Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 19 1999 3:35 AM

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

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I want to replace the culture war over evolution with a healthy, vigorous intellectual debate. The biggest obstacle is that the evolutionary scientists are genuinely baffled as to why everyone does not believe as they do. That is why they appear so dogmatic, and why they tend to slip into sarcasm and browbeating. They assume they are dealing with people--maybe as much as 90 percent of the people (!)--who just won't listen to reason. So the Darwinists keep repeating the arguments that sound good to themselves, and they keep telling themselves that religious prejudice is the only reason everybody doesn't believe.

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This morning's Washington Post contains a classic example. Dr. Maxine Singer, molecular biologist and president of the Carnegie Institution, writes from the usual Darwinist perspective. She thinks that the only people who don't accept Darwinism are Biblical literalists who haven't heard or understood the proof that seems so overwhelming to her. These misguided folk say that they have scientific grounds for their skepticism, but (in her words)

they give themselves away when they dwell on particular aspects of evolution that trouble their beliefs. I saw this recently when I talked with several members of the [Kansas] board. They accepted that within a species, individual traits can change continually. But they were unwilling to recognize that some changes can lead to the emergence of new species, as when humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor.

I am sure Singer has no idea how unconvincing that sounds to those who do not already believe in Darwinism. Sure, molecules are continually varying, mostly with neutral mutations that have no effect on visible features or fitness. Then there are those peppered moth populations, which vary in the percentage of dark and light moths that are present at any given time. For that matter, variation occurs every time a baby is born, because the child is not identical to the parents. The members of the Kansas board know all this very well. They also know that these uncontroversial facts give us no reason to believe that a similar process turned bacteria into butterflies, or produced moths, predator birds, trees, and scientific observers in the first place. They may or may not have some religious objection to the wild extrapolation involved, but in any case they know that all the biologists are actually observing is a process of minor, back-and-forth variation within a population that is fundamentally stable. Bacteria have been doing this as long as there have been bacteria, and they remain bacteria.

The root of the confusion is that evolutionary scientists think that the issue is whether "evolution has occurred." Since any variation counts in their minds as evolution, the inevitable answer is "yes, of course." But evolution also means universal common ancestry, so the existence of variation proves that you and I have a single-celled organism that is our "ancestor" in the same sense that our great-grandfather is our ancestor--except with a whole lot more intermediate descendants in between. This process of ancestral descent requires some natural mechanism to do the designing along the way (eyes, wings, immune systems, photosynthesis, etc.), and natural selection is the only halfway plausible designer-substitute that anyone has ever suggested. So the whole system is virtually proved by the choice of terminology, and from that point on it is merely a matter of searching the world for things that can be construed as confirming examples.

The Kansas action has caused a worldwide panic in the Darwinist community (including their supporting cast of journalists) because that community has no idea how to handle informed dissent when people refuse to knuckle under to the power of authority. Outsiders raise issues that insiders never raise, including the validity of that faith's commitment to naturalism. Once the unwelcome issues are raised, the insiders have no idea how to proceed. What do you say to people who doubt that the finch-beak story illustrates a creative process that, given enough time, can make a butterfly from a bacterium? What do you say to people who are so obstinate that they refuse to take a few fossil examples as proof, and insist on testing the theory against the fossil record as a whole? Well, the Darwinists are going to have to learn what to say, and in the process they will learn the painful lesson that what sounds convincing within a community of believers is not necessarily convincing in the greater world outside.

In closing, I want to thank Professor Kitcher for participating in this vigorous debate, and particularly for his gracious words at the end of his final message. I hope our dialogue has done something to achieve what we both desire: transforming a fruitless culture war into a rewarding intellectual adventure.

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).

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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