Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 18 1999 2:30 AM

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?


Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by acknowledging that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Francis Crick, also a fervent Darwinist and atheist, says in his memoirs that "[b]iologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." Dawkins and Crick, like other scientific materialists, do not give serious consideration to the possibility that organisms look designed because there really is a designer. They exclude that possibility because they think science is by definition committed to explaining the history of life solely by natural--i.e., unintelligent--causes.


But have the biologists discovered a naturalistic process that can do the designing? They claim that they have, and the process is the Darwinian one of the accumulation of random variations (mutations) by natural selection (hereafter natural selection). One problem is that there is a huge gap between what natural selection is claimed to have accomplished and anything that it has actually been observed to do. A cell is a miniature chemical factory packed with complex machinery, which requires a vast amount of information (analogous to software) to direct the processes. As Dawkins puts it: "Physics books may be complicated, but ... the objects and phenomena that a physics book describes are simpler than a single cell in the body of its author. And the author consists of trillions of those cells, many of them different from each other, organized with intricate architecture and precision-engineering into a working machine capable of writing a book. ... Each nucleus ... contains a digitally coded database larger, in information content, than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica put together. And this figure is for each cell, not all the cells of the body put together" (The Blind Watchmaker, Pages 2-3).

The equivalent of writing encyclopedias or computer programs is what natural selection has to do. What has it actually been observed doing? The leading example used to be the peppered moth, which supposedly had more light moths in a population when the tree trunks were light and more dark moths when the trunks were darkened by industrial smoke. That example is being quietly dropped because it has become generally known that the moths don't even rest on tree trunks. The new textbook example involves a species of finches in the Galapagos. In 1977, a drought killed most of the finches, and the survivors had beaks slightly larger than before. The probable explanation was that larger-beaked birds had an advantage in eating the last tough seeds that remained. A few years later there was a flood, and after that the beak size went back to normal. Nothing new had appeared, and there was no directional change of any kind. Nonetheless, that is the most impressive example of natural selection at work that the Darwinists have been able to find after nearly a century and a half of searching. To make it look better, the National Academy of Sciences (in its guidebook for teachers) omitted the flood year and invited teachers to speculate that if the trend to greater beak size continued steadily, a new species might arise in 200 years.

A process that never gets started on creating new genetic information isn't going anywhere no matter how much time is available. Viewing the vast gap between the evidence and the claims, many of us suspect that the Darwinists have succumbed to the temptation that science is supposed to protect us from. They believe what they want to believe, rather than what the evidence shows. They so keenly desire reassurance that there exists a naturalistic creation mechanism that can replace God that they drop all semblance of objectivity when considering the evidence.

The suspicion that we are dealing with fervent belief rather than scientific objectivity is confirmed by the over-the-top reaction to any hint of skepticism from the public. Why are editorial writers all over the world pummeling Kansas for a decision to drop the more expansive and philosophical claims of "evolution" from required tests? Do they customarily worry about whether Kansas high-schoolers are learning algebra or reading Shakespeare?


Of course not. The elites are panicking because they fear an emerging popular challenge to the established state religion. "Evolution" is not just a scientific theory, but a culturally dominant (and legally protected) creation myth that puts God effectively out of reality. All the leading Darwinists proclaim the philosophy aggressively, despite the efforts of educators to reassure the public that "religion and science are separate realms." The ruling philosophy is endangered when the common people presume to assess the evidence for themselves. Too many of them will conclude that organisms appear to be products of intelligent design because that in fact is what they are.

Phillip E. Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of four books on evolution and its philosophy, including Darwin on Trial (click here to buy the book and here for more on Johnson's work).Philip Kitcher is a professor of philosophy of science at Columbia and the author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (click here to buy the book).


Last week, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from statewide guidelines and to allow individual schools to decide whether and how to include it in their curricula. Should evolution be taught in schools?

To confirmed believers in evolution, the question itself is upsetting. The Darwinian model of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Critics say that failing to teach children about evolution would leave them ignorant and unprepared. (In this week's Time magazine, Stephen Jay Gould calls the Kansas decision the "latest episode in the long, sad history of American anti-intellectualism.") Furthermore, religious groups should not be allowed to edit the curricula of secular, First Amendment-protected schools to suit their particular beliefs.

Opponents of teaching evolution argue that it conflicts with faith-based belief in the origin of humankind. Teaching children to believe only in what is quantifiable and measurable crowds out their openness to religious faith. The Kansas creationists also argued that recent scientific research casts doubt on the validity of evolutionary theory, and thus opens the debate to religious explanations. "Creationism is as good a hypothesis as any for how the universe began," wrote the Topeka Capital-Journal in an editorial.

How do scientific critiques of evolution differ from faith-based ones? Are scientists just as stubborn as religious conservatives in their insistence on one explanation for the origin of humans? In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of "creation science" violated the separation of church and state. Does the Kansas approach do the same thing? And is evolution a theory or a fact?

This week, Phillip E. Johnson and Philip Kitcher discuss these and other issues.

--Jodi Kantor