Botanists in a greenhouse can cross a white flower with a red flower and raise generations of pink flowers that do not revert to red or white. This experiment provides a tiny example of evolution, but it provokes no debate because it was observed happening. The situation was different in 1859, when Charles Darwin published his theory of the origin and gradual evolution of species, including the human, over the millennia. The theory was documented from the fossil record and biological observations. It was criticized, however, by some contemporary scientists, who questioned its use of hypotheses and by many religious people who considered it a denial of the biblical accounts of creation. Nowadays, however, evolution in one or other of its sophisticated formulations is universally accepted in mainstream scientific thought. In 1996, in a much-quoted comment, Pope John Paul II said, New knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.
A large part of the American population, however, is not sure about this theory. Last year, a CBS poll found that 65 percent of those surveyed thought that in public school classrooms evolution should be taught alongside creationism, a literalist doctrine based on the Genesis narratives of the divine creation of the universe.
It is no surprise, therefore, that debates about evolution, and particularly about its presentation in public education, continue to flare up in American society. The current vigor of the debate was illustrated last month by some election results in Kansas and Pennsylvania. In Kansas the state board of education voted to adopt for the teaching of science new standards that would point out gaps and inconsistencies in Darwinism and would also define science itself simply as a continual search for more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.
In Dover, Pa., the local school board had voted to bringin a very minimal waythe concept of intelligent design to the attention of ninth-grade biology students. Critics of this concept say it is a masquerade for creationism. For the proponents of intelligent design argue that some organs and organisms are so complex that they could have been created only by an intelligent designer. Other Christians sympathetic to the notion of design, including some scientists, do not deny the existence of the evolutionary process; but they argue, much as St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas and Christian philosophers have done, that the complexity, the splendor and the purposiveness of the process and its products point to the existence of an intelligent cause that has designed it all.
On Nov. 8, that Dover school board was voted out of office. The new board does not reject the idea of intelligent design, but says it should be taught in an elective course, not in a required biology class. This suggests the way toward a rational compromise in the debate about teaching evolution.
Journalists eager for excitement like to describe these debates as battles in a supposed war between religion and science, but there is no such war. Many scientists are people of faith; but when they are investigating the behavior of material phenomena, they have neither the tools nor the methods as scientists for dealing with the question of whether or not there is a God who, as believers might say, holds the created world in his hands.
The scientific method, however, is not the only way of acquiring knowledge. Defenders of intelligent design may not be thinking like scientists, but they are thinking like philosophers. They are using reason in just as legitimate a way as scientists do, but in a different zone.
Schools should therefore make room for the methods of philosophers and historians as well as of mathematicians and physicists. On a very limited scale, some public schools and colleges are already doing this. The Sept. 21 issue of Education Week reports that the National School Boards Association is now advising its members to address intelligent design in social studies, humanities or comparative religion courses. A few state universities offer elective seminars with titles like God and Science. To be sure, nervous academic deans classify these seminars under the heading of humanities, as though they were second-class citizens in academia. But at least they have a seat at the table.
Newspaper stories have been popping up this year under headings like: Evolution or Intelligent Design. School administrators drawing up a curriculum need change only the conjunction here, so as to read Evolution and Intelligent Designnot alternates but coordinates.