Evolving Discussions

Keith B Miller (kbmill@ksu.edu)
Wed, 29 Apr 1998 13:06:30 -0600

Below is a post from the Templeton listserve on the NABT evolution
statement that I thought might be of interest to ACG members. Again my
apoplogies to those on the Templeton listserve for the duplication.


>Meta 86. 4/28/98. Approximately 391 lines.
>Please feel free to forward all Meta postings in their entirety.
>Below is a longish message from David Oakley revisiting our discussion last
>fall about the revisions in the National Association of Biology Teachers'
>statement on teaching evolution. The NABT had deleted the words
>"unsupervised" and "impersonal" from their statement on evolution. An
>"open letter" objecting to these revisions was circulated at that time and
>reported on by Meta.
>David Oakley and a colleague, David Williams, have penned and processed a
>response to these objections, suggesting that the debate be shifted towards
>investigating epistemological commitments. Indeed! Below are 1) Oakley
>and Williams recent "open letter" to the defenders of the original NABT
>position, and 2) a copy of the letter from last fall defending the use of
>the terms "impersonal" and "unsupervised" in the NABT's original statement.
> Both have invited further input and co-signatures on their letter.
>The statements make great reading. I will use them both in my course on
>science and religion at the University of Pennsylvania this summer
><http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~grassie/98/>. And if truth were established by
>petition, I would gladly co-sign the letter by Oakley and Williams. I
>congratulate you in your well supervised, very personable, and carefully
>reasoned argument. A careful reading below will be rewarded.
>As always, your metamorphoses and metaphysical reflections are welcome on
>the this list.
>-- Billy Grassie
>From: "Oakley, David" <doakley@ccu.edu>
>Subject: RE: Meta 84: Evolving Discussions
>Open letter to those signing an open letter to the National Association of
>Biology Teachers, to the National Center for Science Education, and to the
>American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences
>Object: recent changes in the wording of the NABT's definition of the word
>To whom it may be concerned,
>It has come to our attention that you have recently endorsed an open letter
>to the NABT, the NCSE, and NAAS concerning the recent changes made by the
>NABT in its definition of evolution. While we sympathize with your "right"
>to interpret scientific data without "public or partisan pressure of any
>kind," we also feel that your own defense of the previous NABT statement
>clearly crosses the line from science to theology and philosophy. We claim,
>furthermore, that this line leads you into perhaps unintended philosophical
>and theological waters while not really defending your "inalienable right
>and peremptory duty to defend rationalism and open inquiry" as advertised.
>In short, we will demonstrate that the dropping of the words "unsupervised"
>and "impersonal" from the previous statement indeed reflect a more
>acceptable scientific position.
>As you have stated, the original NABT definition of evolution was crafted
>in 1995 as a "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". The first item on
>the list of "tenets of science, evolution and biology education" read:
>The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an
>unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal
>descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection,
>chance, historical contingencies and changing environments
>The words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" were taken as miscommunicating
>the nature of science and the NABT Board subsequently dropped these
>contentious words. You claimed that dropping the word "unsupervised" was a
>"bad move." We read in your open letter that:
>"This (supervision) is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should
>vigorously and positively deny. All we know so far about the evolutionary
>process tells us that there is no supervision except for the action of
>natural selection."
>But by what method have you, as rational scientists, defined supervision
>and how would you propose to measure such supervision if it occurred? Such
>a method is needed because many different intellectual contexts provide
>many different definitions of the word. Not only religious contexts, but
>even different scientific contexts give different interpretations--you need
>to spell out your own more clearly. For example, from a bio-physics
>context, we might ask why you limited your version of supervision to just
>the "action of natural selection?" Shouldn't you have considered other
>"natural" laws as well? Clearly the physical law of energy conservation and
>the guiding Electro-Weak-Strong-Gravitational interactions, along with the
>laws of probability and statistics, are also constantly supervising the
>process--guiding the outcome. A biologist might not think to include these,
>but clearly they should be included in the exception. Of course, we may
>wish to not consider this kind of supervision as personal either.
>So let us then turn our attention to the use of this word "impersonal." You
>claimed that dropping this word was also a "bad move." We read in your open
>letter that
>"The fossil record, as well as the importance of random events such as
>catastrophes, mass extinctions, and genetic drift, assure us that such a
>personal involvement has not happened."
>But again, by what method do you discover this lack of personality in
>natural processes such as evolution? Your letter seems to suggest that
>"randomness" is a sufficient measure, but we will show below that this is
>not necessarily the case. You might want to then claim that it obvious to
>everyone that the laws of physics and natural selection are impersonal.
>It's actually not so obvious either. What if we were to consider, for
>example, a perfectly reasonable claim that the best measure of personality
>within a creative action is the outcome of the action? One could then argue
>that the personality of an artist could best be seen not in the process of
>the creation but rather in the finished work of art itself. Extending this,
>the outcome of the physical laws mentioned above is personality, human
>personality to be precise, and so the universal laws of nature certainly
>produce personality. If one were to posit a sort of "conservation of
>personality" (such symmetry is a notion with significant scientific
>precedent) then one could scientifically infer that the physical laws had
>some quality of 'supra-personality.' Granted, it might be so different
>from what the physical laws produced as to almost be unrecognizable, but
>nevertheless, it is not an unprecedented scientific move.
>Of course, you may find this unacceptable and claim that personality is
>just an emergent property of the laws, which are impersonal. We are not
>moving to claim this is an unreasonable response either, just not one
>warranted by the scientific data. Others could interpret the same
>scientific data and even the same evolutionary model differently. For
>example, certain "theologians" might want to argue that the laws are indeed
>impersonal and the randomness claimed in evolution supports their idea of a
>creative God who is a freedom-granting entity--a free-wheeling sort of
>personality behind the laws.
>A supporter of Augustine might want to suggest that your theory of
>evolution support her idea of a God who lives outside of time-- in
>Hawking's 2-dimensional time. A "mystic" might want to consider personality
>within the laws, and this personality is conserved and ultimately
>translated into human expressions of personality--both "good" and "bad."
>There are many others whose voices have not been heard in this debate, but
>as you can well see, the argument is going nowhere scientifically. So we
>would argue that it was best for the scientists to have simply dropped the
>offending words--leaving the metaphysics to the philosophers and
>theologians. (No comment on your bold move to omit the lawyers.)
>We could also consider the use of the term "natural," on the grounds that
>it has often been defined in the context of "only the natural world
>exists," but then this would make all NABT statements look silly; "The
>diversity of life is the outcome of ... the only processes that exist" or,
>"The diversity of life is the outcome of ... all that exists." So we won't
>ask for a definition of "natural" until the next NABT revision. Nor will we
>deal with the obvious mathematical and linguistic problems associated with
>attributing evolution to pure random chance.
>We also could consider the remarkable statement "The day in which
>scientists will be unable to explain natural phenomena without recurring to
>divine intervention or other supernatural forces, we will have a major
>paradigm shift - of cataclysmic proportions." To our knowledge, no
>scientific theory has ever completely "explained" a single "natural
>phenomena." Nor is the only reason to object to "impersonal" and
>"unsupervised" processes dependent on a grossly misleading notion of
>"supernatural" or on an interventionist account of God's action.
>Correct us if we are wrong, but we think you should refrain from acting as
>if science can give a complete description of all reality. A description
>which from within a given framework of mathematical and physical laws
>describes the creation of humanity from the first quantum fluctuation of
>the big bang through the formation of self-replicating molecules that
>become the human code simply is not a complete explanation. To many of us,
>whom you are attempting to represent, any "explanation" which fails to
>account for all of our human experiences is simply incomplete and ought not
>to advertise as otherwise!
>But we will not dwell on these fine points. Instead, we will conclude by
>considering another, even more remarkable statement in the open letter
>which bears your name,
>"...Unless, of course, the person in question is supervising evolution in a
>way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised, impersonal process. A
>possibility... which is outside science, but that has been repeatedly
>invalidated on philosophical grounds ever since David Hume and well before
>Notice the problem here--the NABT is not the NAMBT (National Association of
>Materialist Biology Teachers) yet you have admittedly been moved into an
>endorsement of certain metaphysical positions. Is it really your intention,
>however, for the NABT to take a stand on the specific philosophers you
>mention in your defense? Would you suggest they support Hume over say
>Popper and Lakatos as the better philosopher of science? Have you even
>studied Hume? We wonder, because such an appeal would not only unwittingly
>destroy the foundations of science, but would also ignore interesting, and
>valid, counter examples. Philosophically and scientifically valid analogies
>of "a person... supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an
>unsupervised, impersonal process," furthermore, do in fact exist--there are
>examples of what appears, on a reductionistic account of science, to be
>random and unsupervised processes that can only be adequately accounted for
>by means of actual personal supervision.
>Consider how scientific reductionism fails to identify supervision and
>personality in an Electro-magnetic measurement of human creative
>activities. For example in the writing of a love letter. Attempts to
>Electro-magnetically measure such a process results in the observation of
>nothing more than random voltage spikes between the brain and hands--we
>observe that creation of love letters is based on random processes and we
>observe nothing that might indicate purpose. Does this then lead us,
>analogically, to the same metaphysical conclusions found in evolutionary
>biology? Do we make great quotes such as "The [Love Letter] is the outcome
>of [random electric responses]: the unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable
>and natural process of [quantum electrodynamics]...chance alone is the
>source of every innovation...[The love letter] knows at last that he is
>alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only
>by chance?" Probably not--even though that is what the data implies. We as
>humans would simply argue that the tools were not appropriate for the
>conclusions. We overstated our conclusions--drawing metaphysical
>implications that did not follow from our data. We can understand the
>overstatement because we can look at the human-letter system as a whole--we
>know why people write letters and we know how they go about it. In the case
>of human evolution, however, we are not afforded this luxury.
>Some might see this as a beautiful example of how reductionistic methods
>used in science can quite often misinterpret the nature of reality, others
>might ponder the validity of such examples as analogies to evolution. Some
>might resist not on logical grounds, but reject the entire framework
>because it conflicts with their well-conceived social construction of
>knowledge. Perhaps, then, we should share the job of metaphysics with
>theologians and philosophers and not leave it just to biologists, lawyers,
>and politicians.
>The words "impersonal" and "unsupervised" are clearly hard to define as
>scientific categories, and should have been dropped. They imply
>metaphysical conclusions that cannot be answered by science alone. Let us
>not turn the NABT into the future "poster child" for the "social
>construction of science" movement.
>(Total of 2 signatures, but growing. To avoid more claims of social
>construction, we hope the letter stands on its own merit and so the name of
>our institutions are withheld)
>David S. Oakley, Ph.D.
>Prof. of Math and Physics
>David Williams, Ph.D.
>Prof. of Philosophy
>The defense of NABT: An Open Letter
>Open letter to the National Association of Biology Teachers, to the
>National Center for Science Education, and to the American Association for
>the Advancement of the Sciences
>Object: recent changes in the wording of the NABT's definition of the word
>To whom may be concerned,
>It has recently come to our attention that the NABT, with the support of
>the NCSE, has changed its statement defining what evolution is. This change
>apparently was at least in part the result of pressures from the Christian
>Fundamentalist movement. We strongly urge your organizations to reconsider
>such a change, and to defend scientific and educational principles in the
>face of public or partisan pressure of any kind.
>Our feeling is that this was an unfortunate decision, which can potentially
>mislead the American public and which yields undue authority to the already
>overwhelming political and religious pressure over science that has been
>mounting in this country in recent years. The NABT and the NCSE, as well as
>the scientific community at large, have an inalienable right and a
>peremptory duty to defend rationalism and open inquiry. The proposed change
>of the statement simply betrays such high ideals at their core. The
>significance of the change is far greater than just dropping two
>controversial words, since it represents the first wedge of a movement
>intended to surreptitiously introduce religious teachings into our public
>The original NABT statement.
>The original NABT definition of evolution was crafted in 1995 as a
>"Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". The first item on the list of
>"tenets of science, evolution and biology education" read:
>The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an
>unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal
>descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection,
>chance, historical contingencies and changing environments
>While the customary modern definition of evolution in graduate level
>textbooks is more akin to "changes in allelic frequencies in a population"
>(D. Hartl & A. Clark, 1989 - Principles of population genetics, Sinauer),
>the above quoted statement very accurately portrays the broader meaning
>that evolutionary biologists attach to the term. Furthermore, since the
>NABT was looking for a definition that could be understood by the general
>public and applied by biology teachers nationwide, references to specific
>subject matters such as population genetics are ineffective.
>The modification and how it came about.
>The 1995 NABT statement apparently offended some religious fundamentalists
>and other creationists, chiefly among them Berkeley lawyer Phillip Johnson
>(author of "Darwin on Trial" and other misleading literature on evolution).
>Apparently, Johnson and others have claimed that the statement implies that
>evolutionary theory is an ideological statement, since the words
>"unsupervised" and "impersonal" automatically exclude any divine
>intervention. This was explicitly suggested by a letter to the NABT by
>Alvin Plantinga, John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame
>University, and Huston Smith, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion at
>Syracuse University. Notice that neither of these is a biologist.
>Smith's and Platinga's concern was that the NABT wording "...gives aid and
>comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a
>legitimate target. And, because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers
>Americans' respect for scientists and their place in our culture. If the
>words 'impersonal' and 'unsupervised' were dropped from your opening
>sentence it would help defuse tensions which, as things stand, are causing
>unnecessary problems in our collective life."
>As a consequence of this upheaval, the NABT agreed to reconsider the
>wording of the controversial statement, and did so at its 1997 meeting. The
>Board voted to retain the original statement, on the sound reasoning that
>Smith's and Platinga's assertion that the wording "contradicts the beliefs
>of the majority of the American people" is irrelevant. Scientific
>definitions, according to the Board, are independent of public opinion. But
>things did not end there.
>In the face of mounting pressure, the Board was reconvened at the end of
>the meeting, a few days later. The outcome of the new discussion was that:
>1) The extant wording which included "unsupervised" and "impersonal"
>apparently was miscommunicating both the nature of science and NABT's intent;
>2) The deletion of those two words would not affect the statement's
>accurate characterization of evolution, and affirmation of evolution's
>importance in science education.
>Eugenie Scott's comment on the NCSE web page (http://www.natcenscied.org/)
>was that the new NABT statement (http://www.NABT.org/positions.html) was
>the result of "a statesmanlike decision that better fulfilled [the NABT]
>goal by reducing a potential source of conflict in the classroom."
>Why it was a bad move.
>Apparently, the feeling at the NABT meeting was that the organization and
>the American public (mostly, the Christian Right) had a miscommunication
>problem. The NABT did not want its statements to include theological
>positions - rightly so. This politically correct attitude, however, does
>not serve science very well. We do not disagree that science, and
>evolutionary biology in particular, cannot prove or disprove the existence
>of some kind of god. On the other hand, the reason the American public
>perceives a direct conflict is because indeed evolution denies many
>attributes of various forms of Christian god. In this, fundamentalists and
>the American public at large are smarter than most scientists give them
>credit for. It is time for the scientific community and for educators to
>simply face this fact and move on, regardless of the consequences and
>predictable social outcry.
>In fact, Scott's statement that the NABT move was an example of
>"statesmanlike decision" is particularly illuminating of the fear of
>scientists and educators to face political and religious pressures. It is
>the same "statesmanship" that prompted the National Science Foundation to
>actively delete any appearance of the word evolution in the layman
>abstracts of research proposals in evolutionary biology funded by the
>Federal Government. Furthermore, the NABT change promptly backfired,
>culminating in a New York Times article declaring that creationists had won
>intellectual recognition. This was, and still is, followed by creationist
>propaganda using the change in the statement as a powerful weapon for their
>religious agenda.
>As for the two points raised at the final NABT Board meeting, let us
>analyze them in some more detail. The words "unsupervised" and "impersonal"
>were taken as miscommunicating the nature of science. Not really. Science
>is based on a fundamental assumption: that the world can be explained by
>recurring only to natural, mechanistic forces. Johnson is quite right in
>affirming that this is a philosophical position. He is wrong when he
>suggests that it is an unreasonable and unproven one. In fact, every single
>experiment conducted by any laboratory in any place on Earth represents a
>daily test of that assumption. The day in which scientists will be unable
>to explain natural phenomena without recurring to divine intervention or
>other supernatural forces, we will have a major paradigm shift - of
>cataclysmic proportions.
>The second point of the Board's deliberation is that dropping the
>contentious words does not affect the accuracy of the portrayal of
>evolution to the American public. Really? The NABT leaves open the
>possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner. This
>is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and
>positively deny. All we know so far about the evolutionary process tells us
>that there is no supervision except for the action of natural selection.
>Furthermore, a personal involvement would imply some "person" who would
>take care of directing the evolutionary process one way or the other. The
>fossil record, as well as the importance of random events such as
>catastrophes, mass extinctions, and genetic drift, assure us that such a
>personal involvement has not happened. Unless, of course, the person in
>question is supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an
>unsupervised, impersonal process. A possibility, the latter, which is
>outside science, but that has been repeatedly invalidated on philosophical
>grounds ever since David Hume and well before Darwin...
>In conclusion, we reiterate that evolution indeed is, to the best of our
>knowledge, an impersonal and unsupervised process. Scientists are always
>open to revise their positions if new compelling evidence surfaces, so that
>creationists can be reassured that the incriminated words will be dropped
>if demonstrated to be inconsistent with reality. Until then, please leave
>the job to scientists and educators, not to lawyers, theologians, and
>Signed (total of 99 signatures),
>Would you like to add your name to this Open Letter? Send Dr. Massimo
>Pigliucci an email.
>Footer information below last updated: 2/18/98
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Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506