The Problem With Two Little Words

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August 4, 2009 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Problem With Two Little Words

In 1995, the National Association of Biology Teachers published its "Statement on Teaching Evolution." The goal of the statement was to help address the controvery surrounding evolutionary theory in high school classrooms. However, rather than help alleviate the controversy, the document instead seemed to stir the troubled waters. Particularly problematic was the document's definition of evolution:

"an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, historical contingencies and changing environments."

Criticism can be leveled at several parts of this definition. Scientists such as Simon Conway Morris, for example, would argue against the unpredictability of evolution. The biggest trouble with the definition, however, came from two words: "unsupervised" and "impersonal."

As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, these words seem far more at home in a theological textbook rather than a scientific one:

"If the NABT read the definitions of other concepts in science, it would certainly have noticed that nobody uses the descriptor unsupervised. Do students learning chemistry or geology have to understand the natural phenomena of those discplines as 'unsupervised'?"

Rather, the use of these two words seemed to be an attempt to deny that God had any part in the evolutionary process -- a theological rather than scientific proposition. In fact, at the time several theologians warned the NABT that adopting this wording would seem like a Trojan horse attack on faith, and add fuel to the fires of religious anti-evolution groups by (falsely) highlighting the incompatibility of science and religion.

One would think that such objections would have caused the association to rethink its definition. However, in a 1997 meeting, the NABT voted unanimously to keep the wording. It remained a part of the NABT until Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, convinced the body that its definition would cause more harm than good in combating creationism.

The removal of the two words changed none of the definition's scientific content. The only thing lost was a misguided attempt to impose theology on high school biology classrooms.

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Rev. Scott Mapes - #46097

January 6th 2011

I was wondering if this definition has been revisited by the NABT and revised in the intervening time since then..

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