Wading Into Pandas

First there was Stephen Jay Gould, noted American paleontologist and science writer, and he wrote The Panda’s Thumb, which was a collection of his essays contributed to Natural History. The book’s title was drawn by one of Gould’s essays, “The Panda’s Peculiar Thumb,” which described a feature of pandas called, appropriately, the “panda’s thumb.” It’s not really a thumb the panda has, but a knob on the panda’s paw that the panda uses for stripping bamboo stalks. Darwinian natural selection has allowed the panda to retain this odd appendage, and the panda’s thumb is acknowledged as a demonstration of natural selection in action.


You will not be surprised to know there is a blog named The Panda’s Thumb which has been around for longer than there have been blogs. It started sometime in the previous century as an Internet discussion group and has been going ever since. It is the major discussion group for the creation/evolution controversy, obviously taking the side of mainstream science, including evolution.

Subsequently, when the Richardson, Texas, Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) was established by Jon Buell as a “Christian think-tank,” one of the objectives was to publish a book “showing the scientific evidence for creation.” One idea was to promote the book for use in public schools. An early draft of their book had the title Creation Biology Textbook Supplements, but this title (1983) and some of the wording in the book became an issue when in 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that teaching “creation science” in public schools amounted to religious proselytizing and as such violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution. After multiple draft changes the language, the published edition wound up with the title Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. The ghost of Stephen Jay Gould lives on in a creationist text.

Those who have a little spare time on their hands can amuse themselves by tracking the changes in the book’s drafts as the political climate changed with the Supreme Court ruling. In 2004 the Dover, Pennsylvania, board of education sought to use the Pandas book in science classes. Several parents of children in the school system sued, and the following year a federal judge ruled that Intelligent Design, the current theme of Pandas, is creationism, not science. During the course of the trial the lawyers for the plaintiffs presented copies of the early drafts, which they had obtained by subpoena from the FTE. The judge was, himself, amused to see how the book’s language had migrated from creationism to Intelligent Design, thereby defeating the publisher’s assertion that promoting creationism had never been the intent of the book. Here is a typical example provided by NCSE.

First this version:


Then this revised version:


The scans are from two revisions of the book’s manuscript, both from 1987. The first version used the term “creationists” freely, but the second, possibly following the Supreme Court decision, has sloppily attempted to substitute “design proponents.” Please read the complete item on the NCSE Web site to get the full story.

Jon Buell explained that the terms relating to creationism were just “place holders” while the writers were figuring out the proper language. Few doubt that creationism was the original intent, and that Intelligent Design was injected as a replacement when it became obvious the courts would have nothing to do with “creation science.”

The Pandas book is published in Mesquite, Texas, and early on I would drive over to the publisher to purchase my copies, first the original edition, then the new edition when it came out. I also purchased copies of each edition for NCSE. The North Texas Skeptics ended up with one copy, and a TV producer has another. It was necessary this year to purchase another copy of the second edition for reference.

The FTE was surely gladdened when the neighboring city of Plano sought to introduce their book into the school system in 1995. Several fans of creationism had gotten themselves elected to the board and only made their intentions known after taking office. Parents of Plano school children resisted this move, and The North Texas Skeptics worked to help them out by providing references and moral support. In particular, Jon Buell objected to our assertions that Pandas has a religious intent. Buell did this in a letter to the editor, published in The Dallas Morning News. However, NTS co-founder John Thomas has previously checked up on the FTE’s founding documentation, which demonstrated that the organization claimed in public filings to be a “Christian think-tank.” This allowed me to follow up with a letter on behalf of the NTS and mentioning this fact. I also asked how the term “ethics” fitted with such an organization as the FTE.

So, I am just starting to read again the Pandas book and finding delight on almost every page. I can possibly produce about one blog posting per page, which will not be that many postings, since this is a thin book. Come back again in the future as I plow through the ponderous tome for your entertainment and mine.

8 thoughts on “Wading Into Pandas

  1. Also, is it just me or did anyone else notice how in the places of worship they insist so much on the Truth (with a capital ‘T’). They are obsessed about it.

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  3. I believe in science.

    Not science-fiction.

    I cancelled my subscription to Scientific American a few years ago.

    The article that led to that decision was about a fish that grew feet and ended up as a creature that walked on land.

    I noticed in the article so many words like “if,” “probably,””maybe”, “possibly,” that I became word nauseous.

    If that’s the best they can do then we are back to opinions and science-fiction and it’s time to say goodbye to that hyperbole and nonsense.

    I can get that from Edward Lear’s “Book of Nonsense” and enjoy it better.

    • Mike,

      I am trying to figure out whether you posted your comment to the post you intended to comment on. The post titled “Wading into Pandas” does not contain the words “if,” “probably,” “maybe.” Please verify and get back to me.

      John Blanton

      • I don’t have to get into specific details here but much of this “science” is pure conjecture and guessing with the definitive answers the researchers claim.

        Especially since you are walking on sand with new theories that usurp the previous one sometimes in a few weeks or months.

        I know science changes but the startling claims put forward on page one of the media end up being turned upside very quickly with the withdrawals of claims buried at the back of the paper in a small area of type shortly thereafter.

        When you have something solid proven over a few decades come back to me.

      • Mike, you still have not confirmed you are posting your comments to the intended post. If you have posted your comments to the wrong item, let me know, and I can move them for you. – John Blanton

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