'Of Pandas and People': A Brief History of the Original Intelligent Design Textbook

'Of Pandas and People': A Brief History of the Original Intelligent Design Textbook
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Surprisingly enough, Of Pandas and People, the original creationist textbook intended for public schools, starts off pretty well. The very first paragraph is a quote from astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan.

"As long as there have been human beings, we have posed the deep and fundamental questions… on the origins of consciousness; life on our planet; the beginnings of the Earth; the formation of the Sun; the possibility of intelligent beings somewhere up there in the depths of the sky; as well as, the grandest inquiry of all - on the advent, nature and ultimate destiny of the universe."

The book's sensible beginnings end abruptly here, however. As Carrie Poppy notes at the Skeptical Inquirer, the authors of Pandas snipped Sagan's quote before the crux of his message:

"For all but the last instant of human history these issues have been the exclusive province of philosophers and poets, shamans and theologians. The diverse and mutually contradictory answers offered demonstrate that few of the proposed solutions have been correct."

Sagan was pointing out that unscientific explanations for deep and enduring questions are almost always false. This key omission was the first of many in Of Pandas and People.

For the vast majority of the book's 170 pages, the creationist authors spin facts, twist quotes, use oversimplified analogies, and leave out key details in order to support the idea of "intelligent design," a euphemism for creationism. Their go-to tactic is doubt, and they go to great lengths to set up a scenario where intelligent design is the only alternative to evolution, effectively turning any evidence against evolution into evidence for intelligent design. This is a classic argument from ignorance. For example, as Poppy pointed out, in numerous instances the authors draw attention to gaps in the scientific record for evolution, like missing evidence for the evolution of blood clotting, or scientists' inability to synthesize life in the lab, or the lack of a fossil showing a fish with legs. In the years following the book's publication in 1989, scientists filled all of these information gaps. That's the problem for people making arguments from ignorance – over time, science tends to make us less ignorant.

As you can probably guess, scientists have widely panned the textbook or ignored it entirely, finding its intelligent design arguments to be incredibly unintelligent.

Interestingly, "intelligent design" actually first appeared in Pandas. The Foundation for Thought and Ethics, a Christian non-profit, was already crafting the book when the Supreme Court gaveled oral arguments in 1986's Edwards v. Aguillard case, using terms like "creationist" and "creationism" widely throughout. But when the Court ruled that creationism could not be taught in schools, the authors of Pandas removed all mention of it and substituted in "intelligent design."

Published for the first time in 1989, the book sold tens of thousands of copies over the next fifteen years, but never gained wide prominence in its target market: public schools. Dozens of school districts considered the book, but almost all rejected it. Local controversies played out in Florida, Idaho, California, Kansas and many other states until they culminated in a national controversy in October 2004. The Dover Area School District of York County, Pennsylvania voted to teach intelligent design in biology courses alongside evolution, with Pandas serving as the textbook. The issue reached the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania a year later. A group of parents argued that including intelligent design violated the Establishment Clause. Judge John E. Jones III agreed, and Pandas was removed.

Since that case, Pandas, along with its publisher, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, have gradually dwindled to obscurity. The organization actually shut down in 2016.

While creationism and intelligent design have been openly thwarted in public schools, their proponents are now advancing more innovative ways to challenge the teaching of evolution. In Florida, residents are now permitted to challenge what educators teach students and suggest alternatives. In South Dakota, the senate passed a measure effectively encouraging teachers to question established scientific theories. Luckily, that bill later failed.

“They’re no longer trying to ban teaching evolution. They’re no longer trying to balance teaching evolution. They’re now trying to belittle evolution,” Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, told The Hill.

Biology teachers in the U.S. may be the most embattled in the first world, Bertha Vazquez, Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, told Skeptical Inquirer.

"Our teachers have to constantly defend evolution... it’s like a professor of Roman history having to defend the existence of the Roman Empire every year, year after year."

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