Glenn Branch's picture

Everitt versus Midgley, Part 3

Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m still happily kibitzing on a dispute between two philosophers, Mary Midgley and Nicholas Everitt. (Look, I don’t give you a hard time about your idea of fun, do I?) You’ll recall that in 2007, Midgley published a pamphlet entitled Intelligent Design Theory and other ideological problems (PDF), which Everitt is now criticizing in a forthcoming review (PDF; subscription required) in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. Of the criticisms of Everitt’s I’ve addressed so far (part 1, part 2), the most important is that Midgley wrongly denies that young-earth creationism was “once the mainstream Christian position, endorsed by both intellectuals and the layperson in the pew” (p. 5). But a position held by Christians in the pulpit and in the pew is not necessarily a Christian position as such, and the fact that Christians have not generally regarded young-earth creationism as definitive of or central to their faith seems to show at least that Everitt fails to establish his case. Now to the consequences for the classroom.

Everitt writes, “So, should creationism or intelligent design theory appear in school science lessons? Midgley’s answer appears to be a straightforward ‘No’” (p. 7). But actually it isn’t: Midgley writes, “it is not enough to say that teachers should not be presenting Intelligent Design Theory as science” (p. 41, emphasis added); “as science” is presumably not a rhetorical flourish, but is instead signaling that “intelligent design” might be legitimately discussed in the science classroom in ways that manage not to misrepresent it as scientifically credible. True, and frustratingly, she offers no suggestions on that score; instead, she is concerned only to recommend changes in teacher training, for both science and religious education teachers. (Remember, Midgley and Everitt are discussing public education mainly in Britain, where religious education classes are part of the standard fare.) But it would be a mistake, I think, to read Midgley—as Everitt seems to—as proposing a gag rule.

Everitt’s own answer is “It depends.” When students advance purely religious objections to evolution, teachers should explain that there is overwhelming empirical evidence for and massive scientific consensus over evolution; tact is no doubt in order, but not to the point of compromising on the science. When students advance objections to evolution that are at least in the ballpark of science—Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity is cited—teachers should address them on their merits. (Everitt is properly dubious: “I would expect a teacher to leave students in no doubt that Behe’s reasoning and conclusion are accepted by only a small proportion of biologists” [p. 9].) There are practical considerations that might militate against such discussions: “it would be entirely understandable that teachers should not want to spend much time discussing theories they regard as hopelessly wrong” (p. 9). But Everitt urges, on the other hand, that it is important to debunk such arguments.

I’ve rendered Everitt’s answer without using his labels, because those labels—“creationism” for “purely religious objections” and “intelligent design” for “objections that are at least in the ballpark of science”—are misleading. On his account, creationism is primarily or exclusively Biblical creationism—a hypothetical creationist student says, “But this conflicts with the account we find in Genesis, so it must be wrong”—while the “intelligent design” proponents he cites “proceed in a properly scientific manner” (p. 8). Overlooked is the foreshadowing of “intelligent design” in “scientific creationism,” which (as Henry Morris always insisted) involves “no reliance on Biblical revelation, utilizing only scientific data to support and expound the creation model” (emphasis in original). Midgley, in contrast, understands the continuity here: “If the Biblical view was to survive at all in schools it now needed somehow to be put in a form which could meet current standards of scientific reasoning. And this is what Intelligent Design theorists have tried to do” (p. 25).

His misconstruing Midgley as advancing a gag rule and the infelicitous nature of his labels aside, there’s not much in Everitt’s answer to object to (although when he proposes that a textbook that mentions young-earth creationism should contain a proviso like “Some people accept a Biblical account of evolution, but they are wrong because …” [p. 8, emphasis in original], he is presupposing a tendentious understanding of what the Bible says about evolution). The devil is in the details, though. It’s one thing to sketch, in abstract terms, what teachers ought to say under what conditions, and another thing to enunciate a detailed policy that would guide teachers in general—especially when, as in the United States, one in eight public high school biology teachers are already presenting creationism as scientifically credible, and six in ten can’t, don’t, or won’t present evolution in the ways recommended by the nation’s leading scientific and science education organizations.

On the whole, I think that Midgley emerges relatively unscathed from Everitt’s critique. That is not to say that I agree with everything in Midgley’s pamphlet (much less with everything in Midgley’s oeuvre; it was she who launched a hyperbolic attack on Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene in the journal Philosophy in 1979, eliciting a memorable, and to my mind devastating, response from Dawkins in the same journal in 1981) or that I disagree with everything in Everitt’s critique. Most of all, though, I am pleased to see that such issues are being taken seriously by philosophers in Britain. Owing to the persistence of the creationism/evolution controversy in the United States, philosophers like Michael Ruse, Elliott Sober, Philip Kitcher, Barbara Forrest, the late Niall Shanks, Sahotra Sarkar, Robert T. Pennock, and others have sharpened their claws and beaks on the underlying philosophical issues, to the benefit both of philosophy and of science education. Why shouldn’t their colleagues in Britain follow their example?