Theoretically . . .
Our students here in Cobb County, Georgia, are being told by the school board to think critically, in fact told that scientific material should be approached “with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” And this has irritated and worried some of us-parents like Jeff Selman, supporters of evolution, members of the ACLU, advocates of church-state separation, etc.-so much that a lawsuit was filed, demanding that this outrage be stopped. U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the outrage should be stopped. His ruling demonstrated what the Cobb County School Board called “unnecessary judicial intrusion into local control of schools"-judicial activism run amok, according to full page ads in the local paper. The school board has voted to appeal the judge’s decision. Local newspaper columnists and writers of letters to the editor have made it abundantly clear that the ACLU and those of us who support the case are anti-freedom, anti-science, anti-religion, socialists, and atheist devils to boot.
All of this started as far back as the mid-to-late 1800s, when science and Darwin conflicted directly with cherished religious views of fundamentalist Christians, especially in the southern United States. The more recent beginning of the brouhaha was in 2002, when the Cobb school board bowed partway to pressure from local fundamentalist activists and voted to paste a sticker into the front of certain specific science textbooks. The approved sticker did not say “Evolution should rightly be called ‘Evil-ution’ and is a communist plot.” It didn’t even say “Intelligent Design deserves careful consideration as a really swell alternative to Evolution.” What it did say seems at first glance remarkably innocuous and commonsensical. It ended with the language quoted above; it started with “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” The board-and the creationists who pressured them-no doubt thought, “Now who could argue with that?” No mention of religion or God. No attack on science. Just a bit of harmless pandering to the creationists.
Of course all these discordant, loud voices insisting that the sticker is properly educational or at least harmless are wrong. They ignore the facts:
- In science, unlike in common usage, a successful “theory” is an overarching explanation that takes into account all known facts, hypotheses, and observations.
- It is a fact, supported by millions of observations by thousands of scientists over at least 150 years, that life has evolved on this planet. This fact of evolution did not have a scientifically satisfactory overarching explanation-a theory-until Charles Darwin developed his complex ideas of “descent with modification,” as presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. His explanation rapidly convinced the scientific minds of his own age and of every generation since then.
- No scientifically supported theory of why life on this planet has evolved-changed over time from common origins-rivals the basic Darwinian theory. If there was a legitimate alternative, scientists would go to great lengths to win prestige by testing and developing the alternative.
- The surest evidence that the Cobb School Board was using the sticker to try to mollify a religious minority in the county (rather than to improve science education or open-mindedness or to encourage critical thinking) is the much better sticker they rejected. While no sticker at all is needed, the board was presented with one that encouraged students to reflect critically and thoughtfully on all scientific theories in all fields, and that acknowledged that, while most scientists realize that Darwinian theory is well supported, some people do not. The board rejected that broader (and more accurate) advice to students.
- Despite the claims of some, evolutionary theory is not the only part of science subject to religious dispute and controversy. The germ theory of disease, while overwhelmingly supported by scientists, as is evolutionary theory, is not accepted by Christian Scientists nor by some other religious people. The board did not put a sticker in high school health texts about this, for good reason.
- Tempting as the solution presented by a local letter to the editor may seem to some, avoiding all the controversy by not teaching about evolution at all, or only in elective courses, would seriously cheat our students. Almost everything in modern biology, and much of astronomy, geology, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines cannot be well understood except in light of evolutionary theory. Our young people would suffer greatly in colleges and universities, including most religious schools, if their education was so inadequate. Their understanding of life itself would be severely hampered.
- The case is not part of “the ongoing controversy between atheists and Christians.” Many scientists, including Wes McCoy, the Cobb high school science department chair and Kenneth Miller, the textbook author and Brown University professor, who both testified eloquently against the sticker, describe themselves as deeply religious. Some Christians may be threatened by science, but most are not.
As Judge Cooper himself mentioned in his ruling, “Whether the Sticker communicates a message of endorsement of religion is not really based on the Court’s factual findings but is ‘in large part a legal question to be answered on the basis of judicial interpretation of social facts.'” The reference to “social facts” has been quoted in the local press, supposedly to show that there really was no problem with the stickers and that the judge was engaged in judicial and social activism. Those who read all of Judge Cooper’s decision will find, however, that he was careful to explain the basis of his primary finding. He did not rule based on whether evolution is a theory or a fact, nor did he conclude that encouraging critical thinking is inappropriate. Indeed he found that the encouragement so offered was sincere, desirable, and met an appropriate secular purpose.
The court held that the sticker is unconstitutional because it “conveys an impermissible message of endorsement and tells some citizens that they are political outsiders while telling others that they are political insiders” and because it violates the Georgia constitutional provision regarding “Separation of Church and State.”