examines the history of sex ed and concludes that it has been most conspicuous by its absence in schools.  As Zimmerman explained in a recent talk here on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in the United States the problem of sexually transmitted diseases was treated first and foremost as a problem for the schools to fix.  In Paris, they changed the laws.  In the US, they changed the curriculum.

The assumption in America has always been that schools can fix any problem.  But, as person after person told Kay about their own real-life sex ed, almost nobody learned anything of importance about sex from classes at school.  Perhaps the real culture-war battle over sex ed needs to learn from these interviews and move out of school onto the streets and TV rooms where the real education seems to take place.

As usual, Trey Kay does a great job of including people with very different perspectives.  Want to know what smart people on both sides of our culture-war divide think about sex ed?  Check out the whole podcast.

Don McLeroy’s Long Game

What do Phyllis Schlafly, Moses, and country/western music have in common? They all get happy shout-outs in new history textbooks in Texas.  Or at least, that’s what conservative education leaders wanted.  As Politico reported yesterday, new history textbooks in Texas are causing a stir.  But this time, it is liberal activists, not conservative ones, who are denouncing the textbooks as biased and ideological.

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

The new textbooks were written to satisfy new standards approved years ago by the Texas State Board of Education.  Back then, conservatives on the board, led by the genial Don McLeroy and the obstreperous Cynthia Dunbar, pushed through new standards that warmed the hearts of conservative activists.

No one who watched Scott Thurman’s great documentary about these Revisionaries can forget the moments when the SBOE debated including more country-western music and less hip hop.  More positive statements about Reagan and the National Rifle Association.  More happy talk about America’s Christian past and less insistence on the horrors of racial segregation.

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries

As Don McLeroy said at the time, “America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children. . . . The foundational principles of our country are very biblical…. That needs to come out in the textbooks.”

Now those changes in the Texas standards have shown up in new social-studies textbooks.  As Stephanie Simons reports in Politico, liberals have complained that the new texts are woefully biased.  In some spots, the books apparently knock Affirmative Action.  They pooh-pooh the benefits of taxes.  They imply that racial segregation was really not so bad.

For those who know the history of America’s educational culture wars, this seems like a drastic turnabout.  Throughout the twentieth century, conservative school activists complained that they had been locked out of educational influence by a scheming leftist elite.  Textbooks and standards, conservatives complained, had been taken over by pinheaded socialist intellectuals.

In one of the most dramatic school controversies of the twentieth century, for instance, conservative leaders lamented the sordid roots of new textbooks.  That battle took place in Kanawha County, West Virginia, across the tumultuous school year 1974-1975.  Conservatives were disgusted by the sex and violence embedded in new literature textbooks.  But some of them weren’t surprised.

Conservative leader Elmer Fike told readers that the textbooks were bound to be rotten.  In Fike’s opinion, conservatives didn’t even need to read the books.  As he explained,

You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

As the Kanawha County battle ground on, California’s conservative celebrity schoolman Max Rafferty came to town.  Rafferty, too, told a crowd of West Virginians that they shouldn’t put any faith in textbook publishers.  Those publishers, Rafferty explained, only wanted to make a buck.  As he put it,

They have no particular desire to reform anybody, do anybody any good or find a pathway to heaven.

These days—in Texas at least—the shoe is on the other foot.  The conservative standards that the state adopted in 2010 have pushed market-conscious textbook publishers to come up with books that meet them.  And at least some conservatives are delighted with the success of their long game.  As conservative school board member David Bradley told journalist Stephanie Simon, liberals who complain about biased textbooks can lump it.  “They need to put on their big-girl panties,” Bradley crowed, “and go run for office.”



A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.


Creationism in Texas: A Foreshortened History

Read it.  It’s good.  But be warned: this story has a fatal flaw.

Brentley Hargrove’s history of the Texas textbook wrangles is a helpful introduction to the recent round of textbook fights in the Lone Star State.

In the pages of the Dallas Observer, Hargrove introduces readers to the recent history of creationist influence in the selection of Texas science textbooks.  He offers the backstory of review-board members such as intelligent-design proponent Raymond Bohlin.

Hargrove takes the story of the Texas Textbook Two-Step back to the 1970s, when self-appointed watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler wielded outsize influence on the adoption of books.

He describes the rise to educational power of creationist dentist Don McLeroy and the board membership of theologue Cynthia Dunbar.

This story is a must-read for everyone interested in today’s culture wars over education, not just in Texas but around the nation.  It joins films such as The Revisionaries and documentaries such as the Long Game in pointing out both the peculiarities of educational politics in Texas and the broader meanings Texas school politics has for all of us.

But as a historian of these school battles, I must protest against the foreshortened history Hargrove describes.  He gives a nod to the long history of cultural battles over education.  He mentions the nineteenth-century Bible wars that rocked America’s cities.  But then he skips from 1844 to 1961.  He leaves out the formative period of today’s educational culture wars.

As he puts it, since the nineteenth century,

the fear of secularism and modernity remains as potent as ever. Yet it wasn’t until the Gablers came along that this fear took shape in Texas and assumed power.

Now, that’s just not true.  I understand Hargrove is interested in the way these battles have developed over the past fifty years.  But the way they did so was decisively influenced by earlier generations of Texas activists.

To be fair, Hargrove’s historical myopia is widely shared.  In his Observer article, he quotes prominent sociologist William Martin.  “The Gablers,” Martin told Hargrove, “were the first people to have taken this on in such as systematic way.”

Even if we make allowances for the contemporary interests of journalists and sociologists, this sort of misrepresentation of the history of Texas’ school battles can’t be given a pass.

The tradition of conservative activism in which the Gablers, McLeroy, Bohlin, and Dunbar take part has direct roots in the 1920s battles in Texas and elsewhere.

As I argue in my 1920s book, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Texas history will recognize the historical importance of J. Frank Norris, for example.  In the 1920s, Norris established the activist precedent that later conservatives followed.  Norris fulminated against the directions of 1920s public schools in ways that McLeroy, Dunbar, and the Gablers would have appreciated.

And he had even more political pull.  In the 1920s, though a state-wide law banning the teaching of evolution failed in the Texas legislature, the governor ordered textbook publishers to remove any mention of evolutionary science from the state’s textbooks.

All well and good, you might say.  But does that pre-history have anything to do with today’s textbook fights?  If we want to understand the current moment, do we really have to go so far back?  Isn’t it enough to look to the Gablers and start there?

The school fights of the 1920s are of interest to more than just nitpicky academic historians like me.  Even if we want to start with the Gablers, we need to understand the formative school battles of the 1920s.  Mel Gabler was ten years old in 1925.  The content and structure of the schools he attended was decided by the activism of pundits such as J. Frank Norris and the pusillanimity of politicians such as the Governors Ferguson.

It was in the 1920s that America first battled over schooling in the terms that have remained so familiar ever since.  The issues and positions laid down in the 1920s have become the durable trench lines in American education.

As Gabler biographer James Hefley described, by the 1960s the Gablers had become

the cream of self-reliant Middle America.  They lived by the old landmarks, took child-rearing seriously, supported community institutions, sang ‘God Bless America’ with a lump in their throats, and believed that the American system of limited and divided governmental power was the best under the sun.

How did they get to be that way?  How did they become so confident that their vision of proper schooling and society must be fought for?  The Texas the Gablers loved had been defined by the activism of the 1920s and succeeding generations.  The vision of proper education that fueled the self-confident activism of the Gablers had been established as such in the controversies of the 1920s.

If we really want to understand what’s going on today, we need at the very least to acknowledge the longer history of these issues.  We need to understand that today’s fights grew out of earlier generations, and those earlier generations did not just spring up full-grown from the Texas soil.


Creationism’s Galileo Moment?

Creationist activist Dr. Don McLeroy said it: Give creationist kids evolution.


Because the evidence for evolution is so weak, creationist kids will be all the more convinced of the Bible’s truths.

McLeroy’s plea for evolution-heavy textbooks has left us controversy-watchers scratching our heads.  Did he really say that?

McLeroy leapt to national prominence a few years back in his role as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education.  As documented in the indispensable film The Revisionaries, McLeroy used his influence to promote a profoundly conservative vision of proper educational content for Texas schoolchildren.

Image Source:

Image Source:

As that film demonstrated, Dr. McLeroy had a knack for confounding the easy stereotypes of “right-wing” educational politicians.  For outsiders like me, it was odd to hear such a friendly, avuncular fellow insist that Texas schoolbooks needed more creationism and less “hip-hop.”

Earlier this week, Dr. McLeroy returned to testify in front of his former colleagues on the Texas school board.  This time, McLeroy surprised everyone by insisting that the board should adopt a new set of science textbooks, books that evolutionary scientists have praised for their evolutionary content.

The Texas Freedom Network has covered these hearings thoroughly.  In general, creationists have been opposing the new science books.

Not McLeroy.

Let the children read the books, McLeroy told the board.  The evidence for evolution is so weak, he insisted, that open-minded children will be convinced of evolution’s ridiculousness.

McLeroy’s testimony was so baffling to board members that a couple of them asked for clarification.  Mrs. Mavis Knight asked him if he was being facetious.  No, McLeroy explained (around minute seven of this ten-minute clip).  He really wanted students to read these evolutionary textbooks.

“Let the students,” McLeroy explained,

the inquisitive students, the ones that are not blind, look at the evidence in these books.  They don’t even give a hint to explain the complexity….Let’s get these books to the kids; let the little young student in the classroom ask, ‘Is this all the evidence that they can give?’ That’s why I think it’ll strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution.

Board member Thomas Ratliff also struggled to understand McLeroy’s position.  Did he really want kids to read evolutionary science?

Absolutely, McLeroy explained.  “I’m hoping a young creationist . . . will sit there and say, ‘Look, is this all the evidence they have? Well maybe God didn’t use evolution to do it.’”

As a stirring conclusion, McLeroy and Ratliff had this back-and-forth:

Ratliff: “So your position is that these books prove that evolution doesn’t happen and you want us to adopt them?”

McLeroy: “No.  I did not say ‘prove.’ I just say the evidence is weak.  I don’t prove anything.  I may be wrong.”

How are we to understand this strange phenomenon?  An arch-creationist plugging for excellent, evolution-rich science textbooks?  And even concluding that he may be wrong?

One commenter on the Texas Freedom Network Insider called McLeroy simply “delusional.”

But isn’t his testimony actually fairly logical?  Consistent?  Even admirable?

After all, creationists have long insisted that evolution falls apart on its own terms.  If they really believe that, doesn’t it make sense to expose people to its ridiculous claims?  After all, if evolutionary science really depends only on prejudice and closedmindedness, as creationists often assert (I’ve tracked this argument here and here, for example) , shouldn’t creationists simply give evolution writers enough rope to hang themselves?

Could McLeroy’s testimony be modern young-earth creationism’s Galileo moment?  When Galileo accepted his punishment for his argument that the earth went around the sun, he is said to have noted, “E pur si muove,”… “It still moves.”  Whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

McLeroy’s plea to expose children to good evolutionary textbooks can be taken in a similar way.  Supremely confident in the logical weakness of evolutionary theory, McLeroy can push for more and more of it.  Knowing, like Galileo, that whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.


Revisionaries on PBS

The Revisionaries is coming next week to PBS.

In conjunction with Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program, we screened the film not too long ago.  At our screening we had a spirited discussion about the nature of science and the politics of education.  Now folks beyond the major metropolitan areas of New York, LA, and Binghamton will have a chance to see it.

Why would you want to, you ask?

For anyone interested in the teaching of American history, evolution/creation, the nature of American conservatism, or even just the functioning of educational and cultural politics, this film is a must-see.  Director Scott Thurman followed the goings-on at the Texas textbook review hearings of 2009-2010.  He spent time with conservative leaders such as Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar.  Thurman gave each of them a chance to explain their educational ideology.  The film shows the campaign for non-evolution to be included in science classes.  Viewers can watch the fight to change the standards for social studies, to include more Reagan and less hip-hop.

According to the National Center for Science Education website, The Revisionaries will be shown as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, during the week of January 28, 2013.  Check your local listings!