Many have been mystified that, even in the 21st century, Texas remains embroiled in a heated debate over evolution. In 2008 and 2009, for example, creationists on and off the State Board of Education insisted that new science curriculum standards for Texas public schools include requirements that would open classroom doors to anti-evolution junk science. The state board is set to adopt new science textbooks and other instructional materials based on those standards this year.
But the argument over evolution in Texas really isn’t much of a surprise. That’s because creationists have proudly rejected out of hand the overwhelming scientific evidence behind evolution. They have reveled, as former state board chairman Don McLeroy infamously said, in “standing up to experts.”
In fact, McLeroy — a self-described “young Earth creationist” who lost his re-election bid in 2010 — continues to do so. Last month he agreed to be interviewed by Steven Novella, who is president of the New England Skeptical Society (NESS). You can find the posts about that interview on the NESS blog, NeuroLogicalBlog. But if you don’t have time to check out those posts, just look at one to understand that it’s pointless to engage McLeroy in debate here. It’s pointless because, for people like McLeroy, “evidence” is an almost meaningless word. The sources and strength of evidence are irrelevant if they don’t align with their particular ideological point of view. McLeroy writes (to Novella) about their discussion:
“I admit that I do not have the time to read all the technical articles and read all the links you have referred to, but I do not admit that I am unable to judge the adequacy of the evidence evolutionists have presented for evolution. I have read the popular literature of highly acclaimed evolutionists; I have thought about how much evidence is required to demonstrate evolution. And, I have found it unconvincing.”
So McLeroy says the evidence he doesn’t have time to read and learn about is unpersuasive in any case. That’s a neat trick, yes? He does, however, claim to have read “the popular literature of highly acclaimed evolutionists” — as if that is a sufficient substitute for the “technical articles and all the other links” that explore the evidence behind evolution.
This isn’t just an admission of ignorance by McLeroy. It’s a defiant declaration of independence from the demands of rational thought.
McLeroy goes on:
“Of course our major disagreement is that I am a theist and you are an atheist. I wonder how much that ‘colors’ our view of the sufficiency of the evidence for evolution.”
We’re not surprised that McLeroy sees the issue in such a way. But the primary source of disagreement here isn’t really defined by the division between people of faith and atheists. Many people who accept the science of evolution are atheists, of course. But many — including prominent scientists — are devout Christians or followers of other religious faiths.
Take, for example, Kenneth Miller, a Roman Catholic professor of biology at Brown University and author of one of the nation’s leading high school textbooks. His biology textbook is among those the Texas state board is considering for adoption this year. Or consider Francis S. Collins, an evangelical Christian and head of the Human Genome Project. From a Time magazine piece about Collins in 2009:
“Science can’t be put together with a literalist interpretation of Genesis,” he continues. “For one thing, there are two different versions of the creation story” — in Genesis 1 and 2 — “so right from the start, you’re already in trouble.” Christians should think of Genesis “not as a book about science but about the nature of God and the nature of humans,” Collins believes. “Evolution gives us the ‘how,’ but we need the Bible to understand the ‘why’ of our creation.”
One obviously doesn’t have to agree with Collins’ (or Miller’s) religious views to support or understand the science of evolution. But for a rigid, dogmatic theist like McLeroy, one either rejects evolution (and, by extension, science) or rejects God. That’s why he finds the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution — evidence he admits not to have read — “unconvincing.”
Of course, McLeroy has every right to his beliefs and opinions. But when it comes to science, he and others like him offer people of faith a false choice. And it’s one that threatens the education of millions of schoolchildren and the future of Texas.