Another Round in the Old “Evolution vs. Creation” Debate
I live in the great state of Texas. Every year, and sometimes throughout a year, controversy erupts over public school textbooks. Here’s the back story.
Texas is so large and its public schools are so populated that textbook publishers do not want to alienate the Texas state agency that approves textbooks. So, indirectly, anyway, Texas has the ability to sway national textbooks’ contents.
For several years the board that examines public school textbooks to make sure they are accurate and fair has included some members who have complained about some science textbooks’ treatment of life’s origins. Apparently, according to news reports and at least one consultant I met with, some science textbooks strongly imply that all life began with chemical interactions.
Of course, anti-evolutionist Christians and advocates of “intelligent design theory” (not all of who reject evolution) have tussled quite publicly with members of groups like the Texas Freedom Network over whether that is science or philosophy and whether “alternative theories” of life’s origins should be mentioned in science textbooks.
On and on the argument goes with the “creationists” (as the media labels all the critics) and the “scientists” (how’s that for stacking the deck) calling each other names like “ignorant” and “atheists.”
Now I want science textbooks to stick to science. So do many others involved on the “creationist” side of this debate. Neither I nor they are anti-evolutionists. The issue for some of us is not whether life forms evolve; the issue is whether science, as science, can state that all life began with chemical interactions.
The issue is, for some of us, that some scientists like to smuggle philosophy, metaphysical beliefs, into science. The classic case of this, of course, was scientist Carl Sagan’s opening statement in his book and film series, read and shown in thousands of public school classrooms, that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Few people realized that, at that moment, he was speaking as a philosopher, out of his own life and world view, and not as a scientist. Science cannot establish that metaphysical belief as fact.
The media tend to portray all parents (and others) who object to the contents of public school textbooks as back woods ignoramusus, Mencken’s “booboisies,” religious fanatics and anti-intellectuals. Some are. But not all. Some public school textbooks are full of biases.
I’ll just mention one example here. When my daughter was in ninth grade in a public school her social studies textbook was _____________ World Geography. (I’m omitting the publisher’s name which was part of the book’s title because I don’t want to get into a legal fight with them.) My daughter brought the book home and I sat down and started looking through it.
The book was mainly about world cultures including their histories, beliefs and practices. I noticed that in almost every case outside the U.S. religion was a big part of the discussion of cultures. In the chapter on China, for example, much was made of the influences of Confucianism, Toaism and Buddhism in its history and present culture. The same with every non-U.S. culture described. And what was said about non-U.S. cultures’ religious beliefs and practices was always positive.
The chapter(s) on U.S. culture, including history, was almost totally lacking in anything about religion. It was as if America had always been secular and pluralistic. For example, nothing was said in the book about the Great Awakenings (first, second) or about the religious motives behind the abolitionist or civil rights movements. No mention was made of Martin Luther King’s status as an ordained Baptist minister or anything about his religious beliefs or motivations. Students would never know from that book that he was religious at all.
So I talked to the principle of my daughter’s school. She brushed me off as some kind of trouble-making parent and gave me a form to fill out. I filled it out completely, in detail describing the flaws, the biases, of the textbook. She promised I would hear something. I never did.
At my daughter’s honors awards ceremony a teacher was asked to give an opening “inspirational talk”—clearly the replacement for a prayer or meditation. He quoted passionately, from memory, the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley including the final line spoken with eyes closed, looking up “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
Of course, anyone who knows the history of poetry knows Henley wrote this as an expression of his own belief system which was inspired by Stoicism. (Although it does not exactly express a Stoic philosophy well!) My question, as I sat there as a parent and tax payer, was why it is okay for a public school teacher to quote such a poem, that clearly expresses a quasi-religious worldview, while the teachers could not, of course, express anything of traditional religious belief?
There is a myth “out there” in the “public square” that only Christianity is a religious belief system that must be expunged from public spaces. But its expulsion does not result in neutrality toward all beliefs; other beliefs simply come in to replace it. My daughter had teachers in public high school who openly promoted their beliefs in reincarnation, for example. But that was not deemed “religion.”
Returning to the current round of controversy about science in public school textbooks. The media seem to think that it’s all about some people attempting to impose their literalistic interpretations of Genesis on everyone else. I’m sure that is the case in some cases. But I suspect most critics of public school science textbook are worried about a deeper issue—ethics.
Many modern scientists step over a line from what science knows into metaphysics—what they believe but cannot prove. Sometimes that gets smuggled into textbooks and classroom presentations. Science cannot prove that all life began with chemical interactions and certainly not by accident. And yet that is what some defenders of some statements in science textbooks are saying “is the scientific consensus.” It may be the consensus among scientists, I don’t know. But it certainly is not science. One must distinguish between science as a discipline, which has limits, and what scientists believe. Perhaps, I don’t know for sure, most scientists in 1930s Germany believed in eugenics. That did not make it science.
If science textbooks are going to address “origin of life” and “origins of the universe” issues they ought to admit that answering those questions lies beyond the scope of science and that even scientists have different views about them—including an intelligent designer and creator.
Returning to the ethics issue. I suspect that lying behind much of the furor is the concern of many parents and tax payers that once students believe in naturalism, which is often smuggled into textbooks under the guise of “science,” they will conclude that there is no rational basis for altruism, compassion, service to others and live for themselves only (Ayn Rand style).
Let me illustrate from my own experience. Some years ago I was invited by the local school district (not here in Texas) to participate in a day long discussion among “community leaders” about values in public schools. The question was what values the local public schools could and should teach and promote. A (then) recent Supreme Court decision had declared that public schools could teach and promote “community values.”
About one hundred community leaders of all kinds came to the conference. We sat around large, round tables in “focus groups” and wrote on large pieces of paper, with felt tip markers, our “community values.” When the lists were put up around the room, near the top of every list (if not at the top) was “love.” Other values on most lists were “compassion,” “integrity,” “honesty,” etc.
When the school district’s “official list” of community values to be taught and promoted in the schools was published “love” was notably missing. So I made an appointment with the school district official in charge of the event and asked her why. Her answer was swift and certain: “Because love is a religious value and has no secular basis.” I agreed with her but pointed out that the Supreme Court did not say community values taught in public schools had to be “secular.” I also pointed out to her that there was no purely secular basis for compassion and yet it was included. She had no response and treated me like a trouble maker. She just sat and stared at me until I left.
It is my concern that, once God or anything like God, something or someone transcendent to nature, is completely removed from culture the only stable value with a foundation (in nature) is self-interest. In other words, if that public school system (or any) were to expunge from the values it teaches and promotes every one that depends on revelation, religious traditions, faith, etc., and teaches and promotes only those with a firm natural foundation, the only value that could be taught is “Be true to yourself.” The question is whether community can survive on self-interest alone?