Evolution deadlock needs a new script

Sunday, August 22, 1999

Headlines declared “a creationist victory” after the Kansas Board of Education voted last week to eliminate evolution from the science standards. But is it really? Confusing teachers and provoking bruising battles on local school boards — that doesn't sound like much of a “victory” to me.

When will we ever learn? From the Scopes trial to the Kansas conflict, nobody wins when science education is turned into a political battleground. We all lose, because this never-ending fight undermines efforts to increase the scientific literacy so essential to our nation's well-being.

The action by the Kansas Board sends a message: Avoid the E-word. The inevitable result will be watered-down science instruction from textbooks and teachers eager to avoid controversy. (And students won't worry too much about anything that isn't “on the test.”)

The mess in Kansas is yet another warning that we need to stop shouting past one another and find some way to re-frame the whole “creation-evolution” debate. After all, neither side is going to “win” this fight until both sides abandon failed strategies.

Creationists take note: Creationism won't replace evolutionary theory in the public-school science classroom. It won't even be given “equal time.” The Supreme Court has ruled these options unconstitutional. Like it or not, evolutionary theory is here to stay.

Evolutionists, consider this: The way evolution is currently being presented in most textbooks and classrooms isn't winning many converts. According to a CNN/Gallup poll, 68% of the American people want both “theories” taught, and 40% would support replacing evolution with creationism. Dissent from the prevailing theory in science isn't going away.

So, is there any way forward in this confused and complex debate? Only if enough people on all sides (there are a variety of “creationists” and “evolutionists”) are willing to start a new dialogue focused on the real issue: the educational needs of our nation's children.

Let me go out on the proverbial limb and make four proposals that may be a basis for finding common ground:

  1. Teach about various religious views of origins and nature in social studies courses. And, where possible, offer religious-studies electives in high schools for a more in-depth consideration of how religions understand the universe.
  2. Include in opening chapters of science texts or opening lectures of science courses a brief discussion of the relationship between science and religion, presented as part of a broader review of history and philosophy of science and scientific method. This will alert students to the fact that there are various ways to view the world — both religious and secular — and that some of these ways may conflict and others may agree.
  3. Teach the controversy. Sections of texts and courses dealing with evolution, the big bang, and other issues that are controversial should provide some context for understanding what is at issue. For example, biology texts might explain briefly why many religious conservatives reject evolution and why many religious liberals accept it (although they may still have problems with neo-Darwinism).
  4. In science classes, present the prevailing scientific theories widely accepted by most scientists, but also find room for those who criticize the prevailing view within the scientific community (e.g., those who argue for “intelligent design”).

Public schools shouldn't be in the business of promoting religious views in science or anywhere else in the curriculum. At the same time, schools shouldn't fall into the trap of teaching a kind of “scientism” (the notion that only science provides reliable knowledge about ultimate reality).

Public schools should find ways to expose students to the variety of ways – religious and scientific — in which human beings understand the universe. And, most important: In those areas where we differ, schools should be prepared to teach the controversy.