Darwin at 200: Still controversial after all these years

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Whether by random selection or grand design, Charles Darwin and Abraham
Lincoln were both born 200 years ago on Feb. 12, 1809.

Vastly different in background and education, they grew up to become two of
the most polarizing figures of their era. But while Lincoln is now widely
lionized as a unifying leader, Darwin remains one of the few historical thinkers
whose very name can provoke a fight.

And what a fight it has been. In the United States, fierce opposition to
Darwin — or more specifically to Darwin’s theory of evolution — has been
spearheaded for decades by conservative Christians who pit their interpretation
of the biblical account of creation against what they see as the false and
dangerous idea that human beings and other living things have evolved over time
through natural selection.

Unfortunately, the locus of the battle has been and continues to be public
schools, institutions largely unprepared and unequipped to broker ideological
conflicts between religion and science.

Lawyers and judges haven’t been able to put the controversy to rest despite
two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968, an Arkansas law banning the
teaching of evolution in schools was declared unconstitutional by the Court
under the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Then in 1987, the Court struck
down a Louisiana law mandating “balanced treatment” of evolution and
creationism, ruling that the First Amendment bars religious views from being
taught as science in public schools. But opponents of evolution keep coming back
to fight another day.

The latest battleground is Texas, where last month the State Board of
Education tentatively dropped the requirement that students explore the
“strengths and weaknesses” of evolution — a provision that many science
educators charge has been used to promote creationism in schools. The new
language requires students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations
using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational
testing.” Supporters of teaching evolution aren’t declaring victory yet; a final
vote is expected in March.

Opponents of evolution in Texas and other states want to make the debate
about the freedom of students to learn about the “weaknesses” of evolution.
Unlike the creationist arguments of the past, this strategy has broad popular
appeal. According to a Zogby poll released this week, 80% of respondents agreed
that “teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the
strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory.”

Of course, who can be against “academic freedom”? But the real question — the
one that concerns the science community — is, Who gets to define “weaknesses”?
Yes, there are questions still to be answered about evolution, just as there are
unanswered questions about any scientific theory. For the vast majority of
scientists, however, the theory of evolution is the foundation of modern
biology, and no credible scientific evidence has been found to challenge its
major tenets. Science organizations worry that pushing for evolution’s
“weaknesses” to be taught in public schools is little more than a back-door
attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution.

They are right to worry. What’s most disturbing about this fight is the
damage it does to science education. I won’t go so far as to blame America’s
widespread scientific illiteracy on our culture wars over evolution. But I think
it’s fair to say that endless conflicts and lawsuits contribute to dumbed-down
textbooks and teacher avoidance of the much-feared “e-word.”

I’m all for exposing students to some of the philosophical, religious and
political issues surrounding the challenges to evolution — as part of studying
the history of science, for example. But at a time when American high school
students rank 27th among students from developed nations in scientific literacy,
and in the face of environmental crisis and economic uncertainty, the U.S. can’t
afford for biology classrooms to be church-state war zones.

The Texas state board got it right: Encourage students to evaluate scientific
theories, but make sure they learn how to do so using the scientific method.

Love him or hate him, 200 years after Charles Darwin’s birth his theory of
evolution has largely won the day in the world of science — forever changing how
we understand ourselves and the world around us.

But with religious opposition still at a fever pitch, Darwin is likely to
remain a figure of controversy and conflict far into the future. After all, it
took 400 years for Galileo to get his apology.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555
Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org.
E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.