Evolution is once again in the public spotlight. As always, local school boards and legislatures debate it; lawyers from California to Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania litigate it. But this time around there is a noticeable change.
The topic is no longer fuelled merely by the next lawsuit or flap over textbook stickers. One opens a recent New Yorker and sees that even in that bastion of highbrow liberalism, culturally as far from Kansas, Georgia, Alabama or Tennessee as one can get, the topic is featured in The Talk of the Town. “Intelligent Design” was a segment on Night Line, has become grist for cartoonists, a staple for talk-show hosts and fair game for the jibes of Jon Stewart.
And it is not even fake news. The president of the United States announces support for teaching evolution along with critiques of it posed by ID theorists.
Bill Frist, Senate majority leader and Republican presidential hopeful, having distanced himself from the president on stem-cell research, heads for the centre (and the polls show 70 per cent of the population would support him) by endorsing the president’s position on teaching evolution.
Time magazine runs a cover story, Evolution Wars, depicting Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting of God stretching his finger to a reclining Adam. In place of Adam, Time substitutes a bust-like shot of a chimp, its eyes pensively staring at the subtitle positioned directly before its face: “The push to teach ‘intelligent design’ raises a question: Does God have a place in science class?”
Friday’s Washington Post breaks a story about Rick Sternberg, a research scientist associated with the Smithsonian who, as editor of a science journal, published a peer-reviewed article by Steven Meyer questioning Darwinian orthodoxy.
The Post reported that an official investigation had vindicated Sternberg’s formal complaint that his decision to publish the article had been punished by a campaign of intimidation and harassment by officials at the Smithsonian.
Not so long ago, the Sternberg story might have rated at least a short peak of discussion. Not any more. It was instantly pushed from public view not by an event, but by the cultural momentum of the topic itself.
Sunday’s New York Times carried a front-page story on the ID controversy that spilled over to fill (replete with pictures and captions) five full columns in the front section. As we write, both Monday and Tuesday’s New York Times feature front page stories in a series exploring points of difference between scientists on opposing sides of the issue.
Since it is not necessarily the headlines, but deeper changes in common language that indicate the direction of our thinking, William Safire’s regular feature On Language in Sunday’s New York Times magazine was particularly revealing.
Safire examined the derivations of the terms “Intelligent Design” and its catchy pejorative “neo-Creo” (for neo-creationism) coined by Philip Kitcher. But Safire gave “the last word on this old controversy” to Leon Cooper, Nobel laureate and neuroscientist, who observed: “If we could all lighten up a bit perhaps, we could have some fun in the classroom discussing the evidence and the proposed explanations — just as we do at scientific conferences.”
Whatever one thinks about Intelligent Design or Evolution, there is no dispute that understanding these terms is now a matter of merest cultural literacy.
Should this discussion be part of the science curriculum? As a practical matter, to ignore the issue places the science teacher in an untenable position. At this late date, to ask the science teacher to repeat all the usual disclaimers — to insist that there is no criticism of evolutionary theory worth talking about — brings to mind the scene from the Wizard of Oz in that awkward moment just after Dorothy’s dog Toto has tugged open the screen to reveal the “wizard” pulling the levers of the machine that produces the official version of Truth.
Is Intelligent Design smoke and mirrors? Or is it not, rather, a part of the historic and philosophic matrix from which our current theories emerged, giving it at least one clearly legitimate place in the science curriculum? And, speaking of scientific literacy, is it really possible to read the Origin of Species with its 105 rebuttals of ID interpretations of natural phenomena (first edition) without bothering to understand that which Darwin is arguing against?
The distinguished Canadian Darwinist and philosopher of science Michael Ruse in his latest book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, (Harvard, 2005) does not offer simple solutions to the many questions raised by what he calls this “Quarrel . . . within the family,” but refreshingly urges both philosophic Darwinists and those skeptical of Darwin to search for common ground for the sake of cultural progress.
Though we as authors of this essay differ between ourselves about Darwin’s theory, in the spirit of Prof. Ruse’s volume and following the example of his recent Cambridge University Press (2004) collaboration with the ID theorist William Dembski, Debating Design, we urge participants in the discussion to resist demonizing their opponents and to consider a simple principle central to liberal education and central equally to the role of science in the open society we all cherish.
We propose that teachers should present Darwin’s theory of evolution as Charles Darwin himself did: as a credible, but contestable scientific argument. Even though teachers should make unambiguously clear that Darwin’s is the established theory, rather than teaching Darwin’s theory as incontrovertible “truth,” teachers should present the main arguments for Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate them critically — as they would any other theory, whether new or long established.
There are good reasons for teaching not just Darwin’s theory, but all of science this way.
First, teaching science as argument helps students understand the nature of science. Contrary to the stereotype of scientists as tight-lipped technicians in white coats wordlessly producing facts from boiling beakers, scientists typically deliberate — and argue — about how best to interpret experimental evidence.
Second, teaching science as argument helps prepare tomorrow’s citizens to use scientific information to decide personal and public issues — of personal health, of when to ask for a second medical opinion, of how to make sense of public health-care policy, environmental policy, stem-cell research, advances in technology, and of how to make informed decisions about government funding of scientific research.
Third, though science is not and should not be democratic, teaching science as a forum for open argument — even about the nature of science — fosters cultural trust in science as an antidote to ideology and as an enterprise essential to democracy.
Darwin, to his great credit, included in the Origin of Species every objection to his theory he could think of.
When evolution is taught as Darwin himself presented it — as a theory resting on a large and diverse body of facts, but one from which thoughtful people (and even scientists) can nevertheless dissent — fewer parents will object to their children learning about it.
The opening sentence of the final chapter of Darwin’s Origin can provide a guide to school board members and educators as they shape science education policy and curriculum: “This whole volume is one long argument . . . ”
John Angus Campbell and Bill Marty are Fellows at Discovery Institute, Seattle, Wash. John Angus Campbell is editor with Stephen C. Meyer of Darwinism, Design and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2003).