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Review of Massimo Pigliucci’s Denying Evolution

Recently, a friend and I discussed our undergraduate education as biology majors. Each of us fondly recalled memories of various science classes, yet we both were disturbed that neither of us had ever taken a class about the nature and philosophy of science. When we graduated we were confident in our content knowledge, but woefully prepared to discuss how science operates. This became painfully apparent for us since we both became high school biology teachers, and students would often ask questions that went beyond the scope of our content knowledge. Predictably, these questions were often about how science operates and the methods used for gathering data. How does one answer such questions accurately and appropriately if one never received any training in how science actually operates in the first place?

Over the next ten years, I was never surprised when a student did not know about basic genetics or protein synthesis mechanisms; after all, that is why these students were taking the course. Over this time, however, I found an alarming revelation: many students had a strong belief in astrology, alien abductions, creationism and, most recently, intelligent design. The high percentage of students accepting such nonsense is not unique to the school where I work but is reflected nationwide, as several recent polls, such as a 1997 Gallup Poll, have indicted. In fact, most disturbing, many science teachers share with their students these same beliefs, especially regarding creationism. My friend and I wondered: if more educators had been trained in the philosophy of science, would these trends continue or even exist?

Why does the strong belief in pseudoscience topics, especially creationism and intelligent design, exist among students and science teachers? In Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science, Massimo Pigliucci scrutinizes this question–and more. Denying Evolution is the book that I wish I had read when I was an undergraduate student. In fact, this book should be required reading for all introductory science students.

In the introduction, Pigliucci describes the impetus for the title, Denying Evolution. Pigliucci proposes the term “evolution denier” to describe one who does not accept the rich body of evidence supporting evolutionary theory as an explanation of the diversity of life. Pigliucci submits “creationism is really a form of denial, analogous to the denial of the Holocaust by some pseudohistorians, or the denial of environmental problems by so many pundits and special interest groups.”(p.2) Pigliucci further shows that the creation-evolution debate is not a scientific debate, but a “broad cultural war between conservative and progressive forces, between a priori ideologies and the spirit of inquiry, between ignorance and education.” (p.2)

As the title implies, Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science identifies three major themes that perpetuate the evolution-denier attitude in the United States: 1) creationism, 2) scientism, and 3) the nature of science. In addition, Pigliucci examines how other attitudes, such as anti-intellectualism, and organizational problems, such as poor science teacher preparation, have contributed as well. However, this book is not a typical anticreationist piece containing arguments with which most scientists and skeptics are familiar, but an in-depth, critical examination of the aforementioned themes that affect the debate.

Pigliucci writes that typical anticreationist books are directed at destroying the creationist arguments. Pigliucci, however, argues that these techniques have largely been unsuccessful. He shows that the continuing controversy is a result not only of creationist propaganda, but the failing of scientists and educators who do not address the controversy within the confines of the science classroom. The author directly criticizes evolutionists for: a) strictly keeping to research, b) failing to actively engage creationists in public debate, c) underestimating the resolve of creationists, and d) not seriously instructing science and non-science students in evolutionary theory.

In the introduction, Pigliucci begins by describing the history of the creation-evolution “controversy” from the initial publication of Origin of Species, to the Scopes Trial, to William Jennings Bryan’s contribution to the public debate. Pigliucci speaks of the variety of creationist positions from special creation to materialistic evolution. These chapters illustrate that there is one scientific position on evolution, yet the term “creationism” is an umbrella term to describe a plethora of positions.

Pigliucci evaluates the various standard claims of creationists, such as that which states that evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics. Although professional and amateur scientists generally understand these fallacies, they are important to illustrate again, further dismissing the creationist arguments. However, science is not immune to its own fallacies, which are also promoted. Pigliucci looks at scientific myths that are perpetuated as true yet are not accepted currently by science or are impossible. such as the ideas about genetics formulated by the Soviet geneticist T.D. Lysenko. Pigliucci emphasizes that science is a process, not a product.

It is within the proceeding chapters of Denying Evolution, however, that this work sets itself apart from other anticreation works. Pigliucci discusses scientific fundamentalism and the nature of science, referring to scientific fundamentalism as “scientism.” “Scientism” defined is “the fundamental belief that science can do no wrong and will ultimately answer any question worth answering, while in the process saving humankind as a bonus.”(p.114) Pigliucci cites biologist E. O. Wilson and physicist Steven Weinberg as outstanding scientists who–willfully or not–have nevertheless promoted scientism in their contemporary writings, mixing science and philosophy. Why has this contributed to the evolution-creationism debate? Creationists generally agree with science, but they despise scientism. Creationists ridicule scientists for scientism, suggesting that science is no different than religion, just religion by another name. Pigliucci asserts that scientism wrongfully promotes science as a methodology to solve all of the problems of the world. Pigliucci explains that this position is dangerous to science and impedes scientific arguments against religion because it suggests that science is the only way to describe the natural world, providing an answer to all questions. Scientism, according to Pigliucci, is dogmatic and provides ammunition for those who promote a creationist worldview.

The third major theme explored in Denying Evolution is the nature of science. Pigliucci provides a brief history of science, starting with the contribution of Aristotle to the modern version of science established by Descartes. Pigliucci contends that poor training for prospective science teachers and teaching by scientists about the nature of science has greatly contributed to the creation-evolution debate. Since education is dominated by politics, which reflects culture, it is essential that those involved in science and science education become involved in transforming education. It is painful to see science education being dominated by an overreliance on standardized testing. This overreliance has compromised the teaching of science as a process for a system where science is taught as a disjointed body of facts to be covered due to their appearance on the state-mandated test used to judge a school’s worth. Thus, our educational system has been a failure to students because science lessons too often focus on facts rather than on the process of how knowledge is gathered or how new ideas are created. In this political climate, teaching science as a process, not a body of facts, is virtually impossible. This has perpetuated an educational gap in our culture that allows nonsense and dubious political strategies to percolate. According to Pigliucci, it is within this political climate that intelligent designers and creationists have used the “Wedge” strategy to destroy science as we know it and create a theocracy in the United States.

In conclusion, Pigliucci’s criticism of the academic and scientific communities, as well the state of science education, is long overdue. Denying Evolution should be a must-read for anyone, but especially for those interested in science or science teaching. The discussion of science as a process and philosophy are discussed in detail, a discussion which is lacking from many popular science books and science textbooks. Denying Evolution is about a cultural war that is currently being fought between conservative and progressive worldviews, but this book is not apologetic. It describes the limitations of science as a philosophy and a human endeavor, yet continually stresses that science is a process that has contributed to the quality of life that our society enjoys today. Besides well-placed criticism, Pigliucci provides suggestions which range from improving science education to improving teaching pedagogy, suggestions that would assist in ceasing the “debate.” Denying Evolution is an honest, insightful critique about science, its limitations, and the perpetrators of the creation-evolution debate. The book clearly outlines the strategies and motivation of those who seek to destroy science.

As Carl Sagan stated, “science is a candle in the dark.” It is the author’s contention to keep that candle burning.