The Kansas State Board of Education voted recently to de-emphasize the teaching of Darwinian evolution. This has attracted a lot of attention in the media. Reporters and commentators had fun making allusions to the land of Oz and the Scopes “monkey trial.” The first is raised, of course, to suggest that the Board has left behind reality—“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The second has become a powerful (if misguided) metaphor for the “conflict” between science and religion in America. It is supposed to remind us that religious conservatives suffered an embarrassing defeat in the court of public opinion back in 1925 when John T. Scopes was tried for breaking Tennessee’s law against the teaching of evolution in public schools. The intended effect is guilt by association: to oppose evolution is to align oneself with backward, know-nothing fundamentalists of the Bible Belt. “You wouldn’t want to be numbered among that ilk, now would you?” When the discussions turned serious, there were dire warnings of a precipitous decline in student achievement, teacher recruitment, professional scientists, and The World As We Know It.
What are the facts here? For over two years, the 10-member board had been deadlocked over the origins issue. Conservative members were sensitive to constituents who objected to the presence of an evolution requirement in existing standards. For instance, the Kansas Curricular Standards for Science of 1995 expected all K-12 students to understand “patterns of change.” These were supposed to be of “particular interest” because “much of science is about how things evolve.” In lower grades, students were to understand changes within life cycles and the evolution of technology. At the high school level, students were to understand the origin and evolution of the Universe, the Solar System, and life.
The progression here is a common bait-and-switch tactic: get people to buy into the ubiquity of change (an easy sell, after all), and Darwinian evolution is a fait accompli. If a baby becomes a man, a tadpole becomes a frog, or a Model T becomes a Ford Taurus, then of course a bacterium can become a human being. Or if mosquitoes can become resistant to pesticide, and finch beaks change with variations in climate, then of course a reptile can become a bird. The trick is to hawk one version of the ‘e’ word (change in general or biological change on a small scale), and palm off something quite different (unlimited biological change).
The revised standards—presented by a 27-member committee of science teachers and professors—did nothing to alleviate such concerns. Their draft proclaimed science to be “the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” That is about as clear a statement of methodological naturalism that you will ever find. It declares a priori that all questions asked of nature will return a natural explanation. The possibility of nonnatural causation is ruled out of court.
The committee went beyond the older standards in identifying, not just patterns of change, but cumulative patterns of change as a unifying concept of science. “The general idea,” according to a draft of July 1999, “is that the present arises from materials and forms of the past.” This time we get a pretty clear statement of materialism—the view that everything is made of matter (and thus, everything that exists must have come from matter). The draft offered Darwinian evolution as a prime example.
It is important to note, however, that these ideas are imported into science from a broader world view. Methodological naturalism is an idea of what should count as scientific knowledge. Materialism is an idea of what constitutes reality. Yet there is no experiment to prove that questions asked of nature should return natural answers. There is no experiment to prove that matter is all there is. Ironically, the committee urges teachers to deflect any question deemed to be “outside the domain of science” (when, I suppose, little Johnny on the back row says in a loud, clear voice, “But couldn’t God have done it?”).
There are many more objectionable points in the committee’s draft. It is no wonder that concerned board members felt uncomfortable with its recommendations. In a 6-4 vote, they decided to adopt an alternate set of standards that emphasized the mechanisms of limited variation (microevolution), and de-emphasized long-term, large-scale change (macroevolution). Contrary to the indignant cries in most media reports, the board did not prohibit the teaching of evolution altogether. In any case, local school districts still would be left to determine the specific content of any origins curriculum.
The key issue is not whether evolution should be taught. Whether we like it or not, evolutionary theory exerts an important influence in biology and other fields of science. Kids should know what it is if, for no other reason, than to evaluate its claims. But for all the appeals to objectivity and disavowals of dogma, the underbelly of tax-funded science education remains, in principle, doggedly atheistic. We have yet to move beyond ideology to a fair, open consideration of the evidence. All we can do is hope that that day will come sooner, rather than later.