Evolution in the Classroom: Here We Go Again!

"Just like last Easter, Zira. The cousins don't look at all happy to see us." (Photo by Flickr/CC user

In 1981 I was living in Guelph, Ontario, a small town about 60 miles west of Toronto. In the middle of the year, I got a call from an attorney in New York City. He was working for a law firm assisting the American Civil Liberties Union. It was about to launch a challenge against a new law that had just been passed in Arkansas. The law required that teachers in public schools in the state, if teaching evolution, give also “balanced treatment” to something known as Creation Science, not discriminating against answers given on tests or other assignments.

Since Creation Science is Genesis taken literally, the ACLU was challenging the constitutionality of the law – they claimed that it violated the First Amendment separation of Church and State – and the lawyer said that they were looking for people knowledgeable about the subject. I had recently written a book on the Darwinian Revolution and I had also debated some of the leading Creationists – notably Henry Morris, co-author of Genesis Flood, and Duane Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! He wanted to know what I thought on the subject.

We talked for a long time. Then the call was repeated. Was I at all interested in appearing as an expert witness for the ACLU on history and philosophy of evolutionary biology? Thus it was that, at the beginning of December 1981, I found myself on a plane going south to Little Rock. I was one of a number of such witnesses, including the late Stephen Jay Gould, the geneticist Francisco Ayala, and the eminent Chicago theologian Langdon Gilkey.

We won our case. The federal judge declared the law unconstitutional and that was that.

I certainly thought that Creation Science was a dead duck. Boy, was I ever mistaken. By the 1990s, it was again rearing its ugly head, now in the more user-friendly guise of Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). Admittedly there are some differences between the two versions, but they share the same religious and moral concerns – anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro capital punishment, anti-feminism, anti-health care act, and all of that sort of thing. The sorts of things we find, on reading the gospels, were obsessions of Jesus Christ.

History repeated itself, this time in 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, where — again thanks to efforts by the ACLU — an attempt by a school board to force IDT on teachers and pupils was brought down in flames. The federal judge, a Republican no less, was scathing.

These things come in threes, I am afraid, and now it is the state of Tennessee that has just passed a law insisting that teachers be allowed to go after evolution – and global warming is thrown in for good measure. The weasel words are:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary  school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any  public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any  teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific  weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

I am told that this wording derives from material put out by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, the organization that serves as the kind of corporate headquarters of the ID movement.

No doubt we will end up back in court. I wish I could feel as confident as before, but two things make me very uneasy. Two things, one from each end of the spectrum. On the right, the simple fact is that as its past actions show and as the questioning on the health-care act confirms, the present Supreme Court is quite prepared to ignore the laws of the land and make them up as it goes along. If they want ID in the schools – and several of them do – we shall get it.

On the left, the New Atheist movement frightens me immensely. Its supporters openly and explicitly link evolutionary thinking with non-belief, sneering at those (like me) who think that science and religion can exist harmoniously together. I don’t care what the law says, politically this is moronic. The citizens of Tennessee, the judges of the Supreme Court, are going to believe that if evolution alone is taught in schools the kids of the country will be getting atheist propaganda – no matter what actually happens – and they are going to want to counter it. I imagine that every time that Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, the Discovery Institute lights a candle of thanks, or whatever it is that evangelicals do these days.

Note, I am not saying that if you genuinely think that evolution implies atheism you should conceal this belief for political reasons. I am saying it is irresponsible to emote on these issues without doing serious study of the issues and looking carefully at those who beg to differ on the possibility of having both science and religion. And this, as five minutes with the God Delusion shows fully, the New Atheists do not do.

In 10 years’ time, if I am still around, I shall say: “I told you so.” But I won’t get much satisfaction from being right.

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