Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Politics of Evolution in the classroom

This week in my class on "The Darwinian Revolution", a sophomore class at the University of Oklahoma, I have been talking with my students about the controversial history of teaching evolution in American public schools. This has always been an interesting topic for me, not least because as a British citizen the whole concept of the constitutional separation of church and state is an alien idea - one I like, I might add.

We have looked at the notorious Scopes Trial from 1925, in which a young teacher named John Scopes agreed to purposefully teach a class on human evolution in direct contravention of House Bill No. 185 which had been enacted by the State of Tennessee as the Butler Act in the March of that year. The Butler Act was "An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution theory" in all public schools, that specifically mandated "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher... to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." {section one}.

Clarence Darrrow in Action in Dayton
The upshot of this case is not really my concern here - for the record, though, Scopes was found guilty (he did teach the class, he did break the law), but the verdict was later overturned - (not the victory for the evolutionists that it is sometimes made out to be - after all, they - and the ACLU who had sought this out as a test case - wanted the conviction to stand so they could appeal the law). What I am concerned with is the broader concern of why Butler was moved to propose House Bill No.185 in the first place, and why William Jennings Bryan - the twice presidential candidate and veteran populist, was moved to take the stand for the prosecution.

The late Stephen J. Gould, paleontologist and essayist on all things evolutionary, wrote about this case and the subsequent legal history of evolution in the classroom, including the various attempts to guarantee 'equal time' for the teaching of "Creationism", and later of "Creation Science" alongside evolutionary accounts of human origins in his book Rocks of Ages. (Although it post-dates the publication of Gould's book, we can add "Intelligent Design" to this list of attempts to get a religious message into schools by way of skirting the establishment clause - a great PBS video on the 2005 Kitzmiller court case is available here.)

What I particularly like about Gould's account is that after telling the story of the various trials, he goes on to ask why someone like Bryan would be so moved to oppose the teachin of science and evolutionary biology. The answer, Gould suggests, is not simply grounded in the fact that he was religious - (it was not until 1968 and Epperson v Arkansas, after all, that the teaching of a religious account of human origins was ruled an unconstitutional breach of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Rather his concerns lay in the politics with which evolution had come to be associated by the 1920s. These were not a politics associated with the advance of liberal values that we might associate with scientific progress, but rather the politics of the eugenics movement and the evolutionary justifications that had been given (by both sides) for the carnage of the First World War.

 Veron Kellogg had disclosed the prevalence of these views among the German High Command in his Head-Quarters Nights, - (just as George Bernard Shaw (who surely needs no wiki-link!) did in England in his long preface to Back to Methuselah). The history of evolution, we need to recognise, is not just a history of scientific discovery about the origins and ecology of the wonderful diversity of life that surrounds us and of which we are a part, but also has a history that is deeply social, deeply political, and not always pretty.

This is one reason why I think that we need to be open to and educated about the political history of evolution, - the history of the various ways in which people have taken the fact of our evolution to speak directly to questions about the sort of creatures we are, and in consequence the sort of society that we might live in. - This is especially important in light of the fact that many who oppose the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools today argue that evolution is inherently tied to a politics that is competitive, individualistic, racist and xenophobic. The book I am writing, entitled Political Descent, will show that this has often been far from the case.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the opponents of evolution will like the idea that evolution has also been used, for instance, by Charles Darwin to endorse an inclusive liberal politics that argued that there is an evolutionary grounding for a morality that was inclusive of all people of all races, and ultimately of all sentient beings; or by the likes of Peter Kropotkin to endorse the ethics of anarchist socialism. But these are both subjects for another time...

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Politics of Descent

he Enlightenment was a period of previously unheard of enquiry and speculation—a quest to discover the nature of man and the nature of things through the powers of Reason. Rationality was lauded as the sole arbiter of truth; as the only sound basis for knowledge, taste, ethics and government. Having its origins in the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment encompassed the scientific revolution as well as the French and American Revolutions, it was dubbed “The Age of Reason,” by Thomas Paine, who spoke for many when he declared that “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.”[1] The Age of Reason spoke most directly, though, to the nature of man. Thus, although the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton looked to the stars, what they saw there altered their view of mankind—for the briefest of moments they unsettled the smug certainty that we humans were the centre of the Creator’s universe just as we are of our own. Our nature is not such that our self-obsession was for long disturbed however, and Enlightenment scholars consoled themselves with the full knowledge that even while we might not adequately speculate on the nature of God and his intentions through reasoned inquiry, it was the nature of man, after all, that was—and remains—the most interesting of questions.
Indeed, there is no greater question that this: What is the nature of man? This was true for Enlightenment scholars no less than for ourselves, troubled as we are by the sublime promises of genetic engineering, psychotropic drugs, and the deep ethical problems inherent to our reflections upon the extent and limits of autonomy.[2] But how might one even begin to answer such a question as that posed by the nature of man? The French philosopher René Descartes had drilled this down to the one presumption that he believed that man was entitled to make about himself—the fact of his existence. He was sensible of himself by virtue of his Reason—“I think, therefore I am,” he had declared in consequence; in this great world of enquiry there was no other point of certainty.[3] “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the Earth” the Greek mathematician Archimedes is supposed to have said—here was somewhere to stand. 
            With reason as a starting point the world could indeed move, Copernicus had proven this much, at least. Turning to man, though, what more might be said—if one could divine the nature of man one might also determine how he should live—reason had made man a moral animal, or so it seemed legitimate to presume. But how had it done so? This was a compelling question indeed! The question of the nature and the origin of the moral sentiments taxed some of the greatest minds of the enlightenment—and we shall have cause to consider the views of a number of them in this book: the associationist philosophers Adam Smith, David Hume and Erasmus Darwin, of course, as well as Nicholas de Condorcet and the English utilitarians William Godwin and Thomas Robert Malthus. These men were followed in this enquiry and in this tradition by Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, the last of whom became a foundational figure in philosophical radicalism. The moral nature of man was no mere topic of idle curiosity, but rather became a fundamental question in consideration of what constituted a right and just polity. “What is the nature of man, and in consequence, how might he live?” This was the question they addressed themselves to, and the question that is my focus in this book. Further, was the nature of man fixed and unchangeable? And what did this say to the way in which he was governed? Indeed, did man make his environment, or was he made by it? All these questions and more came rushing in like a flood—rising to the task, these and other men provided no end of answers.
It is in this context that I will consider the work of the eminent nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Darwin. His 1859 book On the Origin of Species once again shook the foundations of the world. English Victorians wrestled with it, uncertain as to which was the most disturbing of the books many implications—the common ancestry with apes, or the fact that our very existence was the outcome of contingency and chance?

>>>>Are you interested in reading more?

[1] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, (Philadelphia, 1794), p.1.
[2] These moral questions and the challenge posed by our increasing focus, at least in the West, upon autonomy have been most recently posed by philosophers from both the right and the left of the political spectrumLeon Kass, Life Liberty and the Defense of Human Dignity (2002)and Frances Fukuyama, Our Post-Human Future (2002) on the one hand, and Bill McKibbin Enough and Troy Duster, The Backdoor to Eugenics to name only a few from the other.
[3] René Descartes, Discourse on Method, (1637).

More about me...

First off, here is a link to my website at the University of Oklahoma.
It'll tell you a little about me and what I do. I teach and research bioethics and the history of science - my particular focus is the history of evolutionary biology and how people have interpreted the fact of our evolution as having profound implications for our politics - This is the subject of the book I am currently working on, Political Descent. In short, the question I am interested in thinking about is this: "In light of our evolution, what kind of creature is Man, and in consequence, how might we live?"