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Right for the Wrong Reasons: Michael Zimmerman Ignores the Science that Challenges Evolution (Updated)

Casey Luskin

Michael Zimmerman, the biologist who founded the pro-theistic evolution “Clergy Letter Project,” has an op-ed at the Huffington Post, “Redefining The Creation/Evolution Controversy,” which poses the following question:

What do the following have in common?

A. Sarah Palin’s claim that health care reform will lead to “death panels.”

B. The birthers’ claim that President Obama was born in Kenya.

C. The constant refrain that the evolution/creation controversy is a battle between religion and science.

The simple answer is that there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that each statement is false while proponents of each hope that the frequency and volume of repetition substitutes for truth.

Of course Zimmerman is right to highlight the inaccuracy of saying “the evolution/creation controversy is a battle between religion and science”–just not for the reasons he gives.

Zimmerman claims statement (C) is wrong because in his view, evolution “poses no threat” to faith. Thus, there’s no need for any “controversy.” Zimmerman appears so eager to endorse to the evolutionary consensus that he forgot to note the important question: What if it’s science that challenges neo-Darwinism?***

The reality is that controversy does exist–not because of religion, but rather because of science that challenges neo-Darwinism.

Zimmerman thinks the way to end the controversy is for “religion [to] remain religion” and stay out of the allegedly separate sphere of science. But if there’s science that challenges neo-Darwinism, then the controversy should continue — on scientific grounds.

And it’s worth noting that Zimmerman’s world isn’t free of controversy. He eagerly picks on those who voice religious objections to evolution, saying they have “bizarre opinions,” using a line from postmodern pop-culture to chide those who dare to “think their view of religion is the only one that matters.” (Ironic, since he acts like his view on evolution is the “only one that matters.”) Zimmerman further attacks former Texas State Board of Education Chair Don McLeroy by alleging McLeroy sought to “protect Texas school children from the evils of evolution,” and he laments that “the Texas State Board of Education has made it clear that it has serious doubts about [evolution].”

It seems that in his haste to attack Darwin-skeptics, Zimmerman missed the fact that evolution is still being fully taught in Texas. No one was seeking to “protect” Texas students from evolution. The new Texas standards require students to:

  • “analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student”
  • “analyze and evaluate” core evolutionary concepts, including “natural selection,” “mutations,” and “common ancestry”
  • “analyze and evaluate” evolutionary explanations for abrupt appearance in the fossil record or the complexity of the cell

These are good standards: evolution is fully taught, but students are allowed to look at “all sides” of the evidence and “analyze and evaluate” core evolutionary claims. Zimmerman apparently doesn’t like this, objecting to those who express “serious doubts about [evolution].” His reaction is to appeal to authority and assert that “there simply isn’t any scientific controversy about the importance of evolutionary theory.” Zimmerman may claim he doesn’t want to “protect” students from certain views, but having watched the Texas State Board’s actions last year, it’s clear that they rejected the position of those who wanted to protect students from any scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution. In fact, it seems that Zimmerman does want to protect students from certain views–from scientific challenges to neo-Darwinian evolution.

In response to Zimmerman, I’d like to pose my own question:

What do the following have in common?
A. Sarah Palin’s claim that health care reform will lead to “death panels.”
B. The birthers’ claim that President Obama was born in Kenya.
C. The constant refrain that there simply isn’t any scientific controversy about the importance of evolutionary theory.

My answer? In Zimmerman’s own words: “The simple answer is that there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that each statement is false while proponents of each hope that the frequency and volume of repetition substitutes for truth.”

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*** Update: Dr. Zimmerman has written a response to this article, most of which is not worth responding to because it’s just motive-mongering. But he does say this: “sorry to be so blunt, but there’s simply no way to be polite about this: [Luskin’s] claim is utter garbage. And he must know it because he doesn’t direct his readers to a single piece of scientific evidence supporting his charge.” I guess my oversight in failing to include a link to the dozens of articles I’ve written where I discuss evidence that I feel challenges evolution makes me guilty of saying things that I allegedly don’t believe. I’m not interested in these kinds of petty personal attacks, but some of the evidence that challenges neo-Darwinian evolution includes:

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.

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