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March 14, 2005

evolution in schools

Today's Washington Post reports:

WICHITA Propelled by a polished strategy crafted by activists on America's political right, a battle is intensifying across the nation over how students are taught about the origins of life. Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution.

Here are some scattered thoughts of mine ....

1. Although it is desirable for public schools to be neutral about religion, pure neutrality isn't possible. To teach evolution is to put the weight of the state behind a set of views that some people find theologically abhorrent. To teach both evolution and "intelligent design" is to give arbitrarily equal attention to two doctrines, while omitting many others (including the Biblical account). To avoid offense by skipping the origins and history of life is to give members of certain denominations a veto over the curriculum for religious reasons.

2. My opinion on this subject may not be worth anything, but I think it's a theological mistake for fundamentalist Christians to try to place creationism on an equal footing with evolution in schools, or to champion "intelligent design" as a scientific hypothesis. The Post quotes Senator Santorum: "students should be exposed to 'the full range of scientific views that exist. ... My reading of the science is there's a legitimate debate [between evolution and 'intelligent design']. My feeling is let the debate be had.'" If I were a fundamentalist, I would not accept the idea that core principles of my faith were testable hypotheses on par with those of science--subject to confirmation or refutation. First of all, I wouldn't want to give so many hostages to fortune. What if the data do not ultimately support the existence of God--must I then agree that there is no deity? In any case, the data will not support the Genesis account, and surely it's a retreat to move from Genesis to "intelligent design." Even I were confident that the scientific evidence would ultimately corroborate my beliefs, I wouldn't want religion to rest on data. Faith is faith. It should stand against all evidence.

3. Civil libertarians should be aware of, and concerned about, a tension in this debate. According to the Post, "Alabama and Georgia legislators recently introduced bills to allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio have approved new rules allowing that." On one hand, it may offend the constitutional separation of church and state for an agent of the state, the biology teacher, to challenge evolutionary theory on religious or quasi-religious grounds. On the other hand, doesn't the First Amendment grant a biology teacher a right to say what he or she believes? I can probably be talked into a "gag order," but not without deep regrets about the offense to the teacher's rights.

4. I generally like the idea of "teaching the controversy." In this case, that would mean teaching high school students some philosophy of science. I realize that schools face excessive mandates already, but I suspect that debating the meaning and purpose of science is more important than knowing most particular scientific facts and theories. Thus, for example, some assert that science consists only of conjectures that stand until evidence refutes them. In that case, Darwinism is "just a theory," and so is "intelligent design"--but so is heliocentrism. We merely hypothesize that the earth circles the sun, and we stand ready to change our theory. Is this a plausible philosophy of science, or is there such a thing as certainty (or near-certainty)? If so, it would seem that evolution has a lot more evidence behind it than intelligent design.

Meanwhile, are articles of religious faith also conjectures that stand until evidence makes them fall? Or is science fundamentally different from religion?

Sociology of science becomes relevant here, too. We can know very little directly about nature. Even if we make our own observations, we must use instruments and techniques that others created. Thus trust in other people is essential to science. The kind of people who believe in evolution are very different from the kind of people who believe in creationism or intelligent design. I'm not saying that one group is better than the other, only that they have radically different sociologies. The evolutionists dominate biology departments at Research-1 universities. The proponents of intelligent design mostly work at independent outfits funded by wealthy fundamentalists, or in academic departments other than biology. On one view of the sociology of science, the dominant strand is just more powerful: it's the one with money and prestige. That's what Senator Santorum means when he says: "Anyone who expresses anything other than the dominant worldview is shunned and booted from the academy." (Note: this kind of diagnosis is also common on the postmodern left.) On a different theory, mainstream science is a self-correcting, transparent, rational community. Students, as budding citizens, need to develop informed opinions about science and scientists.

5. Fundamentalist opponents of evolution may do some damage if they prevent our students from gaining access to modern biology--not to mention geology, medicine, anthropology, physics, psychology, and other disciplines that have embraced the notions that the earth is very old and that natural selection explains many biological changes. The damage is likely to be worst for young people who come from relatively sheltered--and often disadvantaged--backgrounds.

However, I am at least as worried about the threat from today's "Darwinian fundamentalists," who believe that almost all important social, economic, and even moral questions can be answered by speculating about what traits must have increased our ancestors' chances of survival in the early Pleistocene. We are evolved, physical creatures with certain inherited limitations. But we know much less about these limitations than many pop-Darwinians claim. Besides, our evolved traits or tendencies do not tell us much about what is valuable. Roaches are very durable and "fit" (in the Darwinian sense), whereas tigers only survive today on human charity. Yet it is important to be able to see that tigers are beautiful and priceless. The equation of the fit with the good is a great mistake, more characteristic of our age than religious fundamentalism.

Posted by peterlevine at March 14, 2005 10:46 AM

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