Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Teach Evolution by Eugenie C. Scott (Jan/Feb 2000)

January/February 2000

This is excerpted from a speech and accompanying slideshow presented on July 31, 1999 to the Northern California FFRF Mini-Convention, Holiday Inn Civic Center, San Francisco.

By Eugenie C. Scott

People are often surprised at how extensive anti-evolutionism is in this country. The Gallup organization has asked three questions for a number of years about evolution and creationism. Question one (young earth creationism): Do you think God created humans pretty much in our present form at one time within the last 10,000 years? Question two (theistic evolution): Do you think we developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including our creation? The third question: Do you think we have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and God had no part in the process?

The answers to these three questions have been consistent over many years. For about the last 12 or 13 years, about 45% of Americans agree with young earth creationism. The theistic evolution question is agreed to by a very substantial proportion of Americans, something in the range of 35%. And the atheist response is around 10%, which of course also reflects the amount of religiosity in American society.

The National Science Foundation has asked a question: Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals–true or false? Fewer than half of Americans agreed that is true. The National Science Foundation also asked a question: Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time–true or false? Less than half of Americans know this is false (48% in 1995; 51% in 1997). Basically, less than half or barely half of Americans realize the “Flintstones” was not a documentary!

In general, adult Americans are not very impressive in their understanding of scientific ideas. A number of other polls all come up with similar results. The percentage of Americans which accepts evolution is pretty small. The low acceptance of evolution is specific to America and Canada.

Darwin’s Origin of Species was written in 1859. In both Great Britain and the United States, the idea of evolution through natural selection was gradually accepted by the scientific community and, by the way, the theological community. The Church of England very quickly accommodated its theology to the idea of evolution. So did the Catholics and the mainline Protestants (as differentiated from fundamentalist Protestants).

You are familiar with the Scopes trial, which is, of course, the best example but not really the culmination of the effort to ban evolution. Why were there a lot of laws passed in the early 1920s banning evolution? Two things in the United States fostered an anti-evolutionary fervor. First, high school education increased enormously from the turn of the century, with 200,000 attending in 1890 to 1,800,000 by 1920. That meant more students were exposed to that “damnable doctrine,” evolution. Also during this time frame was the growth of a particular, maybe peculiarly American religious institution, called fundamentalism. The writing of a series of booklets called The Twelve Fundamentals presented a back-to-basics Christianity that was widely embraced by many Americans. The combination of fundamentalism plus more students being exposed to evolution caused an anti-evolutionary movement that was really not paralleled elsewhere.

This growing exposure to children of the idea of evolution generated a series of efforts by a number of state legislatures to ban the teaching of evolution. The state of Tennessee passed a law, which the ACLU offered to challenge. John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, was talked into being the plaintiff, and you know the rest of the story. Everybody, particularly on our side of this kind of an issue, remembers the Scopes trial from the eyes of Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken. What we tend to forget is that Scopes lost, and those laws stayed on the books.

In fact, they stayed on the books until 1968, when Epperson v. Arkansas, a Supreme Court decision, struck down anti-evolution laws.

Every law since Epperson having to do with creation and evolution has been decided on the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [the Establishment Clause] or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [the Free Exercise Clause].” Those two clauses can be in conflict with each other. One person’s free exercise is another one’s establishment.

In Epperson, the justices wrote that “there can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma. . . . As Mr. Justice Clark stated, ‘the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.’ ” Just because a religion disagrees with an idea is no reason to remove it from the curriculum.

The time of the Epperson decision was also a period of revolution in science education, brought about by the scare that the Russians put into us when they got to space first with Sputnik. This resulted in the National Science Foundation investing a lot of money in the production of textbooks, including biology textbooks that were actually written by scientists and master teachers, instead of being written by publishing companies. The scientists who wrote these new textbooks took a look at what was on the market and were absolutely appalled, because since 1925 and the Scopes trial, the discussion of evolution in textbooks decreased rapidly. By the late ’50s and early ’60s there was virtually no evolution in high school biology books. These NSF-funded programs like the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, BSCS, put evolution back. They also put human reproduction in too, so we had both sex and evolution. These books were really radical, you can tell!

Evolution was back in the textbooks and you couldn’t ban it because the Supreme Court had declared that unconstitutional, so what do you do if you want to protect your kids from evolution? Well, what you do is you invent something called “creation science,” arguing that this is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution, with a right to a piece of the curriculum.

The people who wanted to ban evolution, as well as the creation science people, view evolution as an idea that children should be protected against. They think that if evolution is true, therefore there is no God. If there is no God then there’s no salvation and Johnny’s not going to go to heaven. Worse yet, he’ll go to the other place. If there’s no God, then there’s no reason to be good, there’s no God looking over your shoulder and as we all know, all of us who are nonbelievers are out there raping, pillaging and cheating our fellow man anyway, right?

But in all seriousness, this is the point of view held by these people. They cannot imagine how anybody could be good unless you were being told to be good by some higher authority. So because there’s no reason to be good, therefore we’re headed for social ruin and society will fall apart and we’ll descend into a law of tooth and claw, the jungle will reign, etc.

Henry Morris is perhaps the most prominent of the creation scientists of the late 20th century. Henry Morris back in 1963 cowrote a book called The Genesis Flood which really outlined the scientific rationale for biblical literalist creation. Henry Morris has been a very strong proponent of the idea that evolution is an evil idea that will lead to social ruin. He has said that “evolution is at the foundation of communism, fascism, freudianism, social darwinism, behaviorism, Kinseyism, materialism, atheism, and in the religious world, modernism and neo-orthodoxy.” The creation science people have been very active in presenting this link between evolution and evil. So you see where the motivation comes to fight against evolution in the schools. Very serious issues are at hand: children’s salvation and the survival of society.

Mainline theology for Protestants and Catholics is called theistic evolution, if you remember Gallup’s second question; evolution happened but it’s the way God did it. In fact, John Paul II issued his second statement that evolution is okay with Catholics in 1996. It’s amazing how many people are still surprised to hear that Catholics are not biblical literalists. So within Christian theology there is this very open door.

After Epperson came the strategy that you teach evolution and you teach creation science along with it because this is “good science,” and it’s “fair.” Never underestimate the strength of the fairness argument. Twenty-three states between 1976 and 1981 tried to pass legislation requiring equal time for creation science and evolution. Fortunately, most of these died in committee. Louisiana and Arkansas did pass equal time laws.

Pause for just a moment and think a little about elected political bodies. The job of a political body is to find ways of getting the various diverse elements of society to get along so that things can happen. Compromise is actually the goal, to try to make as many people happy as possible and reach your goal of getting something done.

But sometimes this normally laudable approach backfires. Group A comes along and says, “2+2=4.” Group B comes along and says, no, “2+2=6.” Now, if you were a politician, a very probable decision that you might make is that “2+2=5.” A lot of school boards have done this with equal time: let’s teach ’em both. But there are times when 2+2 just has to equal 4, and this is one of them.

Public Agenda conducted a poll asking is the teaching in science class of the biblical view of creation and Darwin’s theory of evolution equally valid? A very strong proportion of the American public agreed, hovering close to 40%. Equal time makes sense to them even though the equal time laws were struck down by a decision in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard.

Unfortunately, Edwards v. Aguillard left a loophole. Justice Brennan wrote that “teaching a variety of scientific theories about humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.” He also wrote that “teachers already possess a flexibility to supplement the present science curriculum with a presentation of theories besides evolution,” alternatives to evolution. So you can teach alternative scientific theories to evolution, according to the Supreme Court.

Consider if competing views of the shape of the earth were taught. They can teach the spherical, they can teach that it’s triangular, they can teach that it’s flat, as long as they present the “scientific evidence” for this. That is true with the case of evolution; they would be absolutely free to present secular scientific evidence for how things got to be as they are today other than evolution–but there ain’t any. Things grind to a halt at this point.

I and some others have referred to this loophole as neo-creationism. Part of neo-creationism is to take the old creation science ideas and repackage them in a new format. For example, a school district outside of Minneapolis adopted standards in 1997 saying, “list and explain some of the data and scientific reasoning that tends to cast doubt on the evolutionary theory,” in other words, encouraging teachers to attack evolution.

Well, teachers are very confused at this point, because they don’t know of any scientific data against evolution. Besides, it makes evolution controversial, and most teachers at this point will say “we’re just not going to get around to that topic this year.” Teachers do not like controversy. This is a helping profession, right? They didn’t get into teaching to fight. If they wanted to fight they could have become lawyers. Making evolution controversial is the best way to see that it doesn’t get taught in the district. One of the ways of making evolution controversial is to require that the teachers either read a disclaimer about evolution or that they paste the text of the disclaimer in the textbook.

Next chapter. In Alabama, all of the biology books have a disclaimer which starts out this way: “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans. [Big misunderstanding coming up now.] No person was present when life first appeared on earth, therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”

I’m sorry I have to use the F-word. I apologize. You are a distinguished and sophisticated audience and I hope you will understand that this is not just gratuitous profanity but it is necessary at this point to use the F-word. Something happens when you say “Evolution is a fact.” People just unglue. Letters to the editor just fulminate with rage over the idea that evolution is taught as fact, not theory.

Yes, science talks about facts, but do you know what a fact is? A fact is a confirmed observation. I’m holding a paper clip in my hand; if I do not support this paper clip how many of you think it’s going to fly around the room? Not many. It’s because we’ve all noticed and we’ve made many confirmed observations that unsupported objects that have some sort of weight and mass fall toward the earth. Things fall, they don’t fly around the room. We explain that observation that we’ve made over and over by the theory of gravitation–that the mass of that paper clip and the mass of the earth attract each other. (It so happens that the mass of the earth is a bit bigger than that of the paper clip so that the paper clip moves farther toward the earth than the other way around, but those are details.)

We explain observation, we explain facts, by theories. What is a theory? A theory is a logical construct of facts and hypotheses that explains natural phenomena. Explanation is what theories are all about–which makes theories the most important thing we do in science. There are a lot of theories in science. There’s cell theory, the theory that all living things are composed of cells. There’s atomic theory, the theory that all matter is made up of atoms and component parts. Heliocentric theory, the theory that the earth and the other planets go around the sun. This is an inference that we made based upon a lot of confirmed observations, but it is a theory.

This is not the way that “theory” is understood in the general public, however. A theory as we use it casually means a guess or a hunch, something that you shouldn’t pay much attention to, far from being the goal of all scientific exploration and discovery.

We see a lot of general wimping out on evolution. This year the state of Nebraska considered its state science education standards, and evolution was included within them. These standards were drawn up by a competent group of scientists and teachers. One of the statements said “investigate and understand that natural selection provides a scientific explanation of the fossil record and explains the molecular singularities among the diverse species of living organisms.”

That’s a good standard to expect high school students to understand coming out of a high school biology class. This did not sit well with the attorney general who is running for governor, but we won’t mention that. He forced a modification of this: “investigate whether natural selection provides scientific explanation of the fossil record and explains the molecular singularities.” See what I mean about wimping out? There are a lot of these little weasel words that slide into standards, disclaiming evolution, degrading it.

The net effect is to present the idea to students, teachers and the public that evolution is somehow different from all other sciences, that it’s not as trustworthy, that you don’t have to take it as seriously as other scientific ideas.

If nothing else evolves, creationism does. Certainly if we look at the history of this movement through time, we can see that things have changed through time, which is the definition of evolution. We have gone from trying to ban evolution, to giving it equal time with something called creation science, to these various neo-creationism efforts to disclaim it, to have “alternatives” to evolution taught with it. I don’t have time to talk about something called intelligent design theory, but you can read my review of Robert Pennock’s book Tower of Babel: Evidence Against The New Creationists, a critique of the new creationism, in the August [1999] Scientific American. Or better yet, read Pennock’s book. You’ll have a very good introduction to the intelligent design creationism which is becoming quite the thing these days.

What may well happen is that the amount of evolution taught in public schools will even further decrease. This would be a very unfortunate outcome because as the very distinguished Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, “Seen in the light of evolution, biology is perhaps intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts, some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.”

He could have said the same thing about geology and astronomy. Both of these sciences in addition to biology don’t make sense unless evolution happened, unless change through time happened. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

We’re talking about a problem of science literacy, but also a problem in church/state separation, because what is motivating anti-evolution is in fact religious ideology, and only one narrow portion of religious ideology, at that. People are sometimes surprised to hear that my best allies are members of the mainline clergy. They do not want creation science or any other kind of creationism taught Monday through Friday in the public schools, and then have to straighten the kids out as to what their theology is on Saturday. So when we get a problem at a local school board where they’re trying to present creationism or intelligent design or arguments against evolution or other euphemisms, I tell local people: find yourself a clergyman.

One guy in a funny collar is worth two biologists any day at the school board. The scientists can get up there and say, “This is what science is, this is not science, this should not be taught,” and the school board will be thinking “equal time, fairness, 2+2=5, we’ve got to make all these people happy.” If a clergy gets up there and says, “Hey, we have our own ideas about creation, we don’t want to have creation taught in the public schools, the public schools should be neutral, we want to teach creation our own way,” the school board goes, “Ding!” You’ve got to prove that creationism is not science–that’s necessary, but not sufficient. You also have to diffuse the religious issue. You also have to push church/state separation, the idea that we want the schools to be religiously neutral and that creationism is not a scientific idea, it is a religious idea.

Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., has been Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., since 1987. The pro-evolution nonprofit science education organization has members in every state. She holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Missouri, has taught at the University of Kentucky, the University of Colorado, and in California State University System. An internationally-recognized expert on the creation/evolution controversy, she has consulted with the National Academy of Sciences, several State Departments of Education, and legal staffs here and abroad.

The NCSE can be reached at: PO Box 9477, Berkeley CA 94709-0477.

Freedom From Religion Foundation