Evolution as a liberal cultural weapon

I spend a good part of each week in the classroom trying to teach college students some physics. I’ve done a lot of work on supernatural and paranormal beliefs, particularly varieties of creationism and intelligent design. So I’m professionally obligated to deplore any inroads creationism makes into education, and to insist that evolution is a vital component of science education.

But then, many others also care about this issue. Creationism reliably comes up as a prominent example of the danger of conservative monotheist influence. And the people who deplore creationism need not have any professional involvement in science or education. They need not even be all that skeptical about supernatural beings. They just have to be, broadly speaking, liberal in their outlook.

So, why evolution is so significant for liberals? It’s especially interesting since the usual arguments for evolution in general education – arguments intended to have appeal beyond committed liberals – are weaker than we think. The deeper reasons we liberals support evolution are, I think, specific to liberal cultural ideals. Most immediately, we want evolution in the classroom for purposes of the culture wars.

Let me start with some of these arguments for teaching evolution.

(1) Economic competitiveness. Science education requires evolution, and in a technological age, both national competitiveness and the earning potential of individuals requires a quality science education.

This could be a powerful argument, if it worked. One of the few candidates for common ground we share these days is the love of money. Education at all levels is under pressure to justify itself in immediate market terms. And when a state tries to water down evolution in education, opposing opinion pieces often ask whether this means biotechnology firms will be less eager to locate in the state.

I am not convinced the argument works. It is, to begin with, unrealistic about what science education can accomplish. Currently, I would guess less than 5% of the population of any technologically advanced country has any significant understanding of the processes or the central theoretical frameworks of modern science – an understanding that goes beyond a list of basic facts or an appreciation of nature programs on TV. Indeed, such an understanding is unrelated to the everyday lives and economic success of the vast majority. A modern economy can run very well by depending on the services of a small segment of well-trained applied scientists who serve the technological needs of an investor class.

Note that even within the small minority whose economic roles are related to science, those who need to have a good understanding of the theories of basic science are a further small minority. Science is not the economic driver of modern economies. Applied specialties such as engineering, computer science, and biomedical disciplines are far more significant. And theories such as evolution have very little immediate potential for application in a market context. Even biomedical scientists can function at a high level while knowing very little about (or even being hostile to) evolution. There is some effort at present to play up the promise of evolutionary medicine, but its market potential is marginal. Indeed, medical schools typically do not teach evolutionary medicine at all. Compare this with the trend of incorporating religion or “spirituality” into medical training. This is both because of the large body of research supporting the health benefits of religiosity, and because spirituality has proven market value in the context of medical practice.

I doubt that knowing about evolution contributes much to the market success of students. I can say the same about most of the physics I teach. Most students will use very little basic science in their lives. And forgetting almost all the science they learned throughout their schooling, as most do, will not hurt their earning potential. If marketability and competitiveness is the goal, knowledge about evolution should be made available mainly, or even only, to those very few who go on to work in basic science fields.

(2) Democratic competence. Citizens in a  democracy are often called on to vote on matters where science is highly relevant: where health and reproductive technologies are involved, for example. A proper democracy requires an informed citizenry able to accurately judge the facts of the matter.

In this argument, science borrows from the humanities. After all, the humanities are also a set of disciplines that are of dubious value in market terms, but a background in the arts and humanities is often justified in terms of a training in critical thinking and contributing to sustaining a democratic culture. The science version of the argument holds that if, for example, stem cell research becomes a mater of political controversy, a citizenry who knows something about genetics and development will be in a better position to make good decisions.

This strikes me as unrealistic. If anything in policy turns on any significant understanding of biology, it seems best to insulate such technical matters from direct political debate. I can’t expect large numbers to understand the relevant science any more than I can be bothered to learn about the details of agricultural export regulations. Most democratic participation other than matters that directly touch on our lives is at the level of broad moral convictions and “facts” such as whether human souls are at stake in stem cell research.

So most often, citizens participate by choosing what set of experts they trust. For many people, the relevant experts include, for example, their preferred clergy. Insisting that on certain matters such as biotechnology or evolution it is the scientists whose views count most is not entirely democratic. People also debate about their choice of authorities, and about what institutions deserve cognitive authority and taxpayer support. Where evolution education is concerned, it is notable that the creationists are typically the democratic populists, while the liberals prefer to confer privilege on the scientific community.

I think (1) and (2) are the main arguments. And I don’t think either have too much chance of succeeding beyond a liberal constituency already inclined to trust scientific institutions and and whose ideal of democracy is balanced by liberal conceptions of good government and secular political debate.

So, why do we really favor evolution in an education most people will be subjected to? I suspect a leading reason has to do with our liberal conception of an “educated person.” Alongside an awareness of artistic and literary landmarks, we also hope an education imparts an appreciation of our place in the universe. If someone enjoys lots of money and power, but has no feel for any music or art, we feel they are missing something, maybe even something vital. Again, one can have power and wealth, but if they have no idea about the vastness of the universe, the strangeness of its basic physics, and the immense history of life on the planet, we often think they are diminished. If not only do they lack such traits of an educated person, but they do not seem even curious (think about George W. Bush), this is particularly disturbing.

So at a most visceral level, I think secular liberals such as myself have an aesthetic commitment to our notions about an educated person. Many conservative populists understandably perceive this as snobbery, elitism, or even contempt.

The politics of evolution education intensifies this divide, I think. Appreciating evolution might not help people make more money or vote more reflectively, but it might disturb their inclinations toward naive creationism, scriptural literalism, and taking clergy as authorities beyond religious matters. Good. That’s exactly the sort of thing I want happening. Evolution is important for science education for the same reasons that make it divisive and culturally controversial.

In other words, exposure to evolution is an important weapon for the liberal side in our culture wars. Its presence in the classroom, even when it is understood only superficially, helps build trust in secular expertise such as that of scientists and it helps erode traditional monotheistic notions of authority. This is exactly why religious conservatives complain about evolution in public education. And that is, perhaps, exactly why secular liberals support evolution. It’s not because of alleged pragmatic reasons such as (1) and (2); it’s because of our particular ideals about what we want our shared culture and political life to look like.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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