AND LET US NEVER QUESTION DARWIN . . . AMEN.
Two professors from the University of California at San Diego have recently treated us to their view of the way in which evolutionary theory should be taught in Texas public schools. Amy Binder's and John H. Evans's op-ed piece, entitled "How to Soften Darwinism's Message about Values," appeared in the "Viewpoints" section of the July 31, 2008 issue of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It should, first of all, strike readers as more than a little curious that thoughtful op-ed contributions critical of Darwin's theory never see the light of day in this tabloid as well as in most others. Make of the fact whatever you wish, the truth is that the op-ed section in most newspapers is a closed forum, reserved on many subjects for the expression of editorially favored comment. Binder's and Evans's piece, needless to say, passed the litmus test and was published. Whether their opinion is otherwise worth much is another issue, one that you can decide.
The professors begin by stating that, if the Texas Board of Education adopts a proposal calling for teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution in the science curriculum, the Board will be engaging in "a strategic effort to get around First Amendment restrictions on teaching religion in science class." They conclude with a proposal of their own, recommending that instructors "explain" to students that "morality does not logically flow from evolutionary theory."
The professors' remarks represent the kind of ideologically-driven blather that has become all too often associated with the discussion of this subject. It is as if Darwin's theory were sacrosanct. Yet think about it: Do citizens really want or need a public school system that forbids discussion of both the strengths and weaknesses of a given theory? Has such a methodological restriction ever advanced either the goals of science or those of education in general? No! The history of science has, instead, repeatedly demonstrated that vigorous questioning of the status quo is the fuel propelling scientific pursuit. Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein all questioned what had been received by them as "the truth." So did Darwin! Why then, pray tell, should we now bar the door to critical questions about Darwin's theory? He, for one, certainly would not have appreciated this result.
There are many penetrating questions about Darwinist theory that students should be free to ask and that teachers should be encouraged to address. A century and a half of paleontological exploration, for example, has failed to confirm the great scientist's prediction that infinitesimal changes in animal morphology occurring over time would be reflected in the existence of many transitional forms leading to new phylum-level morphologies. So one question concerns why the theory is not better supported by the fossil record than it is. I see no reason why a student should not be able to inquire about this "weakness"; do you?
Likewise, why is it that the fossil record, far from illustrating the numerous gradual changes predicted by Darwin, actually appears to demonstrate a pattern of sudden appearance followed by stasis? Most life-forms came into being during the so-called Cambrian Explosion, which occurred 530 million years ago and lasted a maximum of only 5 million years. This fact tends to hoist a red flag over the efforts of those who would examine Darwin's theory uncritically. Why not then inquire into the implications of this fact? To bar students from interrogating a theory, any theory, has more in common with a totalitarian mindset than with a liberal education.
Lynn Margulis, distinguished university professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, puts her finger squarely on the point that is often blithely overlooked by idealogues such as Binder and Evans. Professor Margulis states that history will judge neo-Darwinism as "a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology." According to this accomplished biologist, Binder and Evans are kidding themselves to think that they are not really pushing a kind of religious agenda and are doing so just as vigorously as those whose views they oppose. But the problem is that our two professors represent the kind of religion most of us fear – one that censors honest discussion and comprises a threat to learning.
You will remember that these two professors mention the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) was the first case in which the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of evolution in public schools. Arkansas had enacted an "anti-evolution" statute, which prohibited teaching the theory in its public schools and universities. The Court struck down the statute on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause.
Justice Black, in a concurring opinion, expressed the view that the statute should have been voided for vagueness rather than for allegedly violating the Establishment Clause." If the theory [of evolution] is considered anti-religious . . .," he asked, "how can the State [of Arkansas] be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate" it to schoolchildren? The Justice's point, in case Binder and Evans missed it, is similar to Professor Margulis's: those who take Darwin's position that life and its various forms developed fortuitously – i.e., without purpose or direction – are supporting a point-of-view that has just as much to do with religion as those who adopt the contrary position. The only difference is that one side is identified with orthodoxy while the other is not.
In light of Justice Black's insight, it is fatuous to imply, as our two professors have done, that their position is religion-neutral and, hence, more in keeping with the Establishment Clause than that of intelligent design theorists. What Binder and Evans seem to be engaged in, actually, is little more than shameless hypocrisy. Although they will deny it, they are flaming evangelists for their belief system. They support the state establishment of a religion -- theirs! If and when their proposal is implemented, a new state-supported orthodoxy will enter the schoolhouse through the back door.
I am a Christian, and I favor an open classroom where students may ask any question related to the subject at hand. If during an instructor's presentation of Darwin's theory, a student desires to ask about "design" or "purpose," then why not allow it? Evolution, in one of its meanings, is about "a blind watchmaker," right? Just because Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are convinced that life unfolded without purpose does not make it so. I see no reason why a student who is "informed" by his biology teacher that "this vast biological continuum of which we are a part only appears to be the product of purposeful design," is not within his rights to ask, "Do you realize that, whether you intended to do so, you have made a statement with implications negative to many religious perspectives? To the extent that, for some of us, morality is predicated upon religion, have you not also encroached upon the domain of morality? Does the Establishment Clause give you this right? If so, then do others not have the right to doubt the truth of what you have said and to point out what they regard as biological insufficiencies in Darwinist theory?" Such questions reveal that Binder's and Evans's proposal is little more than an authoritarian billy club with which to protect this sacred cow of secularists.
True believers, typified by the left-wing zealots with which academe is replete nowadays, are tiresome, boring, and taxing to the human spirit. One wonders if, as sociologists, Binder and Evans ever heard of the great nineteenth century femininist, Lucretia Mott, whose motto rings as true today as it did then: "Truth for authority, not authority for truth." If they are familiar with her work, then they might like to internalize her wisdom and stop suggesting that discussion of the weaknesses of a theory is off-limits in public schools. If they are not familiar with her work, then I would recommend that they do less writing and more reading.
August 4, 2008