Don't Let Satan Fool You: Why Michele Bachmann's Ideas About Public Education Are Bad for America

07/15/2011 06:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2011

GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has made a career out of waging the values battle in the culture wars. A major part of that battle early on in Bachmann's career was the battle over teaching creationism in public school science classes. In fact, Bachmann got her start in politics on the board of a charter school that got in trouble for teaching biblical principles in class. Angry over that, Bachmann then ran for the Stillwater school board as part of a group of religious conservatives that sought to take it over. She failed, but it was the last election she has lost. Today, the debate over "teaching the controversy" has gone mainstream.

To understand where Bachmann is coming from, consider a cautionary cartoon from a conservative Christian book. It shows two castles, each on a tiny island. The castle on the left is on the island of "Evolution (Satan)" and flies the flag of Humanism, while the one on the right rests atop the island of "Creation (Christ)" and flies the flag of Christianity.

In balloons above the Evolution castle are listed social ills caused by the theory of evolution: "euthanasia," "homosexuality," and "abortion," "racism," etc. The bumbling priests on the island of Christ are stupidly firing their many cannons at these mere "symptoms" of Evolution, while the lone grim scientist, depicted as a pirate, is hammering away at their foundation.


With this type of emotional portrayal, cast in the context of the education of children, one can begin to understand why some on the religious right oppose evolution and think of creationism as godly.

Classroom teachers often choose to simply skip the subject altogether rather than fight with creationist parents. Similarly, more than one science museum director has told me about overhearing groups of homeschooled children about to enter paleontology exhibits being pulled aside by their parents and told, "Now, remember, those bones were put there by Satan to fool you."

The problem is that modern medicine and biology are based on evolution--biology is essentially applied chemistry and physics in the context of evolution. It is the most fundamental principle in biology, the one that unified biology into an organized science. It connects and provides a framework for understanding all the various disciplines within the life sciences, from genetics to virology to oncology to organic chemistry. It is, at its most basic, simply the understanding of how life changes over time in relationship to its environment.

Like other creationists Bachmann says that many people confuse evolution with natural selection:

... and natural selection is not the same thing as evolution. No one that I know disagrees with natural selection, that you can take various breeds of dogs... breed them, you get different kinds of dogs... It's just a fact of life... Where there's controversy is, Where do we say that a cell became a blade of grass, which became a starfish, which became a cat, which became a donkey, which became a human being? There's a real lack of evidence from change from actual species to a different type of species. That's where it's difficult to prove.

This is another classic misconception of creationists. Darwin coined the term "natural selection" in order to distinguish it from the artificial selection done by breeders. The theory of evolution is not about selective breeding at all, which is the opposite of natural selection, and no evidence has ever suggested that human beings are descended from donkeys or blades of grass.

Creationists, including Bachmann, often refer to the writings of Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor and creationist and the author of Darwin's Black Box, a book arguing that some structures, such as the human eye, are just too complex to be the result of evolution and thus must be evidence of "intelligent design," a more recent version of creationism. Behe has made the mistake of clinging to an a priori first principle rather than building his understanding with observational evidence, and so his conclusions are not science; they're what Francis Bacon called "science as one would," full of examples of "the vulgar Induction," in which Behe cherry picks examples that seem to prove his point while ignoring the ones that seem to contradict it. In other words, rhetoric.

One of Behe's favorite arguments, and those of other creationists like Bachmann, is the "irreducible complexity" of the eye. How, they ask, could something is amazingly complex as the eye have simply evolved? When one looks at the greatness of creation, the eye seems to suggest that there must be a designer. Here is a delightful, short video featuring evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that shows exactly how the eye did, in fact, evolve:

Why is this important? Consider the advice of Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which fights creationist attempts to dumb down science class with ideology. Scott told me that while she herself is "nontheistic," others in her office, such as her colleague Peter Hess, are "theistic" but nevertheless hold strong convictions that creationism must not be taught in science class. "If we're teaching creationism, we're not teaching science," Scott says. "The assumption of creationism is that natural phenomena require supernatural explanations. I'm not saying science is atheistic about ultimate reality. It isn't. To say that you can explain something using natural causes is not the same thing as saying there are no supernatural causes. Science is atheistic in the sense that plumbing is atheistic. It limits itself to the study of natural causes."

This is critically important. The United States has gotten as far as it has in terms of technology and dominance because of science. Because of our understanding that even if you haven't figured something out, you can just keep plugging away, looking for those natural causes and sooner or later you'll find them. Teaching creationism in school is teaching a habit of mind that is toxic to that problem-solving method. It teaches you to just throw up your hands and declare that the problem is unsolvable, particularly if that problem is tough or might have consequences for a particular religious belief. It teaches you to value not diversity of ideas, but conformity. If you do that, you're basically giving up on science, and on the probability of finding those answers. That is not going to take America where we need to go.

Cross-posted from Neorenaissance.