Eugenie Scott's Reply to the Open Letter

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. Its 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 "unsupervised".

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 Cartmill's article in Discover (March, 1998). [link doesn't work, and article cannot be found on web]

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.