Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 2000
Volume 11, Number 2

Creation, Evolution, and Teaching in the Public Schools

Charles F. Austerberry
Assistant Professor of Biology

By a 6-4 vote, on August 11, 1999 the Kansas Board of Education deleted most references to evolution from its science teaching standards. Within days, a chapter on geology and paleontology was removed from Kansas - The Prairie Spirit Lives, a new history textbook for seventh and eighth grade students. The deleted chapter had focused on a prehistoric inland sea and 150 million-year-old fossils found in western Kansas. Jim Bean, Director of the Grace Dangberg Foundation which is publishing the book, explained: "If we talk about [things that old], then it's beyond a creation date that most religions use."1

One might question Mr. Bean's assessment of where "most religions" stand on the issue of geological dating, but there's no question that many textbook publishers, school administrators, and teachers will sacrifice content in order to avoid controversy. Several popular American biology textbooks published between 1900 and 1920 clearly described evolution, but its coverage declined thereafter in response to growing fundamentalism.2 The Tennessee-approved textbook A Civic Biology3 was revised in 1923 to emphasize that evolution is (only) "a theory," but this would prove to be insufficient.

Though he reluctantly signed the Butler Law in 1925 (which prohibited teaching "that man is descended from a lower order of animals"), Tennessee Governor Austin Peay wishfully remarked: "Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute."4 In fact, some people on both sides of the issue wanted to test the new law. On 21 July, 1925 biology teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined, as predicted and desired by both the prosecution and the defense. Many people outside the South (and some southerners) mocked the Butler Law, but Scopes' prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and his fellow fundamentalists won, in the courts and the schools. Anti-evolution laws would avoid review by the U.S. Supreme Court for 40 years. In 1927 A Civic Biology was renamed New Civic Biology; all references to human evolution were expunged, and Darwin's theory was downgraded to "His interpretation of the way in which all life changes." Another (and best-selling) biology textbook published in 1933 asserted that Darwin's theory was "no longer generally accepted."5

If evolution was unacceptable, second-rate status in science and technology also seemed unacceptable to many Americans after the Soviet Union placed the first artificial satellite in orbit on 4 October 1957. Among other reactions, the federally-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study released new textbooks in 1961. These widely-used books led to a reemphasis of evolution in high schools. The controversy was reignited, and several court cases followed. At the legal level, the outcome in recent decades has been very different from that of the Scopes trial. U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1968 have thrown out the old laws that banned the teaching of evolution, as well as newer laws that would have required equal classroom time for creationism alongside evolution. But in 1999, as science teaching standards are being developed for the first time in Kansas, Nebraska, and other states, we still have attorneys arguing about what the Constitution allows to be taught in science classes. We still have presidential candidates and political party platforms using the everyday sense of "theory" (as a "guess") in reference to evolution, whereas within science "theory" means a well-supported network of interrelated explanations. Some atheists still claim that evolutionary science disproves the existence of a Creator, while some theists still tout gaps in our evolutionary explanations as positive evidence for "intelligent design." Consensus on origins questions is unlikely, but perhaps consensus on how to discuss them is more realistic. I suggest four guidelines:

1. Our knowledge is limited

The origins of the universe and life are very complex mysteries. Generations have lived and died without complete answers; so will generations after our own. We are making progress, in science and in theology. Future teachers will remind their students that those of us here today weren't stupid, just ignorant. Yet, those teachers will be pointing their students towards still more open questions. Good scientists remember that their current explanations are at best incomplete, and maybe even wrong. Good theologians likewise remember that their discipline will continue to progress, and that God will never be fully known this side of heaven.

2. Science can't tell us when all possible natural explanations have been exhausted

We should readily admit that we can't even imagine a plausible natural explanation for some things. To assert that no plausible natural explanation could ever exist in such cases, however, would be presumptuous. How can we dismiss all natural causes when we don't even know what we are dismissing? The lack of a plausible natural explanation would constitute evidence for "intelligent design" only if we could somehow know that we've imagined, analyzed, and eliminated all of the "non-design" alternatives. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina Galileo articulated a perspective that remains as valid today as it was in 1615:

    Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we do know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."6

3. Science cannot rule out the supernatural

The absence of a natural explanation may be more than a matter of ignorance. Some phenomena may, in reality, have no natural explanations. For example, supernatural intervention could be essential for life to exist. Naturalism is the proper methodological stance for doing science, but it is not the only ontological (metaphysical) stance consistent with a modern scientific world view. Belief in a Creator who might act outside of natural law is reasonable, and is not a threat to science unless it is taught as science or allowed to limit scientific investigations.

4. The Creator might work through natural events and processes

Scientific explanations are mechanistic and impersonal, but not necessarily the things being explained. There are multiple ways to imagine a "God's-eye" view of nature. For example, a preference for regularity and order on God's part could lie behind all processes that to us appear completely determined by 'autonomous' natural laws. In addition, God's omniscience may be absolute if all events that we consider random are in fact predictable from God's perspective. On the other hand, theologian-scientist Arthur Peacocke is among those who consider some randomness in the universe to be ineradicably unpredictable even to its Creator.

For, in order to achieve his purposes, [God] has allowed his inherent omnipotence and omniscience to be modified, restricted and curtailed by the very open-endedness that he has bestowed upon creation.7

Regardless of how one envisions the details, it is certainly possible that God has created, and continues to create, through evolution. Given the importance of scarcity, competition for survival, and death in the process of natural selection, it may be hard to imagine a loving God creating through evolution. The problem of theodicy loomed large to Charles Darwin and may have been the primary reason for his personal drift from Christian theism to agnosticism.8 Pain and death were recognized long before Darwin, however. In a prescientific but still powerful way the Bible addresses both natural evil and human (moral) evil, as do the sacred scriptures of other religious traditions. Loss of religious faith need not accompany the acceptance of evolutionary theory.9

I don't want my children and my students burdened with the false dilemma of choosing between evolution and creation. Scientific and theological theories can be compared to check for coherence, but only with sophistication and care. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1605:

Let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.10

I have tremendous respect for the challenging work that elementary, junior high, and senior high school teachers do, and for the work of people who train those teachers. It's up to local school administrators, teachers, and parents to preserve an arena within their classrooms where evolution can be taught with respect for science, religion, and students.

End Notes

1The decision to delete a chapter from a textbook on Kansas history was reported by the Associated Press in many newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald (29 August 1999, Section A, p. 16).

2Edward J. Larson's comprehensive historical accounts of the American creation-evolution controversy are his books Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) and Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: BasicBooks, 1997).

3George W. Hunter, A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (New York: American Book Company, 1914).

4 Randy Moore, "Banning Evolution from the Classroom" (The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 60, No. 7, Sept. 1998, p. 489).

5James W. Fraser, Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 126, and Randy Moore, "The Aftermath of the Scopes Trial" (The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 60, No. 8, Oct. 1998, p. 576).

6Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), p. 187.

7Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 121.

8The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1958).

9Conrad M. Hyers' compelling approach is in The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984). Ian Barbour's comprehensive review is in Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997). A new contribution is John F. Haught's God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview, 1999).

10Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis, edited by Arthur Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 9-10.