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Biology Textbooks and the “God-Talk” Problem


Another school year is around the corner. Undergraduate biology students will once again take up their textbooks on a quest to explore the intricacies of life. Of course, these students are rarely exposed to a balanced assessment of evolutionary theory, including its empirical challenges.

But that’s not all: biology students will likely use a textbook that incoherently presents the case for evolution. Surprisingly, this muddle emerges from textbooks’ unprincipled use of theology, of all things. In a recent journal article, “Damned if You Do and Damned if You Don’t: The Problem of God-talk in Biology Textbooks,” Stephen Dilley and Nicholas Tafacory argue that textbooks’ case for evolution falls prey to an intractable dilemma. 

“A Crippling Dilemma”

On the one hand, these textbooks run into serious problems if they include God-talk in their case for evolution. This talk includes claims along the lines of, “God would never create a suboptimal panda’s thumb, but such imperfection is just what we’d expect on natural selection.” Yet on the other hand, biology textbooks face serious difficulties if they exclude God-talk in their case for evolution, distorting the way many evolutionary biologists, from Darwin on, have argued. As the authors put it, “textbooks are … in a crippling dilemma.”  

Indeed they are. Dilley and Tafacory analyze 32 biology and evolution textbooks. In this list they include “the Big 12,” that is, the top four in each of the key undergraduate categories: biology majors, non-majors, and evolution courses. They also focus on chapters or sections of these texts that explicitly present the “evidence for evolution.” It is in these chapters that the dilemma is most acute.

Weak and Speculative Theology

The authors contend that problems abound when textbooks include theological claims as part of their case for evolution. For example, in various justifications of evolutionary theory, over 80 percent of the textbooks on their list rely on questionable theological propositions. Textbooks engage in God-talk ranging from “straw-god theology,” which supports evolution by mischaracterizing religious opponents, to “presumptive theology,” which asserts — typically without support — what God would or would not do. Some versions, for example, rely on the assertion that, in effect, “God would always create from scratch, never drawing on a common design plan.” In short, as part of their case for evolution, the great majority of textbooks in this analysis indulge in weak and speculative theology.

Aside from these particular instances, biology textbooks face a significant problem in general if they include God-talk. The authors cite:

  • The worry of some Darwinian biologists that direct engagement with theology-laden contemporary creationism may give students the mistaken impression that creationism is a legitimate competitor with evolutionary theory. 
  • In public high school biology classrooms, the legal precedents in Epperson, McLean, Edwards, and Kitzmiller may ban arguments for evolution that draw on (or critique) certain propositions involving a supernatural creator. If these legal cases have teeth, then some textbooks that include God-talk may be in need of serious editing. On this point, Dilley and Tafacory wryly recommend, “Perhaps organizations like the National Center for Science Education ought to take up the cause.” 
  • The necessity of rejecting key models of the relationship between “science and religion.” For example, Stephen Jay Gould’s popular NOMA model does not allow theological claims within the domain of science. If this model is correct, then God-talk can no longer be used to support any scientific theory, including evolutionary theory.
  • The “methodological naturalism” problem. Many scientists believe that methodological naturalism is proper in science. But MN bars theological propositions from scientific research and discourse. With that as a given, theology-laden arguments for evolution run counter to the scientific method itself. Textbooks should no longer use them in their scientific “evidence for evolution” chapters.

The Other Half

Notwithstanding, the large majority of textbooks on this list of books examined here marshal God-talk in their case for evolution. But that’s only half of the dilemma. Dilley and Tafacory articulate the other half, which focuses on difficulties that arise if biology textbooks exclude considerations of religion in their case for evolution:

  • It’s futile to ignore human beings’ design-sensitive cognitive hardwiring. Research shows that, from an early age, even children brought up as atheists tend to explain the world by reference to a God-like designer. Further research involving veteran scientists also shows a marked tendency to see teleology in nature. The human mind seems hardwired to think about the organic world in terms of design and designers. “If this is our natural way of thinking,” Dilley and Tafacory observe, “then, at a very practical level, it will be exceedingly difficult to eradicate design-like reasoning in biology.” Or to put it another way, it is psychologically implausible for textbooks simply to dismiss human nature.
  • Textbooks also risk mischaracterizing the central argument of the Origin of Species. Darwin argued by contrasting evolution with special creation (the latter including particular theological claims about God’s creative actions in organic history). If theology is excluded from biology textbooks, then textbooks can no longer accurately represent the seminal book on evolution by natural selection. 
  • Without God-talk, textbooks also lose a host of theology-laden arguments for contemporary evolutionary theory by prominent biologists, including atheists and theistic evolutionists. Luminaries who champion these arguments include Theodosius Dobzhansky, Niles Eldredge, Douglas Futuyma, John Avise, Neil Shubin, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, George Williams, Stephen Jay Gould, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Denis Alexander, and many others. If God-talk is not permitted in science, then textbooks should bar these thinkers’ theological arguments for evolution. So much for representing the field!
  • Perhaps most significantly, excluding theology from the case for evolution requires ignoring scientific evidence against creationism. Without God-talk, textbooks can no longer say, for example, that radiometric dating supports evolutionary views of an ancient Earth, but runs contrary to the claim that “God created life on Earth about 10,000 years ago.” Surely this is a high price to pay. The great majority of biologists think that empirical evidence contradicts young-earth creationism. But given a “theology ban,” textbooks properly can no longer say as much.

What to Do?

For textbooks, it’s a damned-if-you-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. What to do? As Dilley and Tafacory show, around 70 percent of biology textbooks on their list try to have it both ways. That is, texts typically claim that God-talk is inappropriate in science, but then turn around and include just such talk when describing evolution’s triumph:

[I]n their opening chapters, many textbook authors prohibit the incursion of religious claims into science, then, in their “evidence for evolution” chapters, they permit religious claims back into science for the purpose of bolstering evolutionary theory. Theological claims are barred — except when they are not. This … is incoherent. Even worse, it is self-serving. God-talk is only allowed when it strengthens evolution. J.B.S. Haldane once quipped that “[t]eleology is like a mistress to the biologist; he dare not be seen with her in public but cannot live without her.” Perhaps something similar can be said of theology: her existence is never officially acknowledged, yet her diverting benefits come in handy when desired.

Oddly, despite the strength of their analysis, Dilley and Tafacory seem uncomfortable applying their thinking to general arguments for evolutionary theory, rather than just ones in textbooks. They reject the idea that their examination per se raises problems for evolution or its justification. However, their analysis applies widely to any biology article or book, academic or popular, that includes or excludes God-talk in a comprehensive case for evolutionary theory.

Photo credit: Wadi Lissa via Unsplash.