Teaching Evolution and Moral Panic (SS#5)

In today’s episode of Science Sunday, I will be discussing a rather dated article from Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2005, titled “The Quasi-Theory of Godlessness in America: Implications of Opposition to Evolution for Sociological Theory.” As a general rule for SS I shy away from articles over three years old, but I’m making an exception for the purpose of discussion.

In this article researchers ask the basic question, what is the source of opposition to teaching children evolution in schools? Their basic hypothesis is those who oppose evolution equate it with the threat of social deviance. They reveal a “quasi-theory” of godlessness in America that encourages people to act immorally. In their words, opponents of evolution conclude:

[T]he teaching of evolution encourages the spread of godless atheism whose consequences include all manner of immorality.

As a very important point of order, the researchers also remind us the weight of this kind of research:

No subfield of investigation is more closely identified with the discipline of sociology than that of deviance, and perhaps no school of sociological thought has produced a more interesting or controversial account of deviance than symbolic interactionism (Hewitt 2000).

What is this school of thought? It’s probably the most popular school of thought in the non-physical sciences, which spreads to all fields of social sciences: Social constructivism. If you’re not familiar with it, visit the Wiki page on the topic. Social constructivism theory states — in its simplest terms — that important, deeply held social ideas become social facts through a process of reinforcement. For example — and to use a contemporary phenomenon — LGBT rights were nonexistent and relatively unimportant five decades ago, but through social interaction and the spread of ideas about what rights mean, LGBT rights took on a meme-like quality until they became just as deeply ingrained in American youth society as Civil Rights became ingrained in the previous generation’s society.

This theory of social constructivism is, as the authors conclude, responsible for the social facts about what deviance means. Deviance, they argue, is the product of a “concerted social activity called moral enterprise.” The authors put it this way:

People learn to interpret actions performed by others (and themselves) as either good or bad by witnessing the way others respond to that action.

The researchers then take this theory of deviance through social construction and apply it to the “public opposition to the teaching of evolution in the public schools.” This is a stark contrast to the previously held positions of scientists, who viewed the opposition to evolution as simply “a case of public misunderstanding of science.” In other words, the researchers’ theory suggests the public may or may not understand the science behind evolution, but that is irrelevant to their beliefs about deviance. They oppose evolution simply because of the moral implications associated with it:

From a sociological point of view … we want to argue that the biology textbook controversies of the twentieth century are better understood as a case of fundamentalist Christian groups engaging in moral crusades to halt the advance of what they define to be deviant ideas.

BOOM. They conclude in a way that I think sums up their ideas succinctly. I’ll paraphrase.

Opponents of evolution have constructed a quasi-theory of godlessness in America as a product of deviance. One source of godless deviance in America is the teaching of evolution. And to finish the opponents’ horrible bastardization of a syllogism, opponents to evolution believe the teaching of evolution will result in the moral decay, which would have a severe impact on our security.

We might take some valuable insight from these findings, especially within the pro-science, secular community. If we conclude that opposition to the teaching of evolution is a response to the perception of the threat of deviance, then we might also conclude that simply teaching opponents what the scientific literature says about evolution is futile. Thankfully, social constructivism goes both ways. Anything that can be constructed can be deconstructed by constructing new social norms. The American civil religious opposition to the teaching of evolution can be countered by a gradual shift by young people towards secular sources of morality and ethics. As our society grows more secular and “godless” without becoming more violent or willing to express other immoral acts, opponents to evolution will lose the backbone of their argument.

I’ll finish with the obvious. The opponents’ arguments are strange and not based in reality in any discernible way. Never once has someone said, “I’m the product of billions of years of gradual change; therefore, I’m free to murder, rape, and pillage.” No. Laws, too, are socially constructed because we all agree not murdering, not raping, and not pillaging are important social norms.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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