Expelling Darwin

In every flap about evolution, it seems, there is a new Scopes Trial struggling to be born. Why else so much fuss over the Kansas Board of Education’s promulgation of guidelines that, if followed, would eliminate any teaching about the evolution of species and natural selection from the science curriculum in public schools? The board, which passed its standards by a 6-4 vote, has no power over the state’s 304 public school districts, which can teach evolution or not as they see fit. All the board can do is declare that it will not include anything on these topics in the statewide tests. That is enough, however, to make creationists rejoice and liberal pundits decry a looming threat to "sound science." It is hard to imagine any other pedagogical recommendation, about teaching math, spelling, or geography, for example, stirring such national attention, coming as it did from a relatively powerless board in one Middle American state. But evolution has long been a touchstone of where one stands in American culture, and Darwin’s defenders react as ritualistically as his uncultured despisers, driven to reenact the whole saga of struggle against sin and darkness, especially that mythic moment in Dayton, Tennessee, when modernity and unfettered inquiry defied the forces of benighted fundamentalism.

Never mind that Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Summer for the Gods shows how much of the science-versus-superstition, tolerance-versus-dogmatism rendering of the Scopes trial is indeed myth, crystallized in the McCarthy-era drama and film, Inherit the Wind. The point is that, for many Americans, conflicts over evolution become conflicts over what they hold most deeply, most religiously, one could say, even in the case of avowed secularists.

Catholics, for the most part, have not seen it that way. Not tied to a literal reading of Scripture, Catholicism adjusted to the scientific evidence, not without reservations and difficulties, but far more easily than Protestantism. Some years ago, a survey of clergy showed that virtually all Catholic priests, in contrast to a significant segment of Protestant leadership, considered evolution strictly a nonproblem. So there is a tendency to look at dust-ups like the current one in Kansas with a detached and superior air. Galileo, after all, is enough of a burden. At least we can stay clear of debates about Darwin.

That kind of complacency would be naïve. Believers who saw from the start that the theory of evolution by natural selection had important religious implications, going far beyond any ostensible clash with the poetic "days" of Genesis, were right. Nonbelievers who saw from the start that the theory of evolution by natural selection made their agnosticism or atheism a lot more plausible, even if not logically inevitable, were also right. Chance, time, and reproductive advantage could do everything that natural theology had so confidently declared the sure sign of God’s handiwork. Today, scientific popularizers of evolutionary theory regularly draw metaphysical and theological conclusions from their science, whether in the aggressively antireligious form of a Richard Dawkins or the kinder, gentler kiss-off of a Stephen Jay Gould. Consider the 1995 "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution" by the National Association of Biology Teachers, defining evolution as "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process"-later grudgingly amended when a distinguished philosopher and an equally distinguished historian of world religions pointed out the theological claims packed into those first two adjectives.

At the popular level, evolution by natural selection frequently functions less as scientific theory than as an alternative creation story, competing with theistic ones. That probably explains why, to the consternation of many scientists, the polls show so many Americans resistant to the theory. Actually, the polls notwithstanding, we suspect that a sizable number of Americans simply hew to two rival accounts of life’s origins and development, one personal and providential, the other blind and mechanical, not really reconciling them as much as treating each, at times, with varying degrees of skepticism.

This reluctance to face up to underlying conflicts is not limited to the popular mind or an uninvolved Catholicism. Editorialists whose tone suggested that the Kansas board’s action had touched a vital ideological nerve nonetheless preferred to couch their objections in strictly practical terms. The New York Times, the voice of liberal secular reason, lamented that in Kansas "bright students who might be inclined to pursue scientific careers" could now reach college unprepared (August 13). The Times’s star columnist, Frank Rich, relying on a hitherto-unknown theory of welfare dependency, speculated that taxpayers might have "to foot the bill in future welfare programs for graduates of evolution-free high schools sentenced to the bottom rungs of the new economy" (August 28).

But the same paper’s reporters made quite clear that what was involved was not just a stumbling block on the road to Harvard but a clash of world views. "At issue for Kansans," wrote Jacques Steinberg from Topeka, "is nothing less than reconciling two central explanations of life: the Darwinian theory that man and monkey gradually branched off of the same family tree millions of years ago as they adjusted to a changing environment, a contention heavily rooted in scientific evidence, and the creationist belief that a divine being has been pulling the biological levers of the universe, including the origin of man, as described in the Bible" (August 24). Add the supposition that this man-monkey branching was the result of mindless natural mechanisms. Subtract the trivializing, anthropomorphic image of "pulling the biological levers." The result is a serious conflict.

A conflict, one must admit, that is essentially philosophical and theological. And, philosophy and theology being effectively excluded from American public education, the vacuum has been filled by the farrago of anti-Darwinian polemic known as creation science. Although creationist and creation science are terms sometimes extended to tar any insistence on divine creation or any legitimate criticism of neo-Darwinian argument, they properly refer to the tireless efforts, no matter how strained, to put a scientific veneer on a literal reading of Genesis. It is no wonder that Catholics want no part of such gymnastics, which insult our understanding of Scripture as much as our respect for science. But that is no reason to think this is a debate in which the church has no interest, or that the challenges posed to faith by widely accepted views of evolution have been long since adequately met, whether in religious education, Sunday preaching, theological exploration, or thoughtful intervention in the public debate.

Published in the 1999-09-10 issue: 
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