Selective creationists

July 17, 2010 • 10:09 am

This flashy graph has already been posted on Pharyngula, but I thought I’d echo P. Z.’s sentiments.  This graph comes from a survey of high school biology teachers published in PLoS Biology in 2008 (download is free).  The teachers were asked about their personal beliefs about human origins (click to enlarge):

Only a tad more than one in four teachers really accepts evolution as scientists conceive of it: a naturalistic process undirected by divine beings.  Nearly one in two teachers thinks that humans evolved but that God guided the process.

Can we count those 48% of “guided-by-Godders” 0n our side?  I agree with P. Z.: the answer is NO.  Yes, they do accept that our species changed genetically over time, but they see God as having pulled the strings.  That’s not the way evolution works.   The graph labels these 48% as believers in intelligent design, and that’s exactly what they are, for they see God as nudging human evolution toward some preconceived goal.  We’re designed.  These people are creationists: selective creationists.

To count them as allies means we make company with those who accept evolution in a superficial sense but reject it in the deepest sense.  After all, the big revolution in thought wrought by Darwin was the recognition that the appearance of design—thought for centuries to be proof of God—could stem from purely natural processes.   When we cede human evolution to God, then, we abandon that revolution.  That’s why I see selective creationists like Kenneth Miller, Karl Giberson and Francis Collins as parting company with modern biological thought.

The PLoS paper also compared the teachers’ beliefs with those of Americans in general, taken from a Newsweek poll in 2007 (the question asked was identical):

You might find these results cheering, but recognize that the 48% of theistic-evolutionist teachers are joined by 16% who are straight creationists. That’s one in six biology teachers.

To see how all these beliefs translate into education, here’s a graphic representation of which American states have high school standards mandating teaching about human evolution:

I count 32 states where children are completely deprived of learning where they came from.

75 thoughts on “Selective creationists

  1. I’m surprised that Pennsylvania’s educational standards mention evolution. When I lived there briefly we completely skipped over evolution in biology class. Maybe things have improved since the late 90s/early 2000s?

    1. Having been a teacher, I can tell you that state standards may have little to do with what you encounter in the classroom. I never read them. It may be different today.

  2. Where’d the map image come from? I’d love a better idea of what the underlying data actually means. By the sound of it, it’d be much more meaningful to also know which states say anything *against* mentioning evolution in their standards.

  3. I may be nitpicking, but isn’t Kenneth Miller more a theistic evolutionist who believes that God put the potential for human evolution in the rules of nature, and not really the kind of ID proponentist who thinks God micro-manages evolution?

    1. The Yin and Yang of Miller’s beliefs are well known:

      “In yet another excursion into theology, Miller asks (and tries to answer) the question of the seeming incompatibility between the concept of God who has created the world according to a plan and with a purpose and the indisputable role of random factors both in the physical world and the human affairs. For example, on page 233 we read, “If evolution really did take place, then God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?””

      So Miller doesn’t believe in some woo “potential”, but a magical “sure” thing.

      Some of the creation mechanisms he proposes for his gods are indeed micro-management by way of quantum woo: “Indeed, as Miller continues his discourse he tries to build a bridge from his interpretation of randomness to the supposed “key feature of the mind of God” (page 213). This key feature, in Miller’s opinion, is “indeterminacy” which, as Miller says, anti-evolutionists “misconstrue as randomness.””

      1. “creation mechanisms” – [better] creative mechanisms.

        Also I forgot: “a theistic evolutionist who believes that God put the potential for human evolution in the rules of nature” would be some type of deistic evolutionist, a species not in evidence.

        All AFAIU observed evolutionary creationists, “theistic evolutionists”, proposes some type of creative agent.

  4. I’m not really comfortable with this our side/their side language… Epistemologically, we diverge from theistic evolutionists; but scientifically, we have more in common than we don’t.

    I’m not pushing an accomodationist position here — I think those who believe in theistic evolution are making a serious epistemological misstep, not to mention engaging in some sloppy thinking, and I’m not afraid to say so. I’m just not comfortable with phrases like, “To count them as allies means we make company with those who [yada yada yada]”. There’s no black/white allies/enemies divide here. Folks like Ken Miller can be allies in one fight (the short-term goal of improving science education in the US and preventing theocratic dickwads from hijacking it) and enemies in another fight (the long-term goal of getting people to reject silly epistemologies and sloppy thinking). Yes, the two are related, but the fact that we part ways with them in one regard does not mean we can’t “keep company” with them.

    Don’t be like Dubya!

    1. scientifically, we have more in common than we don’t.

      No. An evolutionary creationist accepts some or nearly all of evolutionary facts, as they are discovered, due to the basic “gods of the gaps” idea.

      But facts he/she will never accept are that of the observed process, its theory, and its contingency. Instead they replace the process with a teleological design, the idea that what is observed is what had to be.

      So they aren’t even “half empiricists” in that they at least would accept the facts while rejecting theory. They have less in common with us than someone who would throw a coin for accepting/rejecting facts.

      Don’t be like Dubya!

      I don’t know what that means. What has politics to do with accepting science as is? I see Coyne’s characterization in the light of where the line science – anti science goes.

      1. So they aren’t even “half empiricists” in that they at least would accept the facts while rejecting theory. They have less in common with us than someone who would throw a coin for accepting/rejecting facts.

        If you’re asserting that Francis Collins’ ability to do biology research is inferior to someone flipping a coin, I’m not sure what to say…

        I don’t need to defend my Francis-Collins-is-a-goofball credentials; check the “Accomodationism” section on my blog if you don’t believe me on this.

        But folks like Francis Collins and Ken Miller can still do real science, even if their faith might prevent them from exploring certain areas. William Dembski, on the other hand, really can’t do real science. At all.

        The “Don’t be like Dubya!” line was a reference to the “You’re either with us or against us” line. As I said, I’m not really comfortable with this all-or-nothing language that refuses to distinguish between theistic evolution and intelligent design.

        For the record, I agree that:

        * Theistic evolution is nowhere near “good enough”, i.e. if the entire Creationist/ID proponentist column could be shifted into the theistic evolution column, there would still be much work to do.

        * Faith is a broken epistemology, and it can never “compliment” a legitimate epistemology. Many people compartmentalize their faith sufficiently that it doesn’t do major damage to their critical thinking skills in other areas, but it certainly doesn’t help, and might have subtle negative effects in many cases that are not immediately apparent.

        In other words, I feel I am taking a pretty hard line on TE here. I am not suggesting TE as a compromise position, which I think clearly distinguishes me from the accomodationist program. I just think it’s silly to refuse to distinguish between ID (which was a strategy specifically designed for the express purpose of doing violence to science and the scientific method) vs. TE (which is the result of sloppy thinking and an honest-but-misguided desire for compromise).

  5. I think you can count them as allies – to a certain point. Just think – if all hard-line creationists decided theistic evolution was the way to go, there’d be no battle about teaching evolution in schools. There’d be an obvious disagreement about whether it is a directed process – but at least ther’d be some progress. Students who would not have heard anything about evolution would hear about the overwhelming evidence for it – with the useless addendum that it was guided. Some of those students would see that the “guiding” idea is unnecessary and would drop it.

    To brand them as “enemies” smacks of simple-minded GW Bush thinking – “either you’re with me or you’re with the terrorists” – don’t you think?

    1. Ya think?

      I was under the impression that duhbya had no evidence at all while claiming his christian god’s approval/command.

      What you want to teach isn’t evolution, its equivalent to duhbya’s guarantee of WMD. They are/were both lies. How do you find it acceptable to lie to children?

    2. Nice attempt at a straw man – I didn`t say I want TE taught in school. My point is that it`s better than YEC or ID.

      1. Its all the same thing excepting superstition insertion point. None of it is what the evidence supports.

        Honesty matters when practicing science.

        1. Say you’ve got a bunch of people to the west of you lobbing mortars at you, and another bunch shooting at you from the east with peashooters. They may both be shooting at you, but you’d be an idiot to regard them as the same thing.

            1. Oops…wrong again.
              I’m not a Christian and I haven’t defended the validity of TE in any way…want to try again?

            2. This exchange here is a perfect example of why I’m also uncomfortable with the us vs. them language in this post.

              It’s like a reverse ad hominem… if we refuse to sufficiently condemn the person, then our criticisms must not be valid or strong enough! heh…

  6. Oh look, there are a few oil workers helping to clean up in the Gulf; we should count them on the side of the responsible environmentalists.

    1. Should we tell them that what they’re doing is useless and stupid, and that they shouldn’t bother unless they can clean the whole gulf instantly?

      1. No, but we should be very clear about cause and effect and the mechanism that links the two.

        Framing biology teachers who believe in a watered down version of creationism as allies ignores the original anti-science problem inherent with the woo: that god is the agent of some magical mechanism that caused and continues to drive evolution. That is not an allied substitute but an active opponent to furthering the goal of teaching others how evolution works. Don’t be fooled by those who merely appear to be helpful but are, in fact, as much a part of the problem as those who deny evolution outright.

        1. A child exposed to TE will have an opportunity to learn facts that may prompt him to ask questions or form doubts about his beliefs. A child who is not exposed to any form of evolution will not have that opportunity.

          1. A child exposed to geocentric theory will have an opportunity to learn facts that may prompt him to ask questions or form doubts about his beliefs. A child who is not exposed to any form of geocentric theory will not have that opportunity.

            1. How many students will loose because they realize that they are being lied to, and become disengaged?

            2. I see you`re keeping up with the string of weak points…

              If they realize they`re being lied to, they`ll abandon the “God guided the process” part – then where will they be?

            3. I asked you a question, it wasn’t a statement.

              However, I know there are some students that think they should be respected enough to be told the truth and a science classroom is an exceptionally good place to provide for that need.

            4. I agree that students should be taught the truth.

              But say you were in a horrible place where you had only two choices: you could but a child in a creationist classroom, or you could put her in a TE classroom.
              Which would you choose?

            5. True…completely beside the point, but true.

              You’re unable to answer a simple hypothetical question then?

  7. I agree with the post’s conclusions, but I think the survey is a little misleading. What it labels as “Intelligent Design” is a very vague version of te actual Intelligent Design “theory” advocated by the Discovery Institute.

    Real Intelligent Design doesn’t just state that a diety has guided evolution, but that there are specific parts of the development of life forms for which supernatural intervention is the best explanation.

    What the survey presents is a wishy-washy version that makes no such specific claims, and looks to a relgiously-minded layman like a good middle ground. It’s not surprising to me that, in a country of high religiosity, respondents would choose the option that gives some credit to their particular deity, without needing to explain it further.

    What I find most appalling are the number of states (including my own state of residence, Washington, home of the Discovery Institute) that apparently don’t mention evolution at all in their textbooks. Big surprise that people who don’t really understand what natural selection is will find a way to integrate their magical beliefs.

  8. It seems like there’s a bit of conflation of ID and TE here. The chart with the percentages on it has what sounds like a description of TE but the data has been binned under “Intelligent Design”. They aren’t the same.

    1. That’s the whole point that Jerry and PZ are making, is they think ID and TE are equivalent. I don’t agree, though I do see where they are coming from.

      1. I realise that. It’s likely that TE and ID got binned together but were categorised on the presented plot as ID, probably as a result of the vague phrasing of the poll option.

        (Although was PZ making the same point about TE? I had a quick read of his post and he seemed to only refer to ID).

  9. I’m seriously surprised that Indiana covers human evolution. I’m guessing that Lilly and the biotech companies in Columbus have something to do with that. I wish I had gone to high school here rather than a small town in Illinois where the teacher very purposely skipped over the chapter on evolution.

  10. Glaringly missing to me from these statistics, A God that doesn’t give a rats ass about humans or evolution.

    Question – Do you think there is a God, but he/she doesn’t care about humans and never answers prayers?

  11. I think the last sentence of this post is misleading. For example, one of the red states on the map is Massachusetts– not exactly a hotbed of creationist sentiment, even if we do now have a Republican senator. Just because something is left out of curriculum standards does not mean it isn’t taught.

    1. The graph shows whether or not human evolution is a mandated part of the state science curriculum, not whether evolution is taught or whether human evolution could be taught as an option. If you look at the Massachusetts state science standards, here, you’ll see that instruction in human evolution is not required at any level. I think that’s a shame. If other states have it, why not this most liberal of all states?

      1. Again, it was the last statement I have issue with, not the graph itself. Saying that there are “32 states where children are completely deprived of learning where they came from” is a comment on the classroom practice, not necessarily state mandates.

        Also, just looking through the MA documentation, organic evolution is mentioned repeatedly, so the issue here seems to be that there is no specific discussion of human evolution rather the general theory. It is unfortunate that in some states mandating the special case is necessary to ensure that students realize humans fall under the evolutionary umbrella. Think of how laughable this would be in another subject– suppose we had a graphic of states that don’t mandate that students memorize their multiplication table for 7, when most states would write out that students must know multiplication tables for 1 through 12?

    2. I think the graph is misleading because of the shades used… So I grew up in NYS, and yes, human evolution is not specifically mentioned in the curriculum, which is a damned shame, but the lessons on evolution I was taught were closer to blue than to pink, if you know what I mean.

      The categories the graph employs are fair and important; the color-coding is maybe a little misleading as to the nature of the categories.

  12. I find it interesting to consider the impact of NCSE and AAAS accommodation in this environment. Does it enable the 47% or provide cover for the 28%? I’ve always been inclined toward the latter, but that 47% is (potentially) kind of shocking. They’re biology teachers, for Christ’s sake. They should understand biology. From the text:

    Overall, only 23% strongly agreed that evolution served as the unifying theme for their biology or life sciences courses;

    But evolution is the unifying theme of biology.

    I’d like to see how that 47% sorts between TE and ID. I fear I’d be disappointed.

  13. Though my state of Oregon is listed as not including evolution in the standards, actually, <a href= the science standards, grade 8 through high school, include the following:

    Explain how genetics and anatomical characteristics are used to classify organisms and infer evolutionary relationships

    Explain how species change through the process of natural selection. Describe evidence for evolution.

    Explain how biological evolution is the consequence of the interactions of genetic variation, reproduction and inheritance, natural selection, and time.

    Explain how multiple lines of scientific evidence support biological evolution.

    There may be more but I quit looking.

  14. I used to think that the Coynes and Dawkins and Myers and Hitchens of this world were “harming the cause” by shouting too loud.

    Having spent as much time as I have in one of the world’s most primitive (and I use the word advisedly) Catholic countries (Poland), I’m now of the opinion that constant and vociferous opposition is the only way to go – and we don’t even have Young Earth Creationists.

    High School Teachers, or anyone else, who has the degree of cognitive dissonance required to be a theist and an evolutionist simultaneously is not helping.

  15. I don’t believe that there are very many grade school students who are so uninformed about life as to not understand that humans are living organisms. I say that because I looked at the State of Alaska’s education standards for the life sciences and found plenty of standards regarding evolution of living organisms from grades 3 to 11. Their life science standards do not appear to mandate teaching about any specific organisms evolving but rather all organisms evolving. So, I think the graphic you posted about state standards is entirely misleading—unless one assumes that a fair number of grade school students do not view humans as living organisms, which I would doubt. If a biology teacher were to achieve the educational standards set by the state in this case, I don’t see how they could bypass teaching about human evolution.

    1. I think this ignores the fact that many SCIENTISTS, like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, see humans as an exception to the “everything-has-evolved” rule. And if this view is widespread, which I think it might be, then it’s not safe to think that humans can extrapolate from frogs to themselves.

      1. You are right, I did kind of step around that glaring problem. (What are Miller and Collins thinking?!) I wonder what age that kind of reality denial usually sets in and if it is something that high school students generally have to contend with or if it only becomes a problem later in life.

        My idea is that the students being taught—even if a grade school teacher bought into the human exception like Miller or Collins do—might not be so blockheaded about it and would recognize that humans have nothing that is exceptional enough about them to put them in a separate category from life on Earth.

        I don’t think that Alaska’s education standards make any effort to put humans in a separate category either, and so I don’t think human exceptionalism is supported by the state standards in Alaska. It looks to me like a high school graduate who does not recognize that humans are products of evolution would seem to have been undereducated in life sciences in various ways according to the state standards.

        It almost seems like a biology teacher following Alaska’s state standards would have to be actively devious to bring up human exceptionalism in class, like not putting humans on the tree of life or something. It makes me sick just thinking how it could happen because it would be lying to the students, not educating them.

  16. I appreciate your focus will be the US, but US centric stats aren’t that helpful. You’d get a very different answer in the UK. We don’t do religion overtly, and in my education non-scientific explanations of scientifically explained phenomena were discredited as part of the curriculum, with full scientific reasoning of course. USA – a land of remarkable contrasts, so advanced and so backward concurrently.

  17. The beliefs of teachers doesn’t necessarily give any indication of what they’ll teach or how they’ll teach it, so it’s unlikely that the statistics of teachers’ beliefs will be as meaningful as the contents of the curriculum.

    I’ve been an atheist since the day I began to think about it – aged eight. To this day I’ve never even attended a church service for the sake of it, and I’m fifty-three now.

    But a short time I was a primary school teacher here in England. All the schools, bar one, where I worked or trained were associated with churches and the local authority had a religious education curriculum. So this lifelong atheist ended up teaching the principles of Christianity – and for one term, Islam – because that was my job. Much as I disagreed with the content, it was not my place to put personal considerations first. However, I am under no illusion that admitting to atheism would have quite possibly led to career restrictions or even dismissal.

    We hear a lot about unprofessional teachers, particularly in the US, putting their own spin or bias on things, and this is unforgivable. But it’s also unfair to tar everyone with the same brush. Belief should not be a qualification for a teacher.

  18. I hope the author(s) of this article and the state by state graphic presentation of curriculum standards are more accurate in their scientific endeavors than they are in using / tracking down accurate information about curriculum standards. Utah absolutely has a requirement for the teaching of evolution and has had since 2003–the following is a direct quote from their published curriculum standards for science for grades 9-12 from the Utah State Office of Education. Certainly makes me wonder about the accuracy of the entire map! You imply but do not state directly that this map is also from the PLoS Biology 2008 article–is that the case or does it have a different source.

    From the Utah State Office of Education Curriculum Standards for grades 9-12:

    Science Benchmark
    Evolution is central to modern science’s understanding of the living world. The basic idea of biological evolution is that Earth’s present day species developed from earlier species. Evolutionary processes allow some species to survive with little or no change, some to die out altogether, and other species to change, giving rise to a greater diversity of species. Science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing and from other bodies of knowledge through the use of empirical standards, logical arguments, and skepticism, as science strives for explanations of the world.

    Standard 5
    Students will understand that biological diversity is a result of evolutionary processes.

      1. While there may be some zealots out there that would go so far as to claim that “all other organisms may have evolved but humans were created” in an attempt to somehow intertwine science and religion, and in doing so try to make sure religion is somehow part of a curriculum, I have not met any of them—and I know more than a few scientists who profess creationism. I haven’t done the study and don’t know of one, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many who, when you use the term evolution in the context of a high school biology curriculum standard, don’t implicitly understand that you are including humans as part of all biologic organisms or species. To say anything other than that goes way beyond silly. In reading the comments it is clear that at least a few other states also have similar, fairly strong curriculum standards regarding evolution but don’t explicitly include the word “human.” I don’t care to look up all of the state curriculum standards but I suspect that more than a few have made very legitimate attempts to include a strong statement about the teaching of evolution in their schools, regardless of whether or not they explicitly include the term “human.” If this is the case, the graphic is blatantly misrepresenting this effort and seems designed more to anger and stretch a point than to accurately inform.

  19. For all those here who suggest students somehow extrapolate that humans have evolved by covering evolution of other life forms according to curriculum, the brute fact is that a significant portion of our populations who have taken biology curriculum reject or modify that specific extrapolation.
    Our educational standards need to be equally specific: there is overwhelming evidence that humans are specifically a part of and not exempt from the evolutionary process. Without this clear curriculum guideline, many teachers are quite comfortable teaching about evolution while avoiding the incompatibility between special creation claims for people and evolution for everything else. And that’s why so many students show up in first year university biology class thinking that human evolution is a merely a belief that one can equally accept or reject.

    Imagine if chemistry or physics had to suffer such a religiously inspired indignity of fundamental principles to a matter of belief. I wonder if those involved in teaching the subjects would be so willing to compromise what is true with what is socially convenient.

    1. Seriously? The bold statement at the end of this article is that there are 32 states where children are COMPLETELY deprived of learning where they came from, based solely on the fact the word “human” is not in the curriculum standard regarding evolution. I took a science methods class in the state of Utah several years ago and there was no question that I was to understand that the intent of the standard included human evolution. When most people, and especially those teaching biology, see a biology curriculum standard that uses the word evolution, whether they actually believe it not, they immediately understand that the standard is talking about the whole spectrum of evolution. Is there room for biology teachers to wiggle? No question. But is adding the word “human” to the curriculum standard going to make huge difference? Unless you are going to require every school board in every state to micromanage every biology teacher’s daily content, legislating to the nth degree is not going to help. Most high school students don’t even want to be in a biology class that is more than minimally challenging. Whether or not high school students coming into college biology courses actually believe in evolution is more likely related to their upbringing (remember, almost 80% of the “general public” said that God was a part of this in some way, and, yes, some students may actually still hang on to their parents beliefs) than a complete failure on the part of the public education system and its standards. And it still doesn’t change the likelihood that the map graphic focuses on the word “human” evolution more to push an agenda than more accurately reflect that evolution probably really is a much more consistent part of high school curricula than it suggests.

      1. One additional line in curriculum standards is hardly “micromanag(ing) a biology teacher’s daily content” when it specifically addresses a well-established gap in students’ learning outcomes.

      2. Well, yes, it is about social context. In a nation where fig 1 applies (and worse for other groups), fig 2 is telling us that the students are “completely deprived of learning where they came from.”

        This is saying the same thing: “Whether or not high school students coming into college biology courses actually believe in evolution is more likely related to their upbringing (remember, almost 80% of the “general public” said that God was a part of this in some way, and, yes, some students may actually still hang on to their parents beliefs) than a complete failure on the part of the public education system and its standards.”

        If not the public education system (and woe the so called home-“schooled”) makes up for the 80 % anti-scientists by rigorously delineate the fuzzy area, we have a continuing problem. Changing the standards to reflect the problem is a start. But there are no easy solutions, nor easy ways to shirk responsibility as you suggest: for one thing, it seems the school boards are in need of micro-management from the state in the first place, and so on. So that doesn’t seem like a feasible suggestion.

  20. As a concerned parent, I make sure to indoctrinate my child with some knowledge of evolution/natural selection. She’s only 6 so I try to scale the knowledge to what I see as her level of understanding (as I do with all matters that I see the school system may be lacking in). I have her enrolled in a science and technology based magnate school here in Ct. so it should be interesting on how/if they address evolution. Either way she will be armed with knowledge and ready to ask questions due to her inquisitive nature. I personally feel that the greatest defense against the threat of religious superstitions is knowledge.

  21. Concur with #20. Bad data. Bad survey. Virginia has evolution as core to the Biology program and part of the Standards of Learning. I confirmed with State guidelines and my local school district (55,000 students). Personal experience is they also handle objections to evolution brilliantly.

  22. As an Australian I must say that I don’t understand how the curriculum works in the states of USA.

    Where one comes from I dependant upon a person’s belief system. Human evolution is a THEORY based on evidence and as a theory it will remain as the preferred option until something better comes along. I hope that you teach your students that as part of “where they come from” too because I object to Human Evolution being taught as fact.

    By the way, before you accuse me of being a Creationist or a TE, I will advised you that I am a Science Teacher and when I teach Human evolution, I start with the line – “some of you will believe that evolution is not correct due to your beliefs but I would like you to go out into the world as educated young adults understanding what evidence lies behind this theory. Then you will have a basis for intellitectual discussion and perhaps a willingness to explore it further so that you learn about what you are objecting.”

    Does this state my TE stance – I think not.

    Also, it does not help that text books still contain debunked evidence!!!

  23. I don’t think that the graphic of the nation indicating 32 states have “no mention” of evolution is accurate. I live in Texas, and I am pretty sure that they mention evolution in the curriculum. Why else would the religious right want a “disclaimer” in the text that says that “evolution is not a fact, but just a theory”? I know that’s part of their agenda in Texas, and it doesn’t make sense to want that in the textbooks if the books already do not even mention evolution.

    1. The graph is about having a state standard or state mandate to teach evolution.

      Local school districts can include it; it is just that they don’t HAVE to in order to meet a state standard.

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