Teaching About Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism (Book Review)

This review appeared in the British Creation Society (BCS)’s Origins Journal no. 53.

Teaching About Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism edited by Leslie S. Jones and Michael J. Reiss. Peter Lang, New York. 2007. ISBN 978-0-8204-7080-1

Reviewed by David Anderson

This book is a collection of eleven chapters from different contributors, sandwiched between an introduction by both editors and a conclusion from Michael Reiss (former Director of Education at the Royal Society). Some of the contributors are well known champions of evolution, such as Robert Pennock and Michael Ruse; whereas all the remaining authors are established writers in the area of science education. The book’s stated purpose is to discuss the issues raised for school science teachers by the ongoing resistance to evolutionary theory – especially from creationists and latterly by design theorists. How should evolution be taught? How should dissenting or potentially dissenting students be handled? How should science interact with religion in a science classroom? And so on. Though Reiss himself is based in London and two other contributors are not in North America, the contributors generally assume the American context, sometimes quite narrowly. This would considerably decrease the book’s interest to others. Of the twelve writers, eleven are convinced neo-Darwinists and the lone sceptic is the Director General of the Islamic Academy in Cambridge, Shaikh Abdul Mabud. The religious views of the neo-Darwinists vary, including atheists and theists, though the theists’ thinking has a heavy non-evangelical, liberal bent.

The book is aimed at an academic level and is published in the ‘Counterpoints’ series, whose strap-line is ‘Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education’. This is rather appropriate because, taken as a whole, the book is a confused mess of contradictory messages, flowing from contradictory worldviews. Only a minority of the contributors spend much time critically probing the deeper issues that give rise to their conclusions (if they devote any space to showing awareness of them at all). That’s quite understandable on a certain level, because the probing of such issues could unravel not just the whole book but the whole system of education that provides the context for the discussion. It would open up questions that show up the book in its present form for what it is – people talking far past each other, despite their solid agreement on Darwinism itself.

What is education? What part do world-views play in it? Who should be in charge of a child’s education? What are the mutual responsibilities and rights of parents and children? And how should conflicts be resolved when they arise? Such questions are the ‘elephants’ rioting around the room, frequently being overlooked by the contributors as they try to resolve how to teach evolution to students who may have been brought up in a context where its conclusions are questionned. These questions expose deeper fault lines in the idea of a uniform government-controlled curriculum in an age where society is not held together by mutually agreed religious beliefs.

As far as creationism itself is concerned, much of the book is a dialogue of the deaf. The contributors generally assume a caricature of creationist belief and practice which is far from reality on the ground. There is no attempt to accurately understand, represent or interact with real creationist thinking. Instead, it is assumed without documentation (presumably because it is needless) that creationists’ core doctrine is ‘literal’ (rather than grammatical-historical). Furthermore, it is continually assumed or asserted that creationist biblical interpretation is necessarily ‘anti-science’ (rather than seeking to build alternative scientific models), that most creationists are only creationists because they lack scientific expertise, and that evolution is a topic of almost unanimous agreement amongst scientists. The book could be used as a case study in the phenomena of ‘false knowledge’. Here, an endlessly-repeated and never-questioned body of supposed ‘facts’ (that would be rejected if only the smallest amount of critical investigation were made), instead become accepted as facts so utterly certain that they need no such investigation. Professor Michael Reiss (though himself a neo-Darwinist content with handling creationism as fiction) is a welcome exception to this unthinking repetition. It is interesting to note that not much more than a year after writing this book, his carefully thought-out pleas to treat creationism in a more accurate context have lost him his role as Director of Education at the Royal Society – thus allowing the knee-jerk fundamentalism of the less critical campaigners to continue. As Director General of the Islamic Academy in Cambridge, Shaikh Abdul Mabud doesn’t actually come out and endorse any alternative to Darwinism, only asking for a more critical examination of the evidence against it. The editors have insulated themselves very well against any genuine creationist criticism!

There are certainly large doses of unthinking atheist fundamentalism in this book. If vacuous sloganeering (e.g. “Intelligent Design Creationism!”, “fundamentalists!”) is your cup of tea, then campaigner Robert Pennock’s chapter will do you a treat. There’s also a review of relevant US court cases by Randy Moore that contributes little in the way of intelligent thinking about the nature of church and state. Plenty too, of unthinking scientism – materialist philosophy repackaged as science, whether this philosophy has simply been absorbed unwittingly by the writer or is part of a fully-formed God-hating world-view. A classic example is found in Moore’s chapter. Though his brief was in writing on the legal history of creation-evolution related issues in the US, at the end of the chapter he pulls in his overall reasons why Intelligent Design (ID) is flawed. This amounts to throwing out a long list of unanswered philosophical (not scientific) questions as if they were irrefutable. For instance, he objects that the identification of intelligence leads immediately to a scientific dead end. He then asks why species have gone extinct if an intelligence designed them? Why also is there wastage in the natural world? A God, he contends, would have never done things this way. The irony of this outburst of religious justification for excluding ID, at the end of a chapter assuming the humanist position that the US constitution forbids any religious thinking in government schools, is totally lost on the writer.

As a whole the book represents a smorgasbord of opinions, from the compatibility of evolution with religion to their mutual falsification, accompanied by a range of views on how then to actually deal with science/religion issues in government schools. Each writer presents his own ideas on the action to take – to what extent personal beliefs should guide the presentation, etc. All that any Darwinian science teacher reading the book could really do with it is treat it as a kind of menu, and choose which option appeals to their disposition most. There’s little else in the book that one writer asserts whose serious problems aren’t highlighted by someone else.

What will the creationist take away from this sea of confusion? Firstly, it is very encouraging – when Scripture isn’t allowed to be the first foundation of our thinking, such running round in circles really is the only possible outcome. Secondly, it is frustrating that such rampant “false knowledge” is still repeated as truth even amongst academics who are supposed to be doing careful research. What more can we do to communicate an accurate picture of our position and have that discussed instead of endless caricatures? On the other hand, it is something creationists must always be ready for, given the spiritual and not ultimately academic nature of the battle. Thirdly, we are faced with a challenge. It ought to be very uncomfortable to read academics, of blatantly and subtly non-Christian world-views, so confusedly tossing around the issues of how to educate other people’s children in matters of spiritual and moral significance. If creationists really are convinced that a biblical world-view must come first, then a much more thorough reformation of education is needed than simply campaigning for the treatment of evolution in schools to be balanced. We must of course take a neighbourly concern for those who are exposed to that treatment – but what about our own children? What are we doing to make sure our own children have a much more thorough-going nurture? How can they be given an education that is grounded in God’s truth from A to Z rather than just hoping for the best with what the present confused, secular education system can serve up?

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