Should Evolution Be Taught in Public Schools?  What Dorothy Learned When the Creationist Whirlwind Hit Kansas

Robert T. Pennock (Department of Philosophy, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)

Ohio State University at Newark, Newark, Ohio, USA

25 January 2001


Pennock is the author of Tower of Babel, the Evidence Against the New Creationism.

A common argument used regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism is the notion of fairness.  Is it fair to teach evolution and not teach creationism?

The problem relates to other issues, too - morals, ethics, the nature of humanity, etc.  Evolution is seen by many as a threat to these.  This problem is also related to how we deal with differences in a pluralistic society.  The creation-evolution problem is a good case study that addresses these issues.  The specific case presented here is what happened in Kansas in 1999.


What are the characteristics of a moral person?  1) chooses to act ethically; 2) has a virtuous character, with a disposition to do the right things (for example, kindness to children and animals).

What is a moral agent?  Someone who is autonomous.  The prerequisite for being a moral agent is the freedom of choice.  Does presumption of freedom of choice allow us to do anything we want?  No.  Some people in society make bad choices, and do bad things - they are “wicked”.  Society has restraints set up - it has to, otherwise society would be a nasty place to live - we have to have rules and restraints (= laws).

We need rules of justice.  We also need rights primarily, but we also need boundaries to allow community members to live together peacefully and fruitfully.

Making moral judgments requires knowledge of both values & facts.

Example: public health policy & antibiotic use.  Overuse of antibiotics results in widespread occurrence of resistant bacteria (by evolution).  We need to know evolutionary theory in order to prescribe antibiotics the right way.  In making moral judgments, the knowledge of values comes from religion and philosophy, while the knowledge of facts comes from science.  Problem: What to do when values and science are perceived to conflict?


In the summer of 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBoE) voted 6-4, in a surprise vote, to use creationist-revised science standards.  These standards removed all evolution except microevolution; it removed mention of the Big Bang; it removed mention of the geologic time scale; it removed mention of erosion; etc.  There were several additions also.

The national and international media picked up the story, but only reported a few of these changes.

What is this evolution that everyone is upset about?


Evolutionary theory (ET) is extremely complicated.  One can spend a whole career trying to understand evolution.

There are several aspects to evolutionary theory:

1) the fact of evolution - descent with modification (common descent thesis) - this was figured out and discussed by Darwin; modern biologists regard it a bit differently - changes in gene frequencies in populations over generations.

2) the mechanisms of evolution - Darwin showed how one gets descent with modification - variation & inheritance & natural selection & genetic drift.

3) the pathways of evolution - dealing with specific branchings of trees - who’s related to whom [phylogenies].


ET is a very complex theory, overall.  But, it is a well established theory.  Creationists falsely point out that evolution is a theory in crisis.  This is a very wrong characterization.

In the 25 June 1999 issue of Science, Dobzhansky’s famous dictum is quoted: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  This is more true today than it was 50 years ago when Dobzhansky said this.

ET has fruitful applications - it is not just an explanatory theory.  These include genetic algorithms, evolutionary designs of technology (improved engine design & evolving new pharmaceuticals - trying to get around bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics, for instance), Darwinian medicine, artificial life that evolves in a computer (exploring different scenarios of evolution in a computer), molecular forensics (DNA evidence is accepted in courts of law - the legitimacy of DNA evidence is based ultimately on evolutionary theory).


Creationists view this as a cultural war.  The Institute of Creation Research (ICR) of California, founded by Henry Morris, has set the tone for what creationism basically is today.  They label evolutionists as advocates of euthanasia, racism, abortion, pornography, divorce, etc.  These are viewed as evolutionary doctrines, ultimately derived from Satan.  This is how creationists view evolutionists!

They view evolution as not just a wrong scientific idea, but as evil.  This perception is what drives most creationist activism.


Creationism is not a monolithic view.  There are several factions, including YECs (Young-Earth Creationists), OECs (Old-Earth Creationists), and IDCs (Intelligent Design Creationists).

Most creationists are YECs - they are the biggest and most important group.  They are represented by several groups, such as ICR, Answers in Genesis, Creation Research Society (CRS), Creation Science Association of Mid-America (CSAMA), Center for Scientific Creationism, Bible-Science Association, etc., etc.


OECs will accommodate the Big Bang and an old Earth.  OECs include Reasons to Believe, headed by Hugh Ross.  Hugh Ross says OEC is a better Christian view compared to YEC.

In Kansas, the CSAMA was responsible for the KSBoE action.  In an interview, one of the top CSAMA advocates claimed not to know whether geocentricity isn’t right or not.

OEC used to be the dominant creationist view (during the Scopes Monkey Trial era and before).  So, creationists have swung back to a more liberal view.


IDC is mainly represented by the Discovery Institute in Seattle.  ID gets away from the age of the Earth and Noah’s Flood issues.  In order to unite all the creationist factions, they present the generic notion that the universe and the Earth was designed.

Creationists views in a nutshell are well illustrated by the following quote from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.  In an early scene, Professor Marvel informs Dorothy that “Professor Marvel never guesses.  He knows!”

ICR’s Henry Morris has said that no geologic difficulties can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences from Scripture.  This is not a scientific way of thinking about things!


Creationists view this as a culture war. But, the problem doesn’t just involve geology and biology to them.  They view this as a battle over all of society.  Evolution is historically to blame for lots of societal ills.

Henry Morris says this started with the Tower of Babel incident in the Bible.  This was the origin of different nations and different languages and different religions (lots of false religions appearing - all evolutionary religions).  Who taught them these religious views?  Morris says that Satan did - he taught them.

Morris continues by saying that evolution went underground in the Middle Ages, manifested as the witchcraft movement.  He is saying that witchcraft is a manifestation of evolutionary ideas.  Evolutionary ideas are viewed as inherently Godless.  Is this true, though?


Many people/scientists have no problem with any of this.  Theistic evolution is a popular view.  Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII in the 1950s issued written statements indicating they had no problem with evolution, conceding that there was lots of evidence and recommended that Catholics should not be bothered by it.

But, most creationists are not Catholics, but are Protestants.  Even so, there are lots of Protestant theologians who conclude also that there is no conflict.  Benjamin Warfield of Princeton sees ways of reconciling the Bible and evolution.  Lots of creationists, however, say there is no way to reconcile.


Just because scientists don’t talk about God, they aren’t inherently Godless.  Science is as inherently Godless as plumbing is Godless. 

Creationists consider evolution is tantamount to atheism, which has been shown to be wrong.

In our pluralistic society, there are lots of differences in race, sex, class, religion, lifeplans, conception of the good, etc.

What are the limits on conduct?  When asked this, we often turn to or think about law and justice.  What is the relationship between law and justice?  What is the law regarding religious practice?  Well, the federal government can’t establish an official religion and they can’t restrict free practice of any religion.


The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial resulted in a guilty verdict for Scopes, which was expected.  The defense wanted this to happen, in order to take the issue to the top (the Supreme Court), and have the issue of teaching evolution decided once and for all.  But, this never happened because the guilty verdict was overturned on a technicality.  So, the Butler Act stood on the books.


Several key creation-evolution teaching cases occurred in the late 1960s, mid-1970s, 1980s, and late 1990s.  The issue didn’t end with Scopes.  The same resolution has always been given in each of these - no, you can’t teach creationism.  Each case represented a slightly different tactic by the creationists to get creationism taught in schools.  Each time, the courts rule no.


Justice as fairness - there are and have been laws that are unfair.  The proper procedure is to challenge them and have them declared wrong.

Notion of fairness - address by John Rawls in the 1970s, with his book A Theory of Justice.  Rawls pointed out that a just society is a fair system of cooperation among free and equal persons (without coercion, with autonomy, etc.).  Determining what is fair requires the following thought exercise involving “the Original Position” (cf. Hobbs).  With the “Veil of Ignorance” (pretending one knows nothing about modern society), one imagines conditions before laws and government and societal structure and, in such a hypothetical situation, one thinks about how we will constrain ourselves.  What laws do we set up to constrain ourselves?  We won’t know a priori what our place is in the society we are about to set up once the rules have been established.  But, we can recognize the potential for conflict and we have to set up laws to avoid this as much as possible.  There are 2 conclusions from this Rawlsian exercise: 1) equal opportunity (Ex: education); and 2) the Difference Principle - we don’t all have to be the same.


The original draft of the KSBoE had a statement about some scientific ideas being religiously sensitive (not just evolution - blood transfusions, human sexuality, etc.), and that such topics may conflict with a student’s beliefs.  So, nothing in science shall be taught dogmatically.  Need to teach respectfully and civilly.  So, if a student asks a question with a creationist leaning, teachers should respect the belief and not attack the belief and tell them to talk with their family & clergy.

This is reasonable!  This was deleted by the creationists from the original draft.

The revision said the teacher should not censure any view that is contradictory to current science theory.  This cracks the door for creationism teaching.

The appeal to fairness is a common creationist statement.

The creationist “Dual Model” Approach - let’s teach both evolution & creationism, even if the creationist side is intelligent design.


Is there a Rawlsian argument to teach both evolution and creation in a fair and just society?

Some say yes - it’s unfair to single out one explanation (i.e., evolution) and teach only that.  So, teach both contingently, not as the truth.

But, there are many creationist positions.  If we accept the above argument, which creationist view do we teach?  YEC, OEC, or IDC?  What about tranquil flood creationist thought?  Some creationist views are not Bible-based.  For example, Forbidden Archaeology (by Phillip Johnson) and The Hidden History of the Human Race (by Michael Cremo & Richard Thompson).  These books actually support a Hindu view for the origin of the Earth.

After the KSBoE decision, Hindus thanked them for taking a stand against evolution, and presented the board with Hindu creationist videos.

On top of that are even other views.  For example, the “scientific religion” of the Raelian Movement.  This advocates neither evolution nor a supernatural God, but extraterrestrials as responsible for the origin of humans.  This is an extraterrestrial intelligent design view.  Rael himself was revealed the truth of these ideas by one of the aliens.  He’s explained what’s really going on with history, the Bible, Von Daniken, etc.

There are still even other “alternative theories”.  For example, the American Indian views - they have their own creationist stories.

If the Rawlsian argument is accepted, then we have to account for all these other views.  Which way to go?


Plantiga has said that parents should have the basic right to not have their children be taught views that are contradictory to the parents’ views.  He advocates teaching evolution contingently (& all other views contingently as well).

But, Plantiga hasn’t given a Rawlsian argument.  Under the Veil of Ignorance, we would never agree to such a system - it would lead to Balkanization of education and contingent teaching is not unifying - it results in splintering instead.  Teaching all the other views is not Rawlsian.  Under the Veil of Ignorance, we wouldn’t want this, this would not be acceptable.


So, we can conclude that the Establishment Clause (separation of church and state) is not unjust, and is a good way to agree.  The Establishment Clause is intended to protect religions from one another.  Religions have a history of fighting with one another.  It was also intended to protect religion from the power of the state.

Politically, there is a strong pull against this conclusion, though.  The YEC view is held by ~40% of Americans.  Politicians are influenced by this statistic.  Some politicians are willing to allow local school boards to decide the issue of teaching evolution (George W. Bush takes this view).  Creationist planks occur in Republican party platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

So, one could say the politicians are acting like the Cowardly Lion.


Does acceptance of evolution lead to immorality?  Does evolution have a heart?

The foundation of morality is the Golden Rule.  Pennock supports the notion that the Golden Rule (and therefore, morality) is an outcome of evolution, especially in a social species like humans.  Darwin: “There is a grandeur in this view of life.”


Leaving Oz with your Diploma - being a just society is more complex than the simple notion of what’s fair.  (fairness - justice - law)  Public constraints are necessary to protect private moral action (including religious practice).  Empirical matters are not properly determined by majority preferences, but by evidence.  Nothing in biology makes sense without evolution (it’s basic).  Teach non-dogmatically (teach not just what we’ve learned, but how science works, what we don’t know, how ideas change, the nature of evidence, and hypothesis testing, etc.).

Kansas became a laughing stock, to their embarrassment.  Ironically, Kansans learned quite a bit about evolution (the forbidden fruit effect).

For teaching alternative religious views, there’s no place like home!



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