What controversy?

Creationists have been chanting, “Teach the controversy” at us for some time, to which most biologists simply look puzzled and ask “What controversy?” There is no ongoing debate about the ideas peddled by the Discovery Institute within the scientific community, because, well, there have been no data presented to suggest that it would be a worthwhile and productive discussion.

That’s what I say, but I’m just one peon in the academic complex. But now Bob Camp has done a comprehensive survey to assess whether there actually is a controversy. He wrote to the department heads of a number of biology departments, and asked this simple yes/no question:

Q: Regarding the issue of “Intelligent Design theory” vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution – is there a difference of professional opinion within your department that you feel could be accurately described as a scientific controversy?

97% said no. Only one said yes, and that was from a theological medical university.

That’s a handy piece of information. When we’re told to “teach the controversy” in the future, one good answer is to reply that there is no controversy to teach.


  1. Torbjorn Larsson says


    “Regardless of the role that natural selection plays, random mutations are bound to increase the reproductive isolation between two groups over time. In earlier studies, it has been difficult “if not impossible“ to disentangle the two effects.”

    “”Darwin’s famous book was called ‘On the Origin of Species,’ but it was really about natural selection on traits rather than speciation. Since our study suggests that natural selection is a general cause of speciation, it seems that Darwin chose an appropriate title after all.””

    First order effect, 99.6 % confidence. Where is the controversy?

  2. says

    The obvious explanation is that this is just proof of the godless, pro-evolution, anti-Christian, baby-eating, liberal bias present in higher education. Right?

  3. says

    I still don’t get it. The scientific method produces verifiable value to the way we live. The theories of evolution and natural selection will continue to be refined and perfected as further science is conducted. They will provide us clearer understandings of ourselves and our world, better medicine, and better predictions for disease and treatment. Why do the ID advocates persist in denying all of it? What possible gain can they hope for? They must know that their mechanism is hollow and bankrupt, at least as science. So why the vigorous fight? The only conclusion I have reached is that it is a handy wedge issue to keep the uninformed masses inflamed and standing at the ready, to be directed to whatever issue the religious right doesn’t like this year: manimals, gay rights, holiday greetings, etc. And if so, are the religious leaders on the right any different from the mullahs who whip their followers into a frenzy to carry out their agendas?

  4. Rey says

    You hit the nail on the head, Pablo. In addition, there is a lot of money to be gained from ID. Their books sell to a wider audience because they’re not technical (almost by definition), and they espouse an idea that requires little thought and sounds warm and fuzzy to folks who, at the very least, retain some vestiges of their religious indoctrination, making them vulnerable and willing to be comforted against scientific theories that they don’t understand and therefore fear.

  5. says

    “The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.”
    – Sir Richard Francis Burton

  6. Ottnott says

    PZM wrote:
    When we’re told to “teach the controversy” in the future, one good answer is to reply that there is no controversy to teach.

    Yep. There’s no controversy in the science, and no science in the controversy.

  7. Ottnott says

    Heh. Who is the one true God? Yahweh? Olurun? Allah? Taaroa? Ahura Mazda? FSM?

    Teach the controversy.

  8. DJ says

    Why do the ID advocates persist in denying all of it? What possible gain can they hope for? They must know that their mechanism is hollow and bankrupt, at least as science. So why the vigorous fight? The only conclusion I have reached is that it is a handy wedge issue to keep the uninformed masses inflamed and standing at the ready…

    It’s all about the money.

    You should see the fund-raising letter I just got from the Thomas More Law Center today. The evil ACLU attacking Christianity, Morality, and American Values and how the TMLC is the only barrier preserving the rights of conservative God loving Americans. The 4-page screed goes on and on about the war chests of the ACLU, et all, how the homosexual, abortion-loving, atheist forces of evil are changing society not by legislation but (gasp) through activist judges in the courts. TMLC promises to fight the good fight for free if everyone would just SEND TMLC MONEY NOW! BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

    Fer Pete’s sake.

  9. says

    If anyone should be teaching the controversy, surely it should be the Sunday Schools who teach kids Bible stories as truth?

    Agreed. Why aren’t we demanding that they teach evolution in church?

  10. gramsci411 says

    I teach the contraversey!

    I start out with reading a creation myth from the Iroquois, then one from the Hopi. If Im not behind by week 3 (when this lecture happens…and sometimes Im already behind) I might read a Yoruban myth too.

    I present the idea that all cultures have a creation myth. (oh…I keep using words like “mythology” and “cult”).

    And then I discuss the enlightment. And the rise of science. I define science and scientific method. I discuss what a theory is.

    Switch into a little Darwin. Discuss Lamark and point out the flaws in “use and disuse”. Elaborate on natural selection. Toss in a touch of geology. Tell them about Bishop James Usher and 4004bc.

    I quote Jesuits I know and have spoken with (God gave man a soul, nothing else really matters). Talk about the nuns my mom taught with in the early 1970s who said Evolution is correct and so is Genesis. I might say, both stories are correct. Deal with it. I acknowledge the contradiction. Mention Rabbinical scholars who explore evolution, some muslim scholars who do the same. Bring out ways in which Hinduism can actually lend itself to evolutionary thinking with the stages of reincarnation that Vishnu went through (one of the universities I adjunct at is the most ethnically diverse in the country)

    And then I launch into a critique of intelligent design. Explaing how for some its a code word for creationism and for others its not. I discuss their utter lack of data, scienctific theory, and peer reviewed pieces published in any respectable journal…bringing out how they’ve been asked to provide such pieces and have come up with nothing.

    I elaborate more on natural selection. Mention Nylon. Tuberculosis and super strains of viruses. Do a bit of genetics. Tell the students they needn’t worry about avian flu…as long as they dont accept evolution.

    Sometimes they discuss the idea. Rarely do they walk out. (Last spring I was accused of political intollerance by a winger) and I leave it as Evolution is a modern creation story (yes, I drop the myth word here) based on modern scientific techniques with data provided from fossils, biology, geology and other disciplines. (by this time, ive gone through two classes and Im absolutely behind)

    But of course…..this is Intro to CULTURAL anthropology

    the following week we go int race and ethnicity as concepts and I start off with talking about how evolution is our best defense against racial thinking.

    When I teach intro to Physical anthropology, I tell them i dont care what they believe. I dont mention intelligent design. I do suggest that if they dont believe in evolution, they had best get the answers correct on the test because the best way they can argue against evolution is to understand the theories around it. Some fail.

  11. Sam Paris says

    Oh, yes, please, “teach the controversy”. It would be great:
    “Here is what science believes to be true about evolution. Here is *why* we believe it.” vs. “Well, we can’t figure it out, musta bin a Soopreme Bein'”

    They could do as Darwin did, and start off with pigeon breeding, to show the diversity of form that can quickly arise from a common ancestry. Maybe with a side trip over to botany to see what has come out of the common mustard plant.

    Then into the wild. Students could get a look at Peter Grant’s work with Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos and see how he’s measured the progress of evolution in real time in nature. Students could also learn about how viruses, bacteria, and insects have evolved resistance to chemicals that have never before been seen in nature. This stuff is not just important in order to understand evolution, it’s vital public health and policy knowledge.

    I know the intelligent design supporters are pretending hard not to be creationists, but as long as we’re teaching science, we could teach about how geologists *really* date rocks, and the experiments that lead physicists to believe that nuclear decay happens at a constant rate. There are lessons in chemistry, physics, mathematics and geology there–good lessons about important topics.

    Back to biology: Modern genetics is a fascinating subject–students should learn the basic concepts, along with information about copying errors, “silent” genes, genetic clocks etcetera, etcetera… Not only are such things important to the theory of evolution, they could help students prepare for well-paid jobs in a very hot field of technology.

    Even if they have to move to Korea to get the jobs.

    Then we could teach a bit about about how concepts from evolution–random variation plus selection–are being used in engineering today. Some more good math there, along with some practical engineering.

    Most important, we could teach about how science is done, the contingent nature of scientific understanding and the importance of observation and experiment in determine the most likely “truth”.

    Done properly, “teaching the controversy” could lead to an excellent science education.

    Sam Paris