Diagnosing the teleological disease

In a Wiley Journal for science teacher education, Tim Hartelt et al. illumines us about “Teachers’ ability to diagnose and deal with alternative student conceptions of evolution” (the original article you can read here, and a summary here).

What this article is about, is essentially a description of how evolution is taught in the classrooms and the ‘misconceptions’ that students and even experienced teachers have about evolution. What sounds at first as an innocent pedagogical advice on a peer-reviewed journal to make biology classes more effective, after a closer inspection, turns out to be an interesting ideological pamphlet.

The authors complain that students adopt “intuitive ways of thinking about the world” resulting in “naïve theories” that constitute an “obstacle to learning scientific concepts”. And guess what these intuitive and naïve theories are? Of course, they are the cognitive biases towards anthropomorphic, teleological, and essentialist thinking. If you intuitively perceive an “immutable or hidden essence” in things or life, that plants or animals “really wish, try, and strive”, that there is an “intentional adaptation of individuals”, or glimpse through the natural processes a “goal-directedness, purpose, an external designer, or internal needs in the organism”, then you are making scientifically illegitimate and naïve conjectures. Teachers should convince their students that there is no goal, no purpose, no meaning in evolution (which, thereby, means in their own life as well). We are all automatons that have come into existence only because of undirected random mutations and blind natural selection. Students must be “diagnosed” when “deviating from the relevant scientific concepts”, as if these were mental diseases, and teachers must do their utmost to eradicate these “alternative conceptions” to preserve an intellectual lost purity. A long discussion and a list of advice follows on how to diagnose and cure this teleological disease that, for some reason, persists, insists, and stubbornly resists in our thinking.

Now, you might think that I’m going to defend those creationist movements that tried (fortunately unsuccessfully) to reintroduce “alternative views of evolution” in the classrooms. But that’s not at all my intention. Far from it. Biology, especially evolutionary biology, should be taught in a strictly secular and unbiased manner. God, religion, and metaphysical speculations should stay out of the biology classes.

But precisely this is the point. These kinds of pedagogical advice (take a look at the reference of the paper, and you will realize that there is a long list of publications going in the same direction) are presenting their ideology, metaphysics and as “science”. Because the point is: In what sense is assuming evolution being undirected, non-teleological, without hidden essences, or without a “Designer” a claim that is less metaphysical than positing the opposite assumptions? Both positions are statements of faith. Both are philosophical positions outside the domain of science. The claim of the Darwinist that evolution has no goal or purpose is a metaphysical statement as well. Affirming that the inner volition of the organism plays no role in evolution is no more and no less speculative as stating that it does. Negating essentialism–that is, “the view that certain categories have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly but that gives an object its identity and is responsible for other similarities that category members share”–is no less legitimate or illegitimate than positing it.

At this point one might pull out of the hat Occam’s razor and declare that “there is no reason to believe that in evolution there is more than randomness plus natural selection”, “we don’t need to posit goals or aims” or that “we can dispense with any extra hypotheses involving a Designer”. But Occam’s razor is a methodological approach, not something that reveals a scientific truth. Invoking principles of parsimony to defend a worldview can’t be elevated to the level of an empiric fact. What is “parsimonious” or “necessary” is a highly subjective matter that depends on our own ideological background. Once scientific findings have been presented it should be left to the students, not to the teachers, what metaphysical belief system represents them better. Or, if these questions should be raised, they can eventually be debated in a philosophy class, but not in a biology classroom.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with holding one or the other belief system, but we should become aware that these are all questions and debates that transcend the domain of science. They should not be taught in biology and presented as “scientific knowledge”. The teleological view isn’t science, of course. But also the anti-teleological view isn’t either, and can’t be camouflaged as “science”.

This article is nevertheless worth reading because it represents the typical pseudo-agnostic ideology of a widespread and quite aggressive pseudo-scientific militant atheist movement.

The big question is: what are they afraid of? Are they afraid of losing something? Perhaps their mind?

PS: I had an interesting conversation on this on YouTube with my friend Wagish.

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