The teacher from Florida had a sense of urgency in his voice. A group of state legislators had proposed a resolution that would encourage school districts to include creation science in their curricula. The measure looked like it would be appended to a bill promoting prayer in school — a shoo-in, in the teacher's opinion. What could he do?
Earlier that month a parent had called from Colorado, upset because the teachers in her son's high school had decided not to teach evolution "because it went against religion." Did I know what she could do to see that her kid got a decent education?
From Vermont came a call from another teacher, worried because her school board had passed a resolution directing teachers that, "Whenever origin of life is presented at Blue Mountain Union School that creation be presented as a viable theory on an equal status with the various theories of evolution."
What's going on? Creationism in public schools in 1994? Wasn't all this settled with the Scopes trial in 1925? Certainly, it must have been settled with the Supreme Court Edwards v. Aguillard decision in 1987, striking down a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creationism whenever evolution was taught. Wasn't it?
No, it was not. And, yes, evolution is a controversial issue in 1994, right up there with sex education, AIDS education, and supposedly satanic elementary school reading texts. Evolution is taught less frequently in 1994 than in 1984 because of parental pressure on teachers, occasionally because of official or unofficial policy, and most frequently because teachers anticipate problems from the community.
The National Center for Science Education is a clearing-house for information about the creation/evolution controversy. I get calls like those mentioned above every week. It is my job to try to help people keep evolution in the curriculum and keep creation science out. I do this by providing information on the scientific, legal, and religious issues involved, and by galvanizing opposition to those who attack the integrity of science.
Scientific creationism was born when the Supreme Court declared in 1968's Epperson v. Arkansas that it was unconstitutional to ban the teaching of evolution. The notion developed that by calling biblical literalism science, it might validly have a place in the public schools. Creation science was declared religious advocacy in Edwards v. Aguillard, but this has not noticeably slowed down the movement.
In response to such legal decisions, creationism has evolved by avoiding the word creationism. A current euphemism is intelligent design theory, promoted in the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People. It comes as no surprise to someone familiar with the arguments of the now-discredited scientific creationists that intelligent design and abrupt appearance proofs are identical with those of scientific creationism.
The most sophisticated anti-evolutionists have shifted to arguing for a teacher's academic freedom to teach arguments against evolution, which upon analysis prove to be (surprise!) identical to the positions held by the now legally discredited scientific creationists. In Vista, California, a Religious Right-dominated school board attempted to pass a resolution calling not for creation science, but for teachers to teach "weaknesses that substantially challenge theories in evolution."
It is a tactically excellent argument. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects us against proselytizing in the public schools; it does not protect us against bad science.
To the scientific community, evidence against evolution and in fact, the entire anti-evolution movement, is incomprehensible. Evolution is fundamental to biology and geology, and of primary importance to many other sciences. The famous geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said it best: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Biology without evolution, he observed, is "a pile of sundry facts — some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."
In the world of science, arguments occur over how evolution occurred, or how fast, or what creature is descended from what. Whether evolution occurs is just not an issue at the university level. Noteworthy is the fact that in every prominent university or college in the country, including Brigham Young, Notre Dame, Southern Methodist, and Baylor, evolution is part of the curriculum.
Nevertheless, anti-evolutionism remains widespread in popular culture. In 1992, CBS aired a two-hour program purporting to prove scientifically that there was an actual, literal Great Flood and that human and dinosaur footprints are found together in a Texas river.
In promotional literature sent in late 1993 to PBS stations nationwide, a creationist videotape, "Voices for Creation," produced by a Marquette, Michigan public television station, was offered to PBS stations because "a growing number of scientists are forsaking evolutionary theory for creation science." The promo also noted that the documentary was produced "in response to increasing criticism of public television for its perceived pro-evolution stance." To practicing scientists, this is akin to criticizing PBS astronomy shows for their pro-spherical earth stance.
Work with pro-evolution clergy. The best-kept secret in the creation controversy is that Catholic and mainline Protestant theology has no problem incorporating evolution or other scientific ideas. The creation controversy is not one between science and religion, but between biblical literalist theology and everyone else. The plaintiffs (opponents of creationism in the schools) in the famous McLean v. Arkansas federal court decision were bishops and other high officials of the Methodist, A.M.E., Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Southern Baptist churches.
It is clear that Christian theology can accommodate evolution. In a statement opposing scientific creationists who were attempting to influence the Lexington, Kentucky, school board, the Lexington Alliance of Religious Leaders, composed of mainline clergy, wrote: "As religious leaders we share a deep faith in the God who created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and take with utmost seriousness the Biblical witness to this God who is our Creator. However, we find no incompatibility between the God of creation and a theory of evolution which uses universally verifiable data to explain the probable process by which life developed into its present form."
Expose the equal time argument. The concept of equal time may be a praiseworthy cultural value, but it is irrelevant in the world of science. Science is not a democratic process and scientists do not decide which theory is correct by taking a vote. The key to the acceptance of a scientific theory is if it explains facts and observations better than others. Evolution explains observations in paleontology, biochemistry, comparative anatomy, embryology, biogeography and many other fields. Creationism explains nothing.
To the average American, it seems reasonable that if one teaches evolution, one should also teach creationism because it's only fair. The answer is that it is only fair to give our students the best possible education, and to teach them state-of-the-art scholarship. It is not fair to teach that the world goes around the sun, and then give equal time to the geocentrists. It is not reasonable to teach students that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and also, in fairness, to teach that the Holocaust is actually just a propaganda ploy of Zionists — even though there is a constituency for this point of view. We shouldn't be teaching crackpot history to our students just because someone thinks it is fair, and we shouldn't be teaching crackpot science — i.e. creationism — either.
We must teach Americans how science works, and why it is the best method human beings have developed to understand how the natural world works — though it has nothing to say about ultimate cause.
Eugenie Scott is with the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, California. Reprinted with permission from the How to Win Handbook published by the Radical Right Task Force.