Evolution & the National Association of Biology Teachers:

NABT claimed "evolution was an unsupervised process." 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

Biology-Theology in our Public Schools?
Is natural process unsupervised?  Does "natural" mean "it happened without God"?
For two years, a prominent organization for science education said YES and YES.
Let's compare their biology-theology with conventional theology.

      Natural Process — Does it happen without God?
      A normal-appearing natural event can be interpreted theistically (as "produced by God"), atheistically, or in other ways: deistic, pantheistic, animistic,...
      For a theist, natural does not mean "without God" because God designed and created nature, and constantly sustains nature.  And natural does not mean "without control" because God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result. {quoted from my page about Theistic Evolution & Theology}   For a closer look at natural process, a page (with ideas from 10 authors) asks, "Is natural process guided by God?"

A Brief History of an Idea:
The Evolution of NABT's Statement about Unsupervised Evolution

      Natural Process, according to NABT-Theology in 1995
      In contrast with this conventional theology, for more than two years, from April 1995 to October 1997, the National Associaton of Biology Teachers (NABT) declared — in their position statement on evolution, which stated that evolution is an "unsupervised, impersonal" process — that "natural" does mean "without God".
      This is a clear declaration of anti-theistic theology, made in the name of science.  It was accepted as a valid conclusion of science by many prominent educators, both inside and outside NABT.  For example, Joseph McInerney — executive director of Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) from 1985 to 1999 — praised the NABT statement in a report (January 1997) for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), although without mentioning NABT's advocacy of "unsupervised" evolution.  It was approved by the NABT board in March 1995, and in 1996 it was published in NABT's journal and in NCSE's Voices for Evolution (2nd Edition).

      A Response from ASA Members in 1996
      In late 1996, Loren Haarsma wrote a letter (on behalf of participants in the e-mail list of the American Scientific Affiliation) to the NABT Board of Directors.  Their letter made many productive suggestions about evolution education, including this:
      "2. The Statement's description of evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal... process" (paragraph 5) is not religiously neutral.  Science is unable to determine whether or not evolution is 'unsupervised.'  Science is capable of describing the observable characteristics of evolutionary mechanisms.  For example,...  While each of these mechanisms can be modeled as a purely natural process, this does not tell us whether the entire evolutionary process is ultimately supervised or unsupervised.  That question goes beyond the realm of science, into philosophy and religion."
      You can read the letter from the ASA-list (sent November 1996) and a discussion (October 1997) on the ASA e-mail list.  This letter, questioning the logic of NABT's theological statement, did not lead to any response or change.

      A Reluctant Change in 1997
      Eventually, however, the statement was changed.  How did it happen?  Here is a summary from Christian Century:

      Evolution Statement Altered by Biologists
      After first refusing to do so, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) has dropped the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" from its official description of evolution.  The group's eight-person board of directors voted unanimously on October 11 to alter the wording of its two-year-old statement in support of teaching evolution — and the board did so just three days after it had voted unanimously not to make the change.  Religion scholar Huston Smith and philosopher Alvin Plantinga had urged NABT to make the change, arguing that inclusion of the two words constituted a theological judgment about the nonexistence of God that went beyond the boundaries of empirical science.
      While the fossil record may shed light on the process of evolution, the two scholars argued, it cannot answer the question of whether evolution is or is not directed by God.  They argued that the statement was vulnerable, made NABT a legitimate target for creationists, and, since polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans profess belief in God, undermined Americans' respect for scientists, especially when scientists were drawing conclusions beyond the available evidence.  NABT officials first unanimously refused, and then three days later unanimously reversed themselves.
  {Christian Century, November 12, 1997, p. 1029}  { After this change, here is NABT's current statement. }

      Eugenie Scott — who is director of the National Center for Science Education (an organization dedicated to pro-evolution education) and who played a major role in persuading the NABT to change its policy — tells the story. [well, she did, but now it's "404: Page not found" and it doesn't seem to be anywhere on the NCSE website]
      my comments on the story by Eugenie:  She says that NABT "had not intended the statement on evolution to include theological positions."  If this is true, the leaders of NABT were philosophically naive.  Didn't they realize that declaring a process to be "unsupervised" was taking a deistic/atheistic theological position?  They defended their statement by saying it "was being interpreted by individuals outside of science as anti-religious and unscientific."  But is it only those "outside of science" who thought NABT was claiming more than science can claim?  The logical question is whether scientists can know, based on scientific evidence, whether or not a natural process is unsupervised.  In 1995, NABT answered by making a statement "in the name of science" that cannot be justified by science.  Eugenie Scott explains: "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."

      A Backlash-Response in 1998
      In early 1998, a few months after the NABT revision, some scientists (led by Massimo Pigliucci) wrote An Open Letter objecting to what they viewed as NABT's surrender to creationists, and Eugenie Scott wrote a response, and later (in 2005) Pigliucci changed his mind [IOU, 2-20-09: this link is broken but I'll try to fix it soon]  In February 1998, the ASA's e-mail list discussed the open letter and response — there are four topics (Open Letter,...) where this link takes you, plus other topics on the same page: NABT (scroll up the page alphabetically, or type #236 at end of URL instead of #7), Eugenie Scott... (#34), Re: NABT Flap & Open Letter... (#37), and The NABT Controversy (#82).

      A Continuing Evolution of the NABT Statement
      In 2000, the introduction of NABT's Statement on Teaching Evolution (2000) concluded by stating that "evolutionary theory, indeed all of science, is necessarily silent on religion and neither refutes nor supports the existence of a deity or deities."  But in 2008, their Statement on Teaching Evolution (2008) says nothing about the theological limits of science or (because it's condensed to 24% of its length in 2000) many other topics.

      Continuing Discussions
      Evolution — Does it occur without purpose and without God? contains excerpts from papers & letters in PSCF (the journal of ASA) by John McIntyre, Douglas Hayworth, and David Lahti, describing two logical fallacies;  Hayworth summarizes the fallacies: "a dismissal of God's existence [or actions] is not logically warranted on the basis of evolutionary theory" (as implied in the "unsupervised" claim by NABT) and "a belief in God does not logically warrant antagonism to evolution as science."


      This paper began by describing the view of conventional theism, that "natural" does mean "without God", and here are some extra thoughts:
      A theist believes that a supernatural God is involved in natural process, so the natural depends on the supernatural.  Although thinking about natural as being not-supernatural is sometimes useful, to avoid wrong implications we usually should contrast natural-appearing (normal-appearing) with miraculous-appearing.

      NABT's education statement (1995-1997) supported...
      A Bad Theological Argument against Theistic Evolution:
      The main difference between theistic evolution and atheistic evolution is their nonscientific interpretation of scientific theories about evolution.  A nonscientific atheistic interpretation views a process of evolution as being not designed by God, not guided by God, using matter not created by God.  But a nonscientific theistic interpretation can disagree with these atheistic claims by proposing that an evolutionary process was designed by God (and perhaps also guided by God) and used matter created by God.
      The bad argument occurs in two stages:  First, an atheistic interpretation of evolution — claiming that it occurs without God — is accepted.  Second, there is a claim that "since evolution is atheistic, theistic evolution is illogical."  Actually, it's this argument that is theologically illogical, because it is based on the atheistic claim that "natural" means "without God," which implies that "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it" and rejects the Bible-based claim that God created and controls natural process.

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