Eugenie Scott's response to Pigliucci

Keith B Miller (
Thu, 26 Feb 1998 15:05:12 -0600

>Dear Friends:
>Eugenie Scott has left for her planned visit to the Galapagos, but
>before leaving, she wrote a response to Massimo Pigliucci's open
>letter. It has been posted at NCSE's website, and she asked me to also
>send it to people who had seen it on various listserves and corresponded
>with her. The text follows my signature. Words or phrases that would
>be italicized or enclosed in a pair of asterisks.
>Molleen Matsumura
>Network Project Director
>National Center for Science Education
>Eugenie C. Scott's Response to "Open Letter" from Massimo Pigliucci et
>In February of 1998, Massimo Pigliucci and three colleagues sent to a
>list of friends and associates an "open letter" addressed to the
>National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), the National Center for
>Science Education (NCSE) and the American Association for the
>Advancement of Science (AAAS). Someone forwarded the letter to an email
>list, and from there was spread widely throughout the Internet. At the
>time of this writing, approximately 100 individuals have joined with
>Pigliucci et al as signatories. Their letter argues that the National
>Association of Biology Teachers erred in deleting two words
>("impersonal" and "unsupervised" as descriptors of evolution) from its
>1995 position statement "The Teaching of Evolution'. The letter
>accused NABT of responding to "pressure from the Christian
>fundamentalist movement." A further claim was made that the two words
>accurately described evolution, and should have been retained. In
>addition to NABT, the letter was sent to NCSE because of my involvement
>(as an interested NABT member) in discussions with NABT's Board of
>Directors at the time the decision to drop the two words was made in
>October of 1997.
>When I attended the "Darwin Day" celebration at the University of
>Tennessee-Knoxville February 11-13, I received a copy of the letter that
>Massimo Pigliucci and associates had posted the week before on the Web.
>I shall consider that NCSE has been "formally" given a copy of the "open
>letter", and shall take this opportunity to reply.
>My point here will be that NABT was not knuckling under to creationist
>pressure, but responding in a responsible manner to a perception on the
>part of religious Americans (and most Americans are religious) that it
>was making an antireligious statement. As a professional organization
>of science teachers, NABT is not antireligious, and should not be
>perceived as such. Such a perception is inaccurate, but it is also
>injurious to members of NABT, the teachers who must teach evolution.
>Perhaps it would be useful to present a little more history on l'affaire
>NABT. The National Association of Biology Teachers is a membership
>organization of approximately 8,000 teachers at the K-12 and college
>levels. It has been in the forefront of the anticreationism battle in
>this country for decades. Its first statement dealing with teaching
>evolution, entitled, "Scientific Integrity", was drafted by Bill Mayer
>and published in 1980, and NABT has been a plaintiff or otherwise
>involved in just about every court case on creationism you can think of,
>from *Segraves* and *Daniels* in the early 1970s through *Edwards*. It
>journal, the *American *Biology Teacher* published an article the title
>of which has produced the famous "Dobzhansky quote" cited by so many
>scientists, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of
>evolution." The *ABT* regularly discusses the problems teachers have
>with antievolutionism, as well as ideas for teaching evolution better.
>NABT is not an organization easily intimidated by creationists!
>In 1995, the NABT Board of Directors approved its specific statement on
>teaching evolution because of the many changes in antievolutionism that
>have occurred since 1980. It is a concise statement for teachers,
>intended to give them some accurate, necessary ammunition when
>confronted by parents and administrators who don't want them to teach
>evolution, or who press them to teach "alternatives" such as creation
>"science", "intelligent design theory", or "evidence against evolution."
>As one of the composers of the statement, Joseph McInerney, a former
>NABT president, stated in *Reports of the National Center for Science
>Education* (*RNCSE*).
>Three unfortunate facts conspire to put most high school biology
>teachers at a severe disadvantage when challenges to evolution arise.
>First, few teachers are acquainted with the ever-evolving range of
>creationist arguments. Second, most teachers do not have enough
>background and training in the range of subjects and disciplines
>pertinent to evolution to respond effectively when parents or students
>confront them with those arguments. Third, teachers get little help
>from their administrators when creationists begin to make noise, because
>the administrators themselves do not understand evolution or its
>importance to biology, and because they do not like controversy.
>(*RNCSE* 17(1):30) <>
> After a preamble emphasizing the centrality of evolution in biology,
>the first bulleted tenet of science in the original statement said:
>The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an
>unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal
>descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection,
>historical contingencies and changing environments.
>The statement then continued for several more tenets and paragraphs,
>presenting the importance of evolution to biology and to the biology
>curriculum, suggestions on dealing with common antievolutionist
>arguments, and some information on legal aspects of the controversy.
>Given the history of NABT as teachers' bulwark against
>antievolutionism, the orientation of the statement was practical.
>Framers wished to state as forcefully as possible that evolution is
>state of the art science, and that creation science and other forms of
>antievolutionism have no place in the classroom. The statement was not
>intended to be a discussion of philosophy of science. But this is how
>many members of the public interpreted it. There was a completely
>unexpected public reaction to the words, "impersonal" and
>NCSE began receiving reports of letters to the editor and op-ed pieces
>chastising NABT for putting "antireligious" wording into its statement.
>I believe many of these sprang from the popularity of works by
>antievolutionist lawyer Phillip Johnson, which are read by large numbers
>of people. But I think it is important to realize that the negative
>reaction to the NABT's statement was not limited to members of the
>"religious right", or "fundamentalists." The percentage of Americans
>who are evangelical, "born again" or conservative Christians is
>approximately 25% - 30%, according to a number of polls considered
>reliable. The percentage of Americans rejecting evolution has hovered
>consistently in the high 40's (47% in Gallup's 1996 poll.) Clearly,
>it's not just conservative Christians who reject evolution: Johnson and
>other antievolutionists can find much support from "mainline" or
>"moderate" Christians as well.
>In my experience, it is not whether the earth is old or not that turns
>moderate Christians off from evolution: the Institute for Creation
>Research "Young Earth" view doesn't go very far with people with even a
>moderate understanding of modern theology. What gets people's backs up
>is the issue of whether life has purpose or meaning, and whether
>scientists are claiming to be able to refute religious views. Telling
>people that science/evolution means that "God had nothing to do with it,
>and your life has no meaning" is not going to sit well with most
>Americans, whether conservative Christian or not. By referring to
>evolution as "impersonal" and "unsupervised" NABT generated an
>unanticipated public relations problem: it was accused of making
>antireligious statements, and it is obvious that such accusations would
>make it more difficult for teachers to teach evolution.
>This situation was brought to a head when two distinguished theologians,
>Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame and Huston Smith,
>retired Syracuse University professor, sent a letter to NABT politely
>requesting that "impersonal" and "unsupervised" be dropped. They
>pointed out, as Pigliucci et al note, that 90% of the American public
>believe that "a personal agent -- God -- supervised in some way our
>arrival on this planet." Indeed, the NABT board did not find this a
>persuasive argument: the religious beliefs of Americans are not relevant
>to what we teach in science. But Plantinga and Smith (who are not
>fundamentalists, contra Pigliucci et al.) are, as philosophers, quite
>well qualified to speak on philosophical matters, and also pointed out
>that words like "impersonal" and "unsupervised" are not scientific
>terms. They wrote:
>It is extremely hard to see how an empirical science, such as biology
>could address such a theological question as whether a process like
>evolution is or isn't directed by God. Science presumably doesn't
>address such theological questions, and isn't equipped to deal with
>them. How could an empirical inquiry possibly show that God was not
>guiding and directing evolution?
>I have discussed elsewhere the Board's initial rejection of the
>suggestion to drop the two words, and the subsequent decision to indeed,
>modify one tenet describing evolution in the Statement on Teaching
>Evolution < >. Suffice it to say
>that upon reflection, the Board decided that since the two words in
>question were unnecessary, and even redundant, and had been understood
>as making claims about theological issues beyond the realm of science,
>with teachers likely suffering as a result, the words could be dropped
>without changing the scientific accuracy of the statement.
>To end, I shall just point out that approximately 1/3 of the signatories
>of Pigliucci et al's letter at this writing do not reside in the US.
>They are of course free to express their opinions on American matters,
>but I believe they are not very aware of the realities of teaching in
>American K-12 schools. I encourage them (and others) to read Joseph
>McInerney's article describing why the NABT statement was presented in
>the first place <> for a better
>understanding of what life is like for a K-12 teacher. But strategy is
>not the only reason to change the statement; dropping the words removed
>scientific inaccuracies from the Statement: one cannot make a scientific
>statement that the universe is in any absolute sense "impersonal" and
>"unsupervised." The NABT Board dropped the two unnecessary words
>because it was the right thing to do, *scientifically*. It was also the
>right thing to do for the sake of the teachers whose welfare they must
>keep foremost.
>On NCSE's web site, I have posted an essay that expresses my personal
>opinion as to why referring to evolution as "unsupervised" and
>"impersonal" is venturing outside of what science can tell us.
>For a recently-published, well-written discussion of some issues
>relevant to the NABT decision, I recommend Matt Cartmillās article in
>*Discover *(March, 1998).

Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506