Open Letter to NABT, NCSE, and AAAS

 Open letter to those signing an open letter to the National Association of Biology Teachers, to the National Center for Science Education, and to the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences

 Object: recent changes in the wording of the NABT's definition of the word "evolution"

 To whom it may be concerned,

 It has come to our attention that you have recently endorsed an open letter to the NABT, the NCSE, and NAAS concerning the recent changes made by the NABT in its definition of evolution. While we sympathize with your "right" to interpret scientific data without "public or partisan pressure of any kind," we also feel that your own defense of the previous NABT statement clearly crosses the line from science to theology and philosophy. We claim, furthermore, that this line leads you into perhaps unintended philosophical and theological waters while not really defending your "inalienable right and peremptory duty to defend rationalism and open inquiry" as advertised. In short, we will demonstrate that the dropping of the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" from the previous statement indeed reflect a more acceptable scientific position.

 As you have stated, the original NABT definition of evolution was crafted in 1995 as a "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". The first item on the list of "tenets of science, evolution and biology education" read:

 The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments

 The words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" were taken as miscommunicating the nature of science and the NABT Board subsequently dropped these contentious words. You claimed that dropping the word "unsupervised" was a "bad move." We read in your open letter that:

 "This (supervision) is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny. All we know so far about the evolutionary process tells us that there is no supervision except for the action of natural selection."

 But by what method have you, as rational scientists, defined supervision and how would you propose to measure such supervision if it occurred? Such a method is needed because many different intellectual contexts provide many different definitions of the word. Not only religious contexts, but even different scientific contexts give different interpretations--you need to spell out your own more clearly. For example, from a bio-physics context, we might ask why you limited your version of supervision to just the "action of natural selection?" Shouldn't you have considered other "natural" laws as well? Clearly the physical law of energy conservation and the guiding Electro-Weak-Strong-Gravitational interactions, along with the laws of probability and statistics, are also constantly supervising the process--guiding the outcome. A biologist might not think to include these, but clearly they should be included in the exception. Of course, we may wish to not consider this kind of supervision as personal either.

 So let us then turn our attention to the use of this word "impersonal." You claimed that dropping this word was also a "bad move." We read in your open letter that

 "The fossil record, as well as the importance of random events such as catastrophes, mass extinctions, and genetic drift, assure us that such a personal involvement has not happened."

 But again, by what method do you discover this lack of personality in natural processes such as evolution? Your letter seems to suggest that "randomness" is a sufficient measure, but we will show below that this is not necessarily the case. You might want to then claim that it obvious to everyone that the laws of physics and natural selection are impersonal. It's actually not so obvious either. What if we were to consider, for example, a perfectly reasonable claim that the best measure of personality within a creative action is the outcome of the action? One could then argue that the personality of an artist could best be seen not in the process of the creation but rather in the finished work of art itself. Extending this, the outcome of the physical laws mentioned above is personality, human personality to be precise, and so the universal laws of nature certainly produce personality. If one were to posit a sort of "conservation of personality" (such symmetry is a notion with significant scientific precedent) then one could scientifically infer that the physical laws had some quality of 'supra-personality.' Granted, it might be so different from what the physical laws produced as to almost be unrecognizable, but nevertheless, it is not an unprecedented scientific move.

 Of course, you may find this unacceptable and claim that personality is just an emergent property of the laws, which are impersonal. We are not moving to claim this is an unreasonable response either, just not one warranted by the scientific data. Others could interpret the same scientific data and even the same evolutionary model differently. For example, certain "theologians" might want to argue that the laws are indeed impersonal and the randomness claimed in evolution supports their idea of a creative God who is a freedom-granting entity--a free-wheeling sort of personality behind the laws.

 A supporter of Augustine might want to suggest that your theory of evolution support her idea of a God who lives outside of time-- in Hawking's 2-dimensional time. A "mystic" might want to consider personality within the laws, and this personality is conserved and ultimately translated into human expressions of personality--both "good" and "bad." There are many others whose voices have not been heard in this debate, but as you can well see, the argument is going nowhere scientifically. So we would argue that it was best for the scientists to have simply dropped the offending words--leaving the metaphysics to the philosophers and theologians. (No comment on your bold move to omit the lawyers.)

 We could also consider the use of the term "natural," on the grounds that it has often been defined in the context of "only the natural world exists," but then this would make all NABT statements look silly; "The diversity of life is the outcome of ... the only processes that exist" or, "The diversity of life is the outcome of ... all that exists." So we won't ask for a definition of "natural" until the next NABT revision. Nor will we deal with the obvious mathematical and linguistic problems associated with attributing evolution to pure random chance.

 We also could consider the remarkable statement "The day in which scientists will be unable to explain natural phenomena without recurring to divine intervention or other supernatural forces, we will have a major paradigm shift - of cataclysmic proportions." To our knowledge, no scientific theory has ever completely "explained" a single "natural phenomena." Nor is the only reason to object to "impersonal" and "unsupervised" processes dependent on a grossly misleading notion of "supernatural" or on an interventionist account of God's action.

 Correct us if we are wrong, but we think you should refrain from acting as if science can give a complete description of all reality. A description which from within a given framework of mathematical and physical laws describes the creation of humanity from the first quantum fluctuation of the big bang through the formation of self-replicating molecules that become the human code simply is not a complete explanation. To many of us, whom you are attempting to represent, any "explanation" which fails to account for all of our human experiences is simply incomplete and ought not to advertise as otherwise!

 But we will not dwell on these fine points. Instead, we will conclude by considering another, even more remarkable statement in the open letter which bears your name,

 "...Unless, of course, the person in question is supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised, impersonal process. A possibility... which is outside science, but that has been repeatedly invalidated on philosophical grounds ever since David Hume and well before Darwin..."

 Notice the problem here--the NABT is not the NAMBT (National Association of Materialist Biology Teachers) yet you have admittedly been moved into an endorsement of certain metaphysical positions. Is it really your intention, however, for the NABT to take a stand on the specific philosophers you mention in your defense? Would you suggest they support Hume over say Popper and Lakatos as the better philosopher of science? Have you even studied Hume? We wonder, because such an appeal would not only unwittingly destroy the foundations of science, but would also ignore interesting, and valid, counter examples. Philosophically and scientifically valid analogies of "a person... supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised, impersonal process," furthermore, do in fact exist--there are examples of what appears, on a reductionistic account of science, to be random and unsupervised processes that can only be adequately accounted for by means of actual personal supervision.

 Consider how scientific reductionism fails to identify supervision and personality in an Electro-magnetic measurement of human creative activities. For example in the writing of a love letter. Attempts to Electro-magnetically measure such a process results in the observation of nothing more than random voltage spikes between the brain and hands--we observe that creation of love letters is based on random processes and we observe nothing that might indicate purpose. Does this then lead us, analogically, to the same metaphysical conclusions found in evolutionary biology? Do we make great quotes such as "The [Love Letter] is the outcome of [random electric responses]: the unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of [quantum electrodynamics]...chance alone is the source of every innovation...[The love letter] knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance?" Probably not--even though that is what the data implies. We as humans would simply argue that the tools were not appropriate for the conclusions. We overstated our conclusions--drawing metaphysical implications that did not follow from our data. We can understand the overstatement because we can look at the human-letter system as a whole--we know why people write letters and we know how they go about it. In the case of human evolution, however, we are not afforded this luxury.

 Some might see this as a beautiful example of how reductionistic methods used in science can quite often misinterpret the nature of reality, others might ponder the validity of such examples as analogies to evolution. Some might resist not on logical grounds, but reject the entire framework because it conflicts with their well-conceived social construction of knowledge. Perhaps, then, we should share the job of metaphysics with theologians and philosophers and not leave it just to biologists, lawyers, and politicians.

 The words "impersonal" and "unsupervised" are clearly hard to define as scientific categories, and should have been dropped. They imply metaphysical conclusions that cannot be answered by science alone. Let us not turn the NABT into the future "poster child" for the "social construction of science" movement.

 Signed

 (Total of 2 signatures, but growing. To avoid more claims of social construction, we hope the letter stands on its own merit and so the name of our institutions are withheld)

 David S. Oakley, Ph.D. Prof. of Math and Physics

 David Williams, Ph.D.  Prof. of Philosophy

 The defense of NABT: An Open Letter

 Open letter to the National Association of Biology Teachers, to the National Center for Science Education, and to the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences

 Object: recent changes in the wording of the NABT's definition of the word "evolution"

 To whom may be concerned,

 It has recently come to our attention that the NABT, with the support of the NCSE, has changed its statement defining what evolution is. This change apparently was at least in part the result of pressures from the Christian Fundamentalist movement. We strongly urge your organizations to reconsider such a change, and to defend scientific and educational principles in the face of public or partisan pressure of any kind.

 Our feeling is that this was an unfortunate decision, which can potentially mislead the American public and which yields undue authority to the already overwhelming political and religious pressure over science that has been mounting in this country in recent years. The NABT and the NCSE, as well as the scientific community at large, have an inalienable right and a peremptory duty to defend rationalism and open inquiry. The proposed change of the statement simply betrays such high ideals at their core. The significance of the change is far greater than just dropping two controversial words, since it represents the first wedge of a movement intended to surreptitiously introduce religious teachings into our public schools.

 The original NABT statement.

 The original NABT definition of evolution was crafted in 1995 as a "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". The first item on the list of "tenets of science, evolution and biology education" read:

 The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments

 While the customary modern definition of evolution in graduate level textbooks is more akin to "changes in allelic frequencies in a population" (D. Hartl & A. Clark, 1989 - Principles of population genetics, Sinauer), the above quoted statement very accurately portrays the broader meaning that evolutionary biologists attach to the term. Furthermore, since the NABT was looking for a definition that could be understood by the general public and applied by biology teachers nationwide, references to specific subject matters such as population genetics are ineffective.

 The modification and how it came about.

 The 1995 NABT statement apparently offended some religious fundamentalists and other creationists, chiefly among them Berkeley lawyer Phillip Johnson (author of "Darwin on Trial" and other misleading literature on evolution). Apparently, Johnson and others have claimed that the statement implies that evolutionary theory is an ideological statement, since the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" automatically exclude any divine intervention. This was explicitly suggested by a letter to the NABT by Alvin Plantinga, John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University, and Huston Smith, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. Notice that neither of these is a biologist.

 Smith's and Platinga's concern was that the NABT wording "...gives aid and comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a legitimate target. And, because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers Americans' respect for scientists and their place in our culture. If the words 'impersonal' and 'unsupervised' were dropped from your opening sentence it would help defuse tensions which, as things stand, are causing unnecessary problems in our collective life."

 As a consequence of this upheaval, the NABT agreed to reconsider the wording of the controversial statement, and did so at its 1997 meeting. The Board voted to retain the original statement, on the sound reasoning that Smith's and Platinga's assertion that the wording "contradicts the beliefs of the majority of the American people" is irrelevant. Scientific definitions, according to the Board, are independent of public opinion. But things did not end there.

 In the face of mounting pressure, the Board was reconvened at the end of the meeting, a few days later. The outcome of the new discussion was that:

 1) The extant wording which included "unsupervised" and "impersonal" apparently was miscommunicating both the nature of science and NABT's intent;

 2) The deletion of those two words would not affect the statement's accurate characterization of evolution, and affirmation of evolution's importance in science education.

 Eugenie Scott's comment on the NCSE web page (http://www.natcenscied.org/) was that the new NABT statement (http://www.NABT.org/positions.html) was the result of "a statesmanlike decision that better fulfilled [the NABT] goal by reducing a potential source of conflict in the classroom."

 Why it was a bad move.

 Apparently, the feeling at the NABT meeting was that the organization and the American public (mostly, the Christian Right) had a miscommunication problem. The NABT did not want its statements to include theological positions - rightly so. This politically correct attitude, however, does not serve science very well. We do not disagree that science, and evolutionary biology in particular, cannot prove or disprove the existence of some kind of god. On the other hand, the reason the American public perceives a direct conflict is because indeed evolution denies many attributes of various forms of Christian god. In this, fundamentalists and the American public at large are smarter than most scientists give them credit for. It is time for the scientific community and for educators to simply face this fact and move on, regardless of the consequences and predictable social outcry.

 In fact, Scott's statement that the NABT move was an example of "statesmanlike decision" is particularly illuminating of the fear of scientists and educators to face political and religious pressures. It is the same "statesmanship" that prompted the National Science Foundation to actively delete any appearance of the word evolution in the layman abstracts of research proposals in evolutionary biology funded by the Federal Government. Furthermore, the NABT change promptly backfired, culminating in a New York Times article declaring that creationists had won intellectual recognition. This was, and still is, followed by creationist propaganda using the change in the statement as a powerful weapon for their religious agenda.

 As for the two points raised at the final NABT Board meeting, let us analyze them in some more detail. The words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" were taken as miscommunicating the nature of science. Not really. Science is based on a fundamental assumption: that the world can be explained by recurring only to natural, mechanistic forces. Johnson is quite right in affirming that this is a philosophical position. He is wrong when he suggests that it is an unreasonable and unproven one. In fact, every single experiment conducted by any laboratory in any place on Earth represents a daily test of that assumption. The day in which scientists will be unable to explain natural phenomena without recurring to divine intervention or other supernatural forces, we will have a major paradigm shift - of cataclysmic proportions.

 The second point of the Board's deliberation is that dropping the contentious words does not affect the accuracy of the portrayal of evolution to the American public. Really? The NABT leaves open the possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner. This is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny. All we know so far about the evolutionary process tells us that there is no supervision except for the action of natural selection. Furthermore, a personal involvement would imply some "person" who would take care of directing the evolutionary process one way or the other. The fossil record, as well as the importance of random events such as catastrophes, mass extinctions, and genetic drift, assure us that such a personal involvement has not happened. Unless, of course, the person in question is supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised, impersonal process. A possibility, the latter, which is outside science, but that has been repeatedly invalidated on philosophical grounds ever since David Hume and well before Darwin...

 In conclusion, we reiterate that evolution indeed is, to the best of our knowledge, an impersonal and unsupervised process. Scientists are always open to revise their positions if new compelling evidence surfaces, so that creationists can be reassured that the incriminated words will be dropped if demonstrated to be inconsistent with reality. Until then, please leave the job to scientists and educators, not to lawyers, theologians, and politicians.

 Signed (total of 99 signatures),

 

 

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