Almost a century ago, something unusual happened: A judge in Dayton, TN, fined a school-teacher $100 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a science course.
In the year 2000 the Board of Education in Kansas voted that exam questions on Evolution shouldn’t be mandatory for high-school science students.
It was announced “During Scopes Week, July 9-14, Kansas Citizens For Science, along with other Kansas groups, will host major speakers from across the nation to bring the issues around teaching evolution into sharp focus.”
Reaction to this ranged from laughter to outrage. People could not believe that a Board could dictate what is to be taught and how, what should or shouldn’t be in science courses.
It is often forgotten that what is important in science education is whether students can explain on what basis they accept or reject Evolution or whatever. We must teach students and school board members (i.e. the public), not the theories of science, but how science works, the criteria by which science accepts or rejects ideas. Then, students and citizens are more likely to accept Evolution, and more meaningfully. They must understand that no other framework adequately explains (as of now) much of what we know about fossils and the variety of biological species.
The religious upholders of scientifically discredited views alienate genuine seekers of spiritual experience, besides giving a bad name to theology. Though well-motivated, when they try to usurp the role of science, and impose ancient poetry and religious metaphor as science, the result is awkward for religion and hurtful to education.
The factors that prompt(ed) the (now defunct) Tennessee law and similar efforts, must be dealt with if we wish to avert them in countries where science and enlightenment are cherished values:
All people experience genuine emotional attachment to the sacred book of their tradition (Holy Bible, Holy Koran, Sacred Vedas, etc.). They tend to combat any view that questions or tampers with their Scriptures. This is the equivalent of getting upset when a stranger accuses a dear one of a dereliction which one cannot believe could occur. This perfectly human reaction should not be pooh-poohed away as resulting from obstinacy or ignorance.
Scientific thinkers could explain that Scriptural sacredness is not related to its explanations as to how the world came to be: ancient explanations were functions of history, culture, and then-current knowledge. Sacredness is rather associated with a spiritual personage (Christ in this case) who, as far as we know, did not author the Book of Genesis. Nor was he interested in lecturing on cosmology. A biologically evolved being need not be bereft of spiritual dimensions.
Many people feel discomfort at the notion that human beings are related to what they regard as “lower animals.” This is a fairly common cultural phenomenon. Racism, casteism, the idea of a chosen people, etc. are all manifestations of the same superior-uniqueness-instinct, providing pride and ego-boost.
As more and more people are recognizing that all races and cultures belong to the same species, they could also be educated into regarding all creatures as belonging to the same family of interconnected Life. This could alleviate the repugnance to linkages with other life-forms.
Many people fear that negative moral impacts might ensue from Darwin’s insights. They are not wrong in their assessment. Some scientific liberals of the 19th century developed the notion of survival of the fittest and of social Darwinism which explained, if not justified, colonialism, slavery, and such. The eugenics movement, with its horrific culmination in Nazi experiments, also took inspiration from Darwin’s theory.
Evolution is good science and must be taught in schools, but we must recognize that some of the motivations of those who oppose the teaching of Evolution are not altogether misguided. Rightly or wrongly, their concern for the ethical dimensions of human life and society outweighs their enthusiasm for teaching what they consider a harmful framework for the moral fabric. This concern may be exaggerated, its expression may be of questionable liberating value, but it is legitimate and laudable nonetheless.
It would be helpful if scientists take active interest in ethical issues deriving from pure science. To say that science is amoral might be epistemologically valid, but sooner or later, much of science turns out to have ethically significant consequences. Unless scientists persuasively argue that the fundamental principles of morality need not and should not be shaken by the insights and advancement of science, and unless they actively engage in mutually respectful discussions with religious leaders and concerned theologians, the divide will continue, with perhaps grave dangers for both science and religion.