Teaching Evolution in the Public Schools

In Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664, 674 (1970), the Supreme Court signaled that the development of case law in the evolution/creationism debate would ensure that public science education would be protected from being ‘‘[entangled] with religion.’’ Interestingly, however, the developing case law in the debate has also apparently proven to be a tremendous boon for those who wish to hold inviolable the teaching of the theory of evolution to the total exclusion of all other ideas— scientific or otherwise—about the appearance and function of living things. Indeed, coupling the powerful influence exerted by the Darwinian paradigm with the inescapable religious history of the creationist movement, many are strongly persuaded that all future jurisprudence in this area will demonstrate an intransigent preference in favor of keeping the theory of evolution on its throne. With the recent development of the doctrine of creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">intelligent design, this view is probably incorrect.

Although ideas excluding God from the creation and function of the universe and life have been proposed in philosophical settings from the time of Plato, it was not until the nineteenth century that the idea was encapsulated in a scientific cloak of respectability, particularly as it applied to living things. This first occurred in 1859, when the English naturalist Charles Darwin proposed his thought-provoking theory of evolution in a book entitled The Origin of Species.

The basic tenets of evolution are well known by scientists and laymen alike. Darwin’s theory of evolution has undergone some modifications over the years, but it essentially consists of two intertwined factors that, working together, purport to account for the appearance, interrelationship, and purposefulness of all livings things. These two factors are (1) the random existence of favorable genetic mutations in life forms—that is, chance—and (2) the operation of a process called natural selection, or the survival of the fittest—that is, necessity. As incrediable as it might seem, this simplistic formula has been used to account for absolutely every aspect of life one can imagine, ranging from such things as the shape of a bird’s wing to why people smile.

There is no doubt that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the most revolutionary scientific idea of the modern era. Not only has it become the mantra for the profession of science, but concepts washed in ‘‘evolution speak’’ have pushed their way into the fabric of Western thinking. In the lexicon of scientific jargon the word can be used to acknowledge the phenomenon of change and to describe the mechanism for that change. On the mechanical side of this duality, the word ‘‘evolution’’ means that matter is self-developing through a material or natural process. Most evolutionists therefore conclude that an intelligent being (God) has nothing to do on any level with the development of living things. Since the time of Darwin, this is the way that the word has been used by evolutionists.

Paradoxically, the reading segment of America is now generally aware of the laundry list of reasons that the theory of evolution is currently under siege from inside and outside the scientific community; the greatest challenge, of course, is the fossil record. In the law, interpretation stops when the text is clear—interpretation cessat in claris. If one applies this maxim to the theory of evolution in the most generous light, the truth of the matter is that the text—that is, the fossil record—will never approach clarity, meaning that interpretation will never cease. But, if solid empirical evidence for Darwin’s claim is lacking, thoughtful students can hardly fail to pose the question, ‘‘What makes the theory of evolution such a successful idea?’’ Perhaps the best way to capture the power of evolution’s Weltanschauung (worldview) is to view the matter as a function of three interrelated factors.

The first reason that Darwinian thinking has been able to dominate the scene hinges on the fact that, to a degree, the theory of evolution is certainly correct and very provable under the strict criteria of the scientific method. There is no question that plants and animals can make gradual changes in form and function over time so that living things undergo limited degrees of modification under the agencies of mutation and natural selection. This process of limited change is commonly known as microevolution and objective studies have conclusively demonstrated it to be a fact of science. The real question is just how far the principle of microevolution can be stretched in order to justify the all-encompassing theory of evolution—that is, macroevolution. A general search of the literature reveals that attempts to answer that question through objective observation have fallen short.

The second reason that the theory of evolution maintains its hegemony is that it has been institutionalized as the dominant paradigm in the scientific community. Many eminent scientists complain that Darwinian evolution is so powerful a premise that newer information that has become available has not yet been able to affect the paradigm much, let alone point the way to a new and more accurate dialectic. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the theory of evolution is generally presented as an unchangeable fact in classrooms, museum displays, books, academic journals, newspapers, radio, and television. Thus, since all information is heavily influenced by this paradigm, the theory of evolution is constantly reinforced by endless repetition. For example, the widely respected astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) aggressively argued that education in the school system of any Western nation meant baptism into Darwinism as the way of thinking about life sciences. Furthermore, no alternative or modes of investigation outside the Darwinian paradigm are tolerated. If permitted at all, academic discussions are strictly limited to arguments between the various schools within Darwinian thought.

The final reason for evolution’s dominance revolves around the uncompromising attitude and, in many instances, ‘‘theological’’ fervor exhibited by some of its leading advocates. For lack of a better term, one might call them ‘‘Darwinian activists.’’ For this particular brand of Darwinist, it is not a matter of separating religious beliefs from the province of the natural sciences; for them it is taking the scientific idea, known as the theory of evolution, and making it the basis for an entire philosophy of life. Since their perception of reality demands that God does not exist, belief in the existence of God and acceptance of the theory of evolution are presented as mutually exclusive positions. Simply put, the argument proclaims that evolution excludes God; therefore, God does not exist. This movement is most commonly known as ‘‘evolutionism,’’ a materialistic philosophy totally antagonistic to the idea of God.

British zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford, perhaps the best known modern-day proponent of evolution, typifies this antireligious view where evolution is embraced as the central linchpin to a metaphysical philosophy antagonistic to God. Dawkins readily describes himself as an unapologetic atheist who desires to stamp out any notion that God is responsible for the design of life. In the name of evolutionism, he leads an unrelenting assault against all who question the theory of evolution. Dawkins writes: ‘‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’’

In a very real sense, evolutionism is established in the minds of Darwinian activists as a new pseudoreligion, albeit in a secular and ideological form, with the theory of evolution serving as the creative centerpiece. Even if evolutionism is not a religion in the most common sense of the word, it clearly has parallel dimensions: the claim to the absolute ultimate, the requirement of commitment by its followers, the fear of apostasy, the cadre of missionaries, and its role as providing the sole interpretation of the meaning of life.

On the one side, the theory of evolution attempts to explain life sciences only; on the other side, it exhibits all the components of a religion or, alternatively, an antireligion, causing many to question whether teaching the theory of evolution is a violation of the establishment clause. Questioning whether evolutionism has impermissibly violated the establishment clause’s principle of neutrality in the sphere of public education is an issue that has been raised in the lower courts but never entertained by the Supreme Court.

The demands of evolutionism may also prove to be extremely counterproductive from a legal perspective; touting such an antireligious agenda clearly opens the door to judicial scrutiny under the establishment clause. The argument that the theory of evolution might one day qualify as a religious belief or an antireligion (since it is not religiously neutral), as Justice Black put it in Epperson v Arkansas (482 U.S. 578, 1987), is certainly a real possibility.

The starting point for assessing this challenge begins with the Court’s struggle to articulate a legal definition of religion. A survey of Supreme Court cases regarding the definition of religion reveals that the Court uses the term to mean different things in different contexts. In Torcaso v. Watkins (367 U.S. 488, 1961), for instance, the Supreme Court recognized that some religions need not be based in a belief in the existence of a personal God when it said that neither a state nor the federal government can ‘‘aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.’’ Indeed, in a footnote, the Torcaso Court wrote: ‘‘Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others’’ (emphasis added).

In School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (374 U.S. 203, 1963), the Supreme Court affirmatively included secular humanism as a religion, stating that ‘‘[t]he State may not establish a ‘religion of secularism’ in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.’’’ Then, in Welsh v. United States (398 U.S. 333, 1970), the Court stretched the definition of religious belief to the farthest reaches by stating that Congress ‘‘cannot draw the line between theistic or nontheistic religious beliefs on the one hand and secular beliefs on the other.’’ Thus, if secular humanism qualifies as a religion in the Supreme Court’s broadly staked constitutional definition of religious beliefs, a fortiori, the argument can surely be made that the theory of evolution also qualifies as a religion since Darwinian activists brazenly tout the theory of evolution as the central principle of evolutionism or secular humanism.

Perhaps recognizing the problems associated with its expanded definition of religion, the Supreme Court has seemingly heeded the advice of Justice Black and simply refused to address the dilemma vis-a´-vis the theory of evolution and the establishment clause. The lower federal courts have greeted this silence as a green light to halt any attacks on the theory of evolution.

Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District (37 F.3d 517, 9th Circuit, 1994) best illustrates the concern. Peloza, a public high school biology teacher, sued his school district asserting that, because he was obliged to teach evolutionism to his students, he was engaged in an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In weighing Peloza’s claim, the court found that evolution and evolutionism were synonyms to describe a scientifically accepted ‘‘biological concept’’ that related strictly to ‘‘higher life forms evolv[ing] from lower ones.’’ ‘‘Charitably read,’’ the court concluded, ‘‘Peloza’s complaint at most makes this claim: the school district’s actions establish a state-supported religion of evolutionism, or more generally of ‘secular humanism.’’’ Finding that neither the Supreme Court nor the ninth circuit had ever held that ‘‘evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes,’’ the court dismissed Peloza’s complaint. Curiously, the court specifically acknowledged that an actionable claim might be made if one defined ‘‘‘evolution’ and ‘evolutionism’ as does [Mr.] Peloza as a concept that embraces the belief that the universe came into existence without a Creator ...’’ (emphasis added)

In Wright v. Houston Independent School District (366 F. Supp. 1208, S.D. Tex. 1972, affirmed per curium, 486 F.2d 137, 5th Cir. 1973), high school students alleged that the school district and the State Board of Education violated the establishment clause because the teaching of evolutionary theory was tantamount to ‘‘lending official support to the religion of secularism.’’ The Court rejected the claim, refusing to recognize secular humanism as a religion under the establishment clause. Similarly, in Smith v. Bd. of Sch. Commissioners of Mobile County (827 F.2d 684, 11th Cir. 1987), plaintiffs alleged that the school district was in violation of the establishment clause because it promoted secular humanism. The eleventh circuit refused to accept the district court’s finding that secular humanism qualified as a religion for these purposes.

In McLean v. Ark. Board of Education (529 F. Supp. 1255, D.C. Ark. 1982), the federal district court also refused the argument, noting that ‘‘it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the establishment clause.’’

Despite the holdings in the lower federal courts refusing to equate the theory of evolution as a religion or as a doctrine hostile to religion, the Supreme Court has never squarely addressed the issue and the argument continues to be advanced. Interestingly, in light of the continuing drum beat of Darwinian activists that the theory of evolution dismisses all religious beliefs and answers ultimate realities, the Supreme Court may ultimately be forced to fashion a remedy to protect neutrality in the public science class. Such actions might require excluding certain educational materials that advance atheistic interpretations, mandating that classes on the theory of evolution explicitly inform students that evolution cannot be used to discredit religious beliefs, or even allowing—in the words of one legal commentator—for ‘‘creationist positions’’ to be presented as a counterbalance.

In order to advance the argument that evolutionism is part and parcel of the theory of evolution, future legal challenges must clearly spell out and define what evolutionism entails. For certain, it is not difficult to show that evolutionism is not restricted to the quest to understand biological origins no matter where the truth will lead. Darwinian activists have provided an abundance of ammunition to those who would characterize it as a religion or an antireligion. Per Peloza’s guidance, evolutionism is a metaphysical concept that wholeheartedly embraces the belief that ‘‘the universe came into existence without a Creator.’’

JEFFREY F. ADDICOTT

References and Further Reading

  • Ardrey, Robert. The Hunting Hypothesis. New York: Atheneum, 1976.
  • Barton, David, A Death-Struggle between Two Civilizations, Regent University Law Review 13 (2001).
  • Campbell, John A. ‘‘creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">Intelligent Design, Darwinism, and the Philosophy of Public Education.’’ Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1 (1998).
  • Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis. New York: Simon, 1995.
  • Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon, 1995.
  • Futuyma, Douglas J. Science on Trial. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1995.
  • Grant, Peter, and Rosemary Grant. ‘‘Natural Selection and Darwin’s Finches.’’ Scientific American (October 1991).
  • Horgan, John. The End of Science. New York: Broadway, 1996.
  • Hoyle, Fred. The Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion. Kingston, RI: Moyer Bell, 1993.
  • Jaeger, Werner. The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Margenau, Henry, and Roy Abraham Varghese, eds. Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life and Homo Sapiens. Peru, IL: Open Court, 1992.
  • Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
  • Purves, William K. Life: The Science of Biology. 5th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1998.
  • Sagan, Carl. The Demon Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1995.
  • Weiner, John. The Beak of the Finch. New York: Random House, 1994.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)
  • McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (D.C. Ark. 1982)
  • Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994)
  • School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
  • Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 827 F.2d 684 (11th Cir. 1987)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664 (1970)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)
  • Wright v. Houston Independent School District, 366 F. Supp. 1208 (S.D. Tex. 1972), affirmed per curium, 486 F.2d 137 (5th Cir. 1973)

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