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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02877111630003823406 Jim Thompson

    Lots and lots of good interviews.

    Also he does interview theist philosophers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02877111630003823406 Jim Thompson

    Sorry last comment was goofed up by Google.

    Anyway here in Texas it just isn't evolution – "American Exceptionalism", fake history, weird interpretations of English lit, Bible classes, it goes on and on.

    Interesting thesis — maybe people should just understand the scientific method and the scientific community

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    As another resident of Texas, let me second and extend Jim's comments. The far right, which is basically "the powers that be" here in Texas has created an alternative reality, as richly imagined as Middle Earth, Oz, or Dune. It is a world with its own "historians" and "scientists" that exist in a parallel dimension to other academics and experts. It is a world in which all sorts of amazing things are so.

    For Instance, Don MacLeroy, a fundamentalist dentist and former chair of the Texas State Board of Education, recently wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle defending the Board's decision to warn textbook companies to put in more about Christianity and less about Islam. As part of his case MacLeroy said that the Judaeo-Christian idea that man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) is THE foundation for whole idea of human rights–and therefore (he thinks) should receive more emphasis in textbooks.

    Hmmmm. I guess this is why in the Ages of Faith, when people believed most fervently in the scriptural creation accounts, the people enjoyed so many rights. You had the right to be detained indefinitely by the Inquisition, with no chance to confront your accuser; you had the right to be burned at the stake if your religious convictions conflicted with the majority's; you had the right to be broken on the wheel if deemed guilty of crime. Great stuff that "created in the image of God!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17093711439992855042 UNRR

    Only liberals care about teaching evolution? I don't think so. I responded to this article here

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    UNRR: "Only liberals care about teaching evolution?"

    I didn't say only liberals care about teaching evolution. I speculated on why liberals care so much about teaching evolution.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Keith wrote:

    Hmmmm. I guess this is why in the Ages of Faith, when people believed most fervently in the scriptural creation accounts, the people enjoyed so many rights.


    I'm no expert on this topic, but it should be noted that the idea of human rights could still be based upon the Judeo-Christian notion of the image of god, regardless of whether or not past believers have done a good job of respecting human rights. I'm not sure why people making textbooks should be expected to take any particular stance on human rights though.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14435279632050039266 Charles

    The admission that evolution is liberal cultural weapon is quite frank and refreshing. The war liberals are fighting is the beliefs of the creationists – the existence of something supernatural, which is “forever outside the knowledge and control of science” and the personal accountability to the Creator. The fact is that there are mental activities and life processes which involve more things in addition to matter and the laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, science studies nature and discovers nature but nature is not all there is. Moreover, there is no fact or evidence to support the evolution of single-simple cells to complex human beings. Yes, there are micro-evolutions – i.e. micro-changes in species but not evolution across species. Creation seems to offer an explanation of how creatures (including humans) come into being.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13224748650380435948 Karlos

    Taner, I deeply enjoyed your article. It is refreshing to see a portion of the Progressive agenda dragged out of the closet and shown in some true colors for once, no longer hidden under the familiar guise of “Liberal”. I know that this view is more widely held than many Conservatives are aware of, but I have to wonder how many fellow Liberals are unaware of it as well. Oddly enough, because those that are truly Liberal deeply value the freedoms and rights of the individual, rather than the right of many to marginalize the individual and the state to rule by all means possible, they seem to no longer fit into this new Progressive “Liberal” viewpoint, yet they appear oblivious to that fact. I think that you did a good job exposing the falsehoods in that line of thinking. However, I think that the standard line of reasoning presented to support teaching evolution unfortunately precludes the debate of evolution in a manner that hinders truly scientific examination of it.

    Those that are critical of evolution have the right to examine it more closely. What has consistently happened, however, is that evolution is brutally defended without so much as considering the criticism it faces. This is not the way to prove that something is true, and it is highly suspect. If nature is truly all that there is, then evolution should be able to stand up to any criticism leveled at it. Because those who adhere to evolution so deeply are so blindly religious in their dedication to it to the point that they continually preclude any criticism of it, I am more and more skeptical that it could ever hold up if considered seriously.

    I whole-heartedly agree with you that education needs to be well-rounded. However, education which merely considers one side of an issue is hardly “well-rounded”; it is simple-minded indoctrination. Scientific education does not require this kind of close-minded authoritarianism, and indeed it suffers at the hands of it. Someone may think it is childish for a student to question the law of gravity, but it is by that same challenge that we each learned how to walk when we did not know any better. Truly rounded scientific education requires a critical mind capable of questioning those things that are highly suspect and affirming those things which are true. This capability is not generated by blindly accepting everything based upon a wrongly inferred authority over the subject at hand that is regularly attributed to the average school teacher. And considering the sheer number of scientists and engineers in the world who do not need to subscribe to evolution to continue their advancement, the argument that it is somehow “critical” to a proper understanding of science is highly misleading. There are entire fields of engineering, much less science itself, which are unaffected by whether or not evolution is true or utter hogwash. As you pointed also out, it is even debatable whether or not an understanding of evolution could be required to work in the health industry, especially when considered in terms of evolution itself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13224748650380435948 Karlos

    Many seem to consider education to be incomplete unless it is stuffed into the box that they have assigned the tag “right” to, but are illiberal in their treatment of the entirety of the box itself. Its contents only contain what they themselves consider to be “right”, without giving consideration to what might actually be “true” if they failed to recognize it as such. Many times when evolution is actually examined, it is done in an academically and scientifically dishonest manner. To only consider good arguments for and poor arguments against evolution is to setup yet another straw man, and this continues to fail to prove anything reasonably.

    It is no wonder that the education system in America has such a poor reputation. We do not teach our kids to be any more critical than a cult adherent to anything that they are taught, other than traditional moral values. We teach kids that anything they can justify to themselves as moral is OK, but this is completely unrealistic when they reach the real world which has real consequences when the actions they have justified go against our very real justice system. However, when it comes to scientific education, we expect them to simply believe uncritically. This is not how a country thrives in this scientific age.

    I think that you hit squarely on the whole key to the defensiveness of those that adhere to evolution, which lies in the fact that what they appear to be very concerned about may be considered by many to be irrelevant. If people do not have to be concerned when they wake up in the morning about whether or not a new dinosaur evolved into being overnight, what perceived relevance could the theory have on their lives? In this case evolution is considered to be irrelevant because whether or not it played its part in the past, it is not something that is immediately affecting their daily lives.

    On the other hand, if there is a God, people are immediately concerned with what kind of God it is. Is it an evil God that I should be afraid of, a neutral God that I should be ambivalent towards, or a righteous God that I should revere? Perhaps these are only a few of the possibilities that people would consider. Beyond this is the question of whether or not this God would be concerned with me. If there is a God, these questions are highly relevant to daily life. It is a question that remains relevant even when someone tells them that evolution precludes the possibility without giving sufficient defense to attest to that statement. It is a question that people should be free examine without hindrance, especially in this age of freedom. To ignore or marginalize these questions is to limit a person’s understanding of the world, and this is certainly not a Liberal way to approach either education or life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01107859221768717299 Al

    it was very interesting to read what you said and to hear about what you teach. I try in all ways, to maintain my relationship with those who defend evolution in a respectful manner, where both sides can see the points of the other. one of the subjects that we always end up having long discussions about it: what is the purpose of evolution? if we live based on evolution, scientifically speaking, what would be the beginning and the purpose of that. i respect the people who defend that, mas i try to daily find new ways of thinking, if maybe there might be something else more feasible than evolution. if something else does exist, what is it? in my research up to this point, i have not found enough material to give me at least 90% agreement on the origin of everything. for this reason, i have tried to get in touch with people to help me understand this more. this is the reason i am writing on your page – with the purpose of opening this door of dialogue about what your answers may be to the questions i have already asked. thank you for your time. have a good week!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Al, I don't think it's very meaningful to talk about living a life "based on evolution." You might, I suppose, live in a way that to some degree is informed by evolution, but accepting evolution is not much of a constraint on how we live. It doesn't come in with a built in answer about what anyone wants to do with their life.