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 "evolution"

To whom it may concern,

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 schools.

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 " 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 ( was that the new NABT statement ( 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 referring 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 referring 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 politicians.

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Would you like to add your name to this Open Letter? Send Dr. Massimo Pigliucci an email.

The views presented here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tennessee Darwin Coalition.

Originally, this page was on the website for Darwin Day.

Now it's on the ASA Science Education Website
as part of a page about NABT-and-Theology.