In a message to the Pontifical Academy of Science in October 1996, Pope John Paul II said, New knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. That is to say, this theory is not a guess, but the established framework for understanding the origin of species from the data of the geological record and biological research. All the same, many Americans take a much cooler view of Darwinism, because they think it contradicts the accounts in the Book of Genesis of God’s creation of the world. A CBS poll last November found that 65 percent of the respondents favored teaching evolution and creationism side by side in public-school science classes. Moreover, 37 percent of those questioned thought schools should teach only creationism. It is a fair inference that many who hold these opinions are evangelical Protestants who are the parents of school-age children. Over the past three decades, various strategies have been devised to expel evolution from public schools or to introduce at least an acknowledgment of the Genesis vision of divine creation. Most of these plans have been struck down by the courts, but the struggle has not ended, as two recent cases show.
The school board in Cobb County, Ga., thought it had found what it called a reasonable and even-handed approach to teaching evolution when it attached stickers to the textbooks used in middle school and high school biology classes. These stickers read: This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
In January of this year, Judge Clarence Cooper of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta ruled these stickers unacceptable and ordered them to be removed immediately on the grounds that they conveyed an impermissible message of endorsement of religion. The point seemed to be that chilliness toward evolution could be construed as a covert vote for God.
The board of the Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania ran into trouble three months ago, when it asked teachers of science classes to read to their students a statement noting that there are gaps in Darwinism and pointing out that there is a rival explanation of nature’s complexity, known as intelligent design. In an argument very like St. Thomas Aquinas’s fifth proof for the existence of God, defenders of intelligent design, whose number includes some scientists, do not deny an evolutionary process but perceive behind it the action of an intelligent cause. They point out that along with all the random elements and catastrophic events in nature there are many evidences of internal finality even in tiny instances. The mosquito’s proboscis, for example, is wonderfully adapted for enabling the insect to secure its lunch by biting people. But the teachers in Dover rejected the board’s request, and courts probably would too.
There is little chance of reconciling the extreme positions in the quarrel about teaching evolution, but public schools, like all schools, should make it clear to their students that Genesis and Darwinism are not alternates, but complementary. They are talking about different things in different ways. Genesis uses the figurative language of creation myths to teach one supreme truth: The universe and all it contains was created and is kept existing and developing by the absolute and incomprehensible God. The Bible does not intend to explain how present complex forms descended from earlier and simpler ones nor how long this process has taken. Evolution, on the other hand, describes the ways in which this unfolding took place. Science does not and cannot answer the question of why there happens to be any universe at all.
Surveys have shown that many teachers of high school science say nothing about evolution in order to avoid controversy. This is a mistake; evolution should be taught. However, either in textbooks or in a special unit students should also be introduced to the varieties of methods by which knowledge is acquirednot only by science but also by natural philosophy, theology, mathematics and aesthetic intuition.
Finally, as has been said in this space before, public education should provide a forum in which the question of who made the world can be raised. This could be done by making classrooms available during the regular school hours for voluntary released-time religion courses taught by qualified representatives of various faiths. To be sure, this would require the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse its 1948 McCollum decision banning released time on public school premises. But the court has changed its mind before and could do so again. If it did, there would be room in every reasonably adequate public school for Genesis and Darwin to get along.