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In This Most Enlightened State, the Darwin Theory Is Again Under Siege

April 01, 1990|Thomas H. Jukes and Philip Dunne | Thomas H. Jukes is a professor of biophysics at UC Berkeley. Philip Dunne is a syndicated essayist.

Roughly 100 years ago, Billy Sunday was a pretty fair country outfielder for Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings. His nickname was "Preacher," so, appropriately, from baseball he moved to even greater renown as a touring evangelist. Instead of facing opposing pitchers, he swung against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution.

Shouted Billy in Los Angeles and elsewhere: "If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk and a liar!" . . . Old Darwin is in hell!"

Today, that sort of personal vilification and verbal violence is not uncommon among those who share Billy's views. On Nov. 15, 1989, Kenneth L. Peters sent a handwritten note, on California State Board of Education stationery, to J. Michael Bishop, M.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, biochemistry and biophysics at UC--and Nobel laureate. Peters accused Bishop of "arrogance, pomposity and stupidity," adding that he is "pleased to make this assessment as one member of the State Board of Education."

Bishop's crime was that he had written a letter to Bill Honig, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, citing evidence showing that "illiteracy about science has risen to appalling dimensions among our public." He expressed anguish over the fact that the Board of Education had acted "to dilute the presentation of evolution in our textbooks . . . How much longer will such nonsense reign?"

The board had succumbed to religious-right pressure by obscuring (without actually denying) the existence of evolution as a fact. It had deleted from guidelines (prepared by the state's curriculum commission of scientists and educators) mention of a 1987 Supreme Court decision denying scientific status to so-called "creation science." It had also eliminated a similar statement by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as such sentences as: "There is no scientific dispute that evolution has occurred and continues to occur; this is why evolution is regarded as a scientific fact."

Enter Francis Laufenberg, then-president of the board (the job is rotated). In a letter to Bishop, Laufenberg patiently enlightened the Nobel laureate on the differences between "fact" and "theory." Evolution is "a theory which explains the 'how' of the origins of the universe, earth and life." He even included Big Bang theory as a component. Scientific thinking regarding Big Bang will probably change, Laufenberg predicted, thereby presumably scuttling the theory of evolution itself.

But as Bishop pointed out in a December reply, Darwinian theory in no way touches on the beginnings of the universe, the Earth, or even life on Earth: "Properly used, the term 'evolution' describes the genesis of diverse species from a common origin," not the common origin itself.

It must be said that, in his confusion, Laufenberg enjoys august company. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreeing, spread similar misinformation in dissenting from the court's 7-2 decision in 1987, which denied scientific status to "creation science."

In a letter appearing in Education Week, Feb. 7, 1990, Laufenberg cited many "errors" committed by the curriculum commission. One was to write of evolution "in the dogmatic language of the advocate rather than in the unbiased, objective language of the true scientist." (Unfortunately, all but a tiny handful of "true scientists," that is, those who have earned graduate degrees from universities, use the same "dogmatic language.")

Another "error" was "to quote the 1987 Supreme Court decision out of context in order to frighten science teachers who might not wish to follow the dogmatic statements contained in the proposed framework." (But it is creationists, not scientists, who attempt to frighten teachers. Kelly Segraves of the Creation Creed Committee has threatened to press for "loss of teaching credentials" for those who fail to comply with his demands.)

Finally, Laufenberg wrote that attempts to rule out the teaching of "creation science" in science classes, as in the Supreme Court decision, violate the First Amendment rights of teachers who wish to express such views.

There's a message here for all parents of school-age children. Apparently, a president of California's Board of Education would support the right of a science teacher to inform your child that the marine fossils atop the Himalayas were deposited by Noah's flood. "No governmental agency," Laufenberg wrote, "such as the Board of Education, can forbid teachers to express their own views . . . without violating the Constitution."

He added: "It is just as wrong for a governmental agency to be hostile toward religion as to advance religion." But nobody is advocating hostility toward religion, nor that it should never be taught, only that it should not be taught as science in science classes. And this is the view of almost all teachers of science, including those in schools with religious affiliations.

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