Obitur dictum

August 2, 2008

Evolving onto the wrong track

Filed under: Education — constitutionalism @ 3:19 pm

In their July 26, 2008, op-ed for the Washington Post, “Evolving Toward a Compromise“, UCSD sociology professors Amy Binder and John H. Evans demonstrate how out of touch with their subject matter academics can be. Apparently based only on reading some of the advocacy literature in the debate between proponents of evolution and proponents of creationism or intelligent design ID), in which they find “that advocates [of the latter] are not as concerned about the truth of evolution as they are about the underlying values they think it teaches”, they propose a compromise of having teachers “explain that morality does not logically flow from evolutionary theory”, to dispel a tendency to “think that if the nature of animals is determined by random mutations, then morality must be random as well”.

As usual in this debate, both sides get it wrong, which I discussed in a 1999 article, “Evolutionism vs. Creationism“, which briefly explains scientific method as it should be taught.

First, contrary to the suspicions of proponents of evolutionism, the proponents of ID are not just creationists in stealth mode. Although there may be some overlap, the two groups opposing evolutionism are intellectually distinct and have quite different concerns and agendas. ID advocates do tend to be largely concerned about the teaching of evolution promoting moral relativism, but many of them don’t believe in biblical creation. Creationists, on the other hand, see evolution teaching as an assault on their religious beliefs in a personal God who answers prayers and in a uniquely privileged place of humanity in the Universe and in their relationship to God, and in a Bible that is to be read literally. They tend to think that if humans were created by impersonal processes, whether random or not, then we are just another animal.

Second, such concerns of ID advocates are misguided, and it doesn’t work to cater to mistaken thinking. The influence of the teaching of evolution on the moral decline perceived in youth is negligible. Anyone familiar with children should find that the decline is well established long before they get to the subject of evolution in school. It comes from the examples of adult behavior they see all around them, in the news, and in the entertainment media. It also comes from grouping students into classes by age so that they come to be influenced more by their age peers than by adults. See my article, “My Grandfather on Public Education“.

Third, it is not correct that moral values do not derive from evolution. The derivation is not “logical” but it is causational. Evolution is not just about competition. The cooperative behavior of social species is also the product of evolutionary development, and what we call morality is a manifestation of that cooperation. It is not arbitrary, but rationality conditioned on situational awareness. Moral behavior enhances the odds of survival of the genes of an individual, even if not of his direct descendants. However, the moral behavior of our youth is encouraged not by convincing them it is rational, but by inducing them to admire it in their role models, who may or may not be rational.

To the extent that schools have any influence on the moral development of children, it is by getting them to admire the right people and the right behavior, and one of the ways to do that is for teachers to demonstrate that they really understand things, particularly scientific method, on which it appears most teachers of evolution are as unclear as are the proponents of creationism or ID.


July 19, 2008

Obitur dictum

Filed under: Uncategorized — constitutionalism @ 2:01 pm

Obitur dictum is Latin for “said in passing”. It is most commonly used to refer to the commentary often attached to court opinions that have no legal effect but which may explain or expand on the issues in the case and perhaps provide some guidance in future cases.

This forum is a companion to another, also titled Obitur dictum, with a more scholarly focus. This one is for more popular matters, accessible to nonspecialists.

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