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Blasphemy Against Darwin in New York State! Atheist Group Intimidates School District

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

blasphemy

The bullies and censors at the Freedom from Religion Foundation have scored a point, and they are crowing about it. A biology teacher at Holland Patent High School, in Upstate New York, informed students that “evolution only goes so far.” This produced a threatening outcry from the atheist group — blasphemy against Darwin! —  that acknowledging that there is “controversy about evolution is fraught with legal peril.” The school district replied with a letter that seemed to buckle to and accept this bizarre objection.

Introducing Evolution

The background is that it sounds like a student in the classroom recorded the teacher, Phil Lucason, as he introduced the subject of evolution to his students. From the FFRF’s account:

The teacher reportedly told students that “evolution only goes so far,” and that when they take the Regents Exam they have to “play the evolution game where evolution is the answer to everything.” He then went on to say that “they have never been able to find when something becomes something else.”

The teacher also reportedly derided “true evolutionists” and told students to ask them “where has the proof ever been shown and where does it say in science that it can become something else. There’s nothing.” To sum up his teardown of evolution he ended,

“So what that means is you have to play the evolutionary game because the people writing this are married to that idea despite the new proofs and new science coming out. What that means is anything is really fair game, whether it’s the belief that aliens came down and created us as like a project, God created us and everything else, whatever god that might be, that you subscribe to …”

The Regents Exam is a required test for high school students in New York State. The FFRF called Lucason’s discussion both “unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable.” They even pulled out the old chestnut about gravity and evolution*:

Any attempt to teach that there is a controversy about evolution is fraught with legal peril,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to [school district superintendent Jason Evangelist]. “Evolution, like gravity, is a scientific fact. Teaching that there is a scientific controversy about the validity of evolution is akin to teaching astrology with astronomy or alchemy beside chemistry.” [Emphasis added.]

The district superintendent, Jason Evangelist, replied with thanks, and not a word of disagreement:

We have consulted with our legal counsel to confirm a clear understanding of the Constitutional requirements referred to in your letter regarding instruction on evolution. We have addressed these requirements with Mr. Lucason who has indicated his understanding of the requirements and his commitment to them. 

Not a Model of Pedagogy

Several observations are relevant. First, it is definitely NOT against either federal law or Supreme Court precedent to teach about scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory. Look here for a full and sober consideration of “The Constitutionality and Pedagogical Benefit of Teaching Evolution Scientifically.”

True, assuming they are reported accurately, the teacher’s words are not especially eloquent or articulate. If a teacher asked me to help script his teaching on the subject, that’s not how I would do it. He has some further comments about the question of life’s origin on Earth. Referring to a possible life-bearing asteroid from Mars, he is quoted as saying in conclusion, “So yeah, there is [sic] all kinds of different scenarios and in reality, we don’t know.” Which is true enough: how life arose on our planet is indeed a mystery. Yes, he sounds a bit irritable. And that is not a model of the best pedagogy. This is not “teaching the controversy” as the Center for Science & Culture understands it.

But what the FFRF got the school district to agree to, in siding against its own employee, is breathtaking. This is, again, assuming that the lawyerly prose from Superintendent Evangelist means what it seems to mean. The atheist foundation asserted that it is “unconstitutional,” “fraught with legal peril,” to “teach that there is a controversy about evolution.” To do so is akin to “teaching astrology with astronomy or alchemy beside chemistry.” Really? To tell students truthfully that the science of evolution is not as simple as in their textbook…violates the Constitution? That is somehow an injection of “religion”? What vicious nonsense. The teacher wasn’t teaching Genesis as science. Not at all! His point seems to be that the students should take the Regents test and answer as expected, but at the end of day, they are free to draw their own private conclusions — “anything is really fair game.”

In the atheist foundation’s view, should he have said that when they’re done with the test, the students are NOT free to draw their own conclusions, since even privately some ideas are not “really fair game”? This comes close to defining speech, and thought, critical of Darwin as a kind of desecration of the holy.

The superintendent, amazingly, doesn’t dispute the claim about the “Constitutional requirements referred to in your letter.” Does he really agree that some private thoughts are forbidden, some mainstream science disallowed, under the Constitution? If he doesn’t agree, why doesn’t he say so?

Of Course There’s a Controversy

The truth is that there is indeed a mainstream scientific “controversy” about evolution. To cite just one example: I referred here last week to a new peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Molecular Biology, by evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch at Arizona State University. Neither an intelligent design proponent nor (certainly) a creationist, Lynch is among those biologists who still hold out for a solution to evolutionary theory’s shortcomings. But he’s nonetheless scathing about what he calls an “exercise in dreaming.”

One of the most significant problems in the broader body of biological thinking is the common assumption that all observed aspects of biodiversity are products of natural selection. …

With this mind set, evolutionary biology becomes little more than a (sometimes endless) exercise in dreaming up the supposed agents of selection molding one’s favorite aspect of phenotypic diversity. …

However, we now know that this unwavering belief in the limitless power of natural selection is untenable. [Emphasis added.]

Other biologists, not ID proponents, discuss this same issue of evolution’s yawning “explanatory deficits.” They include Austrian evolutionary biologist Gerd B. Müller in his keynote address at the 2016 Royal Society conference in London. Or to put the point in teacher Phil Lucason’s more layman-like phrase, “Evolution only goes so far.” If the Freedom from Religion Foundation got its way, public school biology teachers would be forbidden from telling students what working biologists say about their own field.

Not Their First Scalp

This is not the first scalp that the FFRF has sought. In 2013, partnering with belligerent atheist Jerry Coyne, they tried to silence physicist Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Coyne and the FFRP enjoyed much success in their bullying. See the article at the Free Science website, “Investigated, Silenced, Course Canceled,” for a full account.

Bullying and censoring are what the most hard-core atheists do. Equally disturbing is to see a school district apparently concede that the Constitution disallows telling students about what real scientists say about the subject they are studying. That’s not “Freedom from Religion.” It’s “Freedom from SCIENCE.” It’s the imposition of heresy charges in a secular religion in a public school. And certainly, as a matter of pedagogy, it does students a great disservice.

*For more on the tired trope of equating evolution gravity, see Granville Sewell and Sarah Chaffee’s article, “Evolution — More Certain Than Gravity?

Photo: Visitors admire the iconic Darwin statue at London’s Natural History Museum, by Thomas Fabian, via Flickr.