Bad News for Creationists

It’s no skin off my nose, but I can’t help but wonder what creationists will say now. And not just the more radical young-earth creationists, but all the dissenting scientists who insist for religious reasons that our species must have begun with two and only two ancestors in the Garden of Eden. As reported in the New York Times, the science of human origins is getting better and better. What will creationists do?

human history map

The science doesn’t come close to matching the Bible…

Here’s what we know: This weekend the New York Times profiled the work of Harvard’s David Reich. Dr. Reich and his team have plucked DNA from ancient human bones. Using new techniques, the team has been able to create new maps of human and other groups dating back tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. The ultimate goal?

Dr. Reich’s plan is to find ancient DNA from every culture known to archaeology everywhere in the world. Ultimately, he hopes to build a genetic atlas of humanity over the past 50,000 years.

Here’s the problem: for many creationists, even those who are willing to believe in an ancient universe and planet, the idea of a real, historic Adam & Eve is absolutely non-negotiable. As we’ve examined before in these pages, even creationists who accept the science of evolutionary theory in general balk at the notion of abandoning the Garden story. Even institutions such as Wheaton College that openly embrace evolutionary creationism shudder to advertise their faculty’s skepticism about a real historic Adam & Eve.

So what will creationists do now? Here’s my guess: The more radical young-earth crowd will simply dismiss the new discoveries in human origins as simply more fluff n stuff, more flawed conclusions from flawed pseudo scientists based on flawed assumptions. But among creationists who have embraced evolutionary science in its particulars, while insisting on the fundamental truths of divine creation as described by the Bible, each new scientific discovery will present a new challenge.you got some splainin to do

As the scientific evidence gets stronger and stronger for a complex, multi-site origin of the human species, creationists will have some splainin to do.

HT: HD

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Extremely Mainstream

It’s uncomfortable. Listening to a high government official denounce evolutionary theory and Islam makes me nervous for the future of the USA. More important, though, it brings us back to a tough question: When is an idea “extreme?” Our answers matter, because extremism can be kicked to the curb, but strong disagreement can’t.

pruitt

Terrible? Yes. Outside the mainstream? No.

To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this discussion will feel familiar. In recent weeks, we’ve been wondering if young-earth creationism really counts as “hate speech.” We’ve debated whether tax-funded student groups should be free to discriminate. We’ve examined the decisions of conservative Californians to shun a speaker they considered “extreme.

The details of the story this week are different, but the issue is the same. Scott Pruitt, former state senator and current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has had some of his old laundry aired in public. In thirteen-year-old radio interviews, Director Pruitt talks about a range of issues, from science to the Second Amendment.

Is evolution really the best explanation for the diversity of species? Quoth Pruitt,

There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.

Should some kinds of guns be banned? Not according to Pruitt:

If you can tell me what gun, type of gun, I can possess, then I didn’t really get that right to keep and bear arms from God. . . . It was not bequeathed to me, it was not unalienable, right?

Is Islam a religion that deserves constitutional protection? Pruitt thinks so, but he didn’t object when one of the interviewers called Islam

not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.

To a person like me, those ideas are both ridiculous and frightening. Ridiculous because they articulate a vast ignorance of the history of our Constitution, of evolutionary science, and basic knowledge about Islam. Frightening, because they articulate a vision of proper government that could include radical violations of Constitutional rights and dangerous inaction concerning gun control.gallup islam

But here’s the rub. The author of a Politico article about Pruitt’s 2005 interviews denounces Pruitt’s

stances that at times are at odds with the broader American mainstream, and in some cases with accepted scientific findings. [Emphasis added.]

For starters, I won’t call attention to the goof in the article about the Supreme Court’s 1947 Everson decision. The author thinks SCOTUS ruled against tax-funded bussing for Catholic schools in that landmark case, but in fact the decision went the other way.

The real issue here is not SCOTUS history, but rather the difficult definition of “mainstream.” I’ll admit it: I’m angry about Pruitt’s views. I’m angry that someone with such opinions would be posted to the head of a scientific government agency. But that doesn’t mean that Pruitt’s ideas are out of the mainstream. When an idea is shared by a plurality of Americans, how can it possibly be out of the mainstream?gallup guns

Gallup polls, for example, indicate that more than a third of American respondents who say they are not prejudiced against Muslims still have an unfavorable view of Islam. Yes, you read that right. Of the people who say they are NOT prejudiced against Islam, 36% still say they don’t like it. Of the people who say they ARE prejudiced against Muslims, that number jumps to 91%.

Similarly, the number of Gallup’s respondents who think America needs stricter gun laws has dropped in the last three decades. In 1991, 78% of respondents wanted stricter gun laws. In 2017, that number was only 60%.

The same is true with evolution. Large majorities of Gallup respondents agree that humanity was either created recently or created by God over time. At best, mainstream evolutionary theory has captured the hearts of a small minority of Americans. It’s only “mainstream” among a small coterie of scientists.gallup creationism poll may 2017

If Director Pruitt agrees with large segments of the American population—sometimes a majority—how can his views be called “at odds with the broader American mainstream”?

The distinctions matter. If an idea is extreme, or discriminatory, or illegitimate, or non-mainstream, it seems fair to push that idea outside the boundaries of polite political or cultural discussion. If not, we have to talk about it.

Like it or not, Director Pruitt’s terrible ideas are as American as apple pie.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

In like a lion–we’re reeling from an early March blizzard. It left your humble editor plenty of time to scour the interwebs for stories you might like:

Arizona lawmakers push “conservative thought” onto campus, at NYT. HT: HD.

Guns and boys: A pictorial history of Americans’ gun fetish, at HNN.

guns and boys

How long have Americans been in love with guns?

Praying at school—the story from McKinney, Texas, at RNS.

How segregated are public schools? A new survey at Brookings.

Did the Nazis really burn the Reichstag in 1933? New proof, at Telegraph.

Notes from the fundamentalist underground: Campus strife at evangelical Taylor University, at IHE.

West Virginia teachers head back to the salt mines, at CNN.

…or DO they? Strike continues after all.

Lehigh University rescinds Trump’s honorary degree from 1988, at TMC.

Charter schools worldwide—what do they look like with fewer rules? Hechinger Report describes Sweden, New Zealand, and France.

LDS scientist: Mormons have nothing to fear from evolutionary theory, at SLT.

Why did China ban Winnie the Pooh? At BBC.

Is religion for suckers? Mark Bauerlein on Steven Pinker, at FT.

Shipping conservatives to the gulag: Rod Dreher’s latest at AC.

Why Don’t We Tell Children the Truth about Slavery?

A sad new report offers proof of something history teachers have long lamented: Most students don’t learn much about slavery in their history classes. This terrible failure of our school network isn’t just about slavery; it’s a profound and depressing fact about our schools: We don’t dare to tell kids the truth.

life-of-george-washington-junius-brutus-stearns

George Washington doing what George Washington did. Why is it considered unpatriotic to tell the children about it?

Why not?

The report on students’ knowledge about slavery comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The numbers are sadly predictable. Under a quarter of the students surveyed could identify the ways the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. Most teachers (over 90%) claimed to want to teach more and better information about slavery, but they reported feeling unsupported by textbooks and state standards.

Our national reticence to teach children the undeniable and important historical truth about slavery has long roots. Time and time again, history classes focus on a feel-good national story. As Yale’s David Blight puts it in the report’s preface:

In America, our preferred, deep national narratives tend to teach our young that despite our problems in the past, we have been a nation of freedom-loving, inclusive people, accepting the immigrant into the country of multi-ethnic diversity. Our diversity has made us strong; that cannot be denied.

And, as the reports’ authors note,

We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s over-emphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.

This fear of telling students ugly truths has a long history. As I noted in my book about educational conservatism, many of our culture-war battles about teaching US History pitted the bashers against the boasters. Conservatives wanted kids only to hear about America’s glories. Progressives wanted to teach that the US has always had plenty of moral flaws.

In the 1930s, for example, journalist and patriot Bertie Forbes attacked the popular textbooks written by Harold Rugg. Rugg hoped to introduce students to the real complexity of international relations. In Forbes’s opinion, such efforts would rob students of their patriotic fervor. As Forbes wrote in 1940,

If I were a youth, I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

By and large, historically speaking, the Forbeses of the world have always won these fights. Schools primarily teach (and taught) students that America was a place they could love. Teaching too much or too frankly about slavery has always been seen as a dangerous and controversial effort.

It’s not only slavery that is ignored or misrepresented. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, schools shy away from all types of controversial topics, even when the controversy is contrived.

berkman plutzer chart 2 better text color

From Berkman & Plutzer: Can we please not talk about it?

As Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, only a minority of high-school biology teachers teach mainstream evolutionary theory and only mainstream evolutionary theory in their classes. The rest tend to mash together a mix of mainstream science and dissenting creationist ideas. Why? Because most teachers share the ideas of their local communities. If people want their kids to learn a variety of ideas about science, that’s what most teachers will deliver.

This has always been the case. In the 1940s, an enterprising scholar set out to discern how many teachers taught evolution. One teacher from California explained why he avoided the topic of evolution in class. As he put it,

Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.

And there’s the rub. Teachers will tend to avoid controversy. There’s no controversy among historians about whether or not slavery was a vital and decisive element in US history. There’s no controversy among mainstream scientists about whether or not mainstream evolutionary theory is a vital and decisive element in biology.

But broad segments of the population disagree. They don’t want their children to learn that America has historical flaws. They don’t want their children to learn that our species developed by a long series of minor changes.

Unless and until those things change, classrooms won’t improve. I heartily concur with the four-point action plan put forth by the recent SPLC report. It recommends the four following steps:

  1. Improve Instruction About American Slavery and Fully Integrate It Into U.S. History.
  2. Use Original Historical Documents.
  3. Make Textbooks Better.
  4. Strengthen Curriculum.

All good ideas. But they won’t be enough. Just like evolutionary theory, the history of slavery won’t be included in our classrooms until it is included in our day-to-day conversations. Until the country as a whole recognizes the importance of America’s ugly past, classrooms will continue to ignore it.

As we’ve seen time and again, we can’t use curriculum to change society. We need to change society and watch curriculum follow along.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From Missouri Satanists to Alabama racists to Kentucky fundamentalists, this week saw it all. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk:

If Christians can refuse to bake cakes, can Satanists refuse to wait for an abortion? Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta talks with Lucien Greaves about the case at Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Can a university expel a student for a racist rant? The ACLU says no in a case from Alabama, at IHE.

Indian evangelicals and the changing face of the American megachurch, by Prema Kurien at R&P.Bart reading bible

“Truth Decay:” Chester Finn spreads the blame for fake news beyond civic ed, at Flypaper.

Fundamentalists were right! College really does endanger children’s faith, at IHE.

Texas judge says God told him to interfere with a jury, at Americans United.

What do Americans “know” about evolution? Glenn Branch reviews the latest numbers, at NCSE.

Online School of Tomorrow closes today, leaving Ohio students scrambling, at CPD.

Want to earn millions? Resign in scandal from presidency of Michigan State, at IHE.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the difficulties of healing the country’s racist past.

Should evangelicals defend Trump? Mark Galli critiques court evangelicals, at CT.

The quandary: Conservative intellectuals in the Age of Trump, at WaPo.

  • Best line: “Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts.”

What makes Ben Shapiro tick? At Slate.

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, donmcleroy@gmail.com

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)

Conclusion

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.

High Stakes Creationist Testing

Another day, another creationism bill in Alabama. So far, so snooze. But did you know—I didn’t—that some of today’s creationism bills and laws include sections on how to grade creationist test answers? And because they do, it makes no sense to me why creationists would support these bills.get fuzzy evolution

Here’s what we know: Creationism watchdog National Center for Science Education recently posted the news from Alabama. A new bill would allow teachers to teach both creationism and evolution as science.

Here’s the kicker: Students are allowed to choose either creationism or mainstream science. Whatever they choose, they can get credit on tests as long as their answers match what the teacher taught them.

Apparently—also news to me but not to the folks at NCSE—Kentucky has long had a similar creationism law on the books. Here’s the Kentucky language:

For those students receiving such instruction, and who accept the Bible theory of creation, credit shall be permitted on any examination in which adherence to such theory is propounded, provided the response is correct according to the instruction received.

Okay, now call me silly, but doesn’t this sort of law present a terrible dilemma for creationists? I understand why the evolution mavens at NCSE don’t like it, but I am surprised that Kentucky’s or Alabama’s creationists do.

After all, conservative evangelicals celebrated when SCOTUS agreed to ban bland, ecumenical school prayers in 1962, as I demonstrated in this academic article. They loved the idea of school prayer, of course, but they hated the idea that their children would be praying the wrong prayer in public school.

These laws seem to push the same buttons. Why would creationists fight for laws that hem them in theologically? Because creationism is so ferociously controversial, that is, how could creationists give the thumbs up to a law that tells children one form of creationist thinking?

As SAGLRROILYGTH are well aware, nothing peeves young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham more than his rival creationists. How can Alabama’s creationists decide WHICH creationism schools should teach? How can creationists smile if their children come home from school mouthing different creationist visions from those of their church?

What Goes on at Creationist Colleges?

Thanks to Bill and Sue Trollinger, the wizards behind Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’ve had a chance to share a few of my ideas about the vital role played by higher education in the evolution of American creationism.

Gustafson chimes cartoon bible a myth at many colleges

Evolution has always been forbidden fruit, but not always in the same ways. This cartoon came from Biola University’s student paper, c. 1939.

This morning RACM has kindly published the first half of my argument about the tangled and troubled history of creationism at America’s evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and institutes. As you might suspect, even though fundamentalists all agreed that evolution was bad, they didn’t agree on much more than that.

Check out the full two-part argument at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Why Campus Free Speech Laws Won’t Free Campus Speech

We’ve been down this road before. When conservative lawmakers hope to protect the right of conservative speakers on college campuses these days, they rehash a tactic from the 1920s evolution/creation battles.

shapiro-by_katie_cooney_720

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro speaks freely at the University of Wisconsin.

Will it work this time? Not a chance. Why not? I lay out my argument this morning at History News Network. Click on over and check it out.

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.