The Real Issue of Scopes

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/22/2013

Can one question evolution on a nonreligious basis? Greg discusses how the problems with the theory of evolution are rooted in science, not religion.

I was reading an article someone sent me from the Orange County Register , July 27, 1994. The title is “Teach Science as Science: A Teacher’s Lawsuit Revisits the Scopes Trial.” This is a reference to the case of John Peloza who has insisted on his right to teach creationism to biology students in the Capistrano Valley Unified School District. This is what the editorial piece alleges. I suspect, and I’m not really up on that situation, that that may be a misrepresentation. My recollection is not that he wanted to teach creation, but that he wanted to critique evolution according to the guidelines of the California educational system. I might be getting two different things mixed up here, but that’s not really so consequential. The basic issue is that this is a piece that says some strong things about this creation/evolution controversy as it touches the educational system.

Let me read to you and then I’d like to respond. The piece says,

“Disturbing Case: Of course, groups pushing narrow religious agendas will always have their occasional successes with pliable legislatures. But the Peloza case is especially disturbing because it arises from within the very heart of a school system. Here is a public school science teacher, now reassigned to teach health and physical education, who has rejected the premise of scientific method. The theory of natural selection is not, after all, merely one wild card idea among others competing for acceptance. It is not just a theory but a body of ideas that have been thoroughly confirmed, derived from solid techniques of scientific inquiry. That process should be held up as a model for learning. Young people need to know that the truths we derive about the physical universe must come from reason and scientific experimentation, not dogma. Science cannot be regarded as one possible methodology for determining how things came to be alongside whatever the flat earth society or anybody else might postulate. At a time when religious zealots are conducting stealth campaigns to take over school boards, this challenge from someone on the front lines in the classroom should be resolved with a ringing affirmation from the courts. Educators have a right and a duty to teach science as science.”

That’s the closing half of the editorial piece. There were so many things that were said in here that deserve remark, I could take an hour talking about it. I’m just going to highlight a couple of things. As is frequently the case when newspaper editorials respond to this issue of evolution and creation, not only do they frequently misrepresent the so-called religious side, which I think was seriously done here and I’ll try to correct that, but they misunderstand the nature of science.

Let me respond in this way. With regards to the religious implications of the fight against evolution, clearly the issue has religious implications, but that blade cuts both ways. If Carl Sagan is right, that “the cosmos is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be,” well, that has profound implications for metaphysics, for religion. And his comment, accepted by many as science, is no less religious in its implications than Peloza’s viewpoint. One point that I’ve made in the past about the relationship of religion and faith to science is that they cannot be kept apart because dogmatic assertions about scientific matters have metaphysical implications.

Anyone, by the way, who looks closely at the details of this debate on a more sophisticated level, a level that the media consistently avoids in their coverage, will discover that the questions raised about evolution pertain to the alleged scientific facts themselves and the interpretation of those facts. This is another misrepresentation in this article. In other words, the objections that are raised by people like Peloza, especially on the sophisticated levels that they ought to be looked at, are objections that pertain first and foremost to science and not to religion. The objections I raise here are scientific questions, not religious questions. Those in the philosophy of science and those who are scientists who object to evolution do not object on religious grounds, principally. They are objecting precisely on scientific grounds.

Now, what about the theory of natural selection? The editorial here says, “The theory of natural selection is not, after all, merely one wild card idea among others competing for acceptance. It is not just a theory but a body of ideas that have been thoroughly confirmed.” Now I presume they mean the theory of natural selection here. As far as that statement is concerned, that natural selection has been proven, so what? So what? That really doesn’t take us anywhere at all. And I’ll tell you why.

Keep in mind, by the way, that my remarks right now have to do with the nature of the debate itself, not the content of the debate. I’m not here arguing in favor of creationism per se , or some kind of design. I’m just talking about this objection to Christians wanting to play in the game, or anyone who believes in some kind of design alternative to the origins question. The Register is saying, no that’s not a legitimate alternative because science teachers should teach science as science, science is equal with evolution, and you can’t bring any of these other religious things in here.

I think that the argument in this sense is miscast. The comment that the theory of natural selection has been proven, gets from me the response “so what?” The theory of natural selection is not in itself at issue. The idea that only the fittest survive in the struggle for existence may be true. Even if I accept that, it is utterly unremarkable and it’s not a point of contention in this conflict of ideas. If evolution were based only on this observation, no one would lift an eyebrow.

The earthshaking suggestion by Darwin was not that the fit survive, but rather how much this observation explains about the physical world. The offense of Darwinism isn’t natural selection per se. I grant them that. Rather, the offense was that purely naturalistic processes alone explain everything—not just minor adaptive variations, but the totality of the biosphere and all its complexity and diversity. Even the mystery of life itself. In fact, so stupendous is the creative power of natural selection that it frequently is referred to somewhat oxymoronically as the “miracle of Mother Nature.” It’s an oxymoron because there is a contradiction there. Mother Nature doesn’t have miracles; she’s purely naturalistic. But that’s the thing that is objectionable—not natural selection. But the way, natural selection is used to explain everything and the questions is: Is that a legitimate scientific inference from the facts?

Now let me underscore the issue here is not religious dogma. The issue is science, in my view, in those who are, as I mentioned, discussing this issue on a more sophisticated level. And educators like Peloza aren’t the only ones that are concerned here. In fact, the best material currently critiquing evolution is not coming from religious people, but from inside the scientific community.

Following the complete failure of the 1988 Origin of Life Conference in Berkeley to produce a plausible scenario for how life itself chemically evolved, Dr. Robert Shapiro, the eminent chemist from New York University and an expert in his field, wrote a book and it was entitled Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth . Now creation here refers to biochemical evolution. He’s a skeptic. In this book, he decimates the six reigning ideas of how life could have evolved from non-life. Michael Denton, in his book Evolution a Theory in Crisis, shows that the original scientific objections to evolution that faced Darwin and were argued powerfully by his colleagues, his own contemporaries, still apply—even after more than 100 years of scientific research.

Both of these books are written by non-religious people, I presume. In other words, they are not making a religious case at all. I don’t know their personal faith commitments at all, but their concerns are strictly scientific. In fact, Shapiro remains an evolutionist hoping that the future will turn up more evidence that the past has not produced. In his book, Michael Denton ends his analysis with this statement: “The Darwinian theory is the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century,” and then he adds, “like the Genesis based cosmology which it replaced.” You have no friend of religion here, yet in both cases they offer scientifically strident and compelling arguments against the plausibility of natural processes explaining all of the complexity that we see in our biological world. It’s just not plausible, they argue. And they’re on the inside.

True, evolution is accepted by many, though not all. (I’m speaking of scientists here.) But whether it’s accepted because of scientific evidence or for other more philosophical reasons, which Peloza calls “evolutionary religion,” is precisely what this debate is about. And to cast this debate in a different light, from the editorial, “religious zealots conducting stealth campaigns,” that’s the way they characterized it—I would say they mischaracterized it. To cast it in that fashion is to skirt the issue. To skirt it entirely. It is easier to dismiss as flat earth religion any objections to evolution rather than to engage the issues themselves in public discourse. And some people would say, Well, I don’t want to dignify the opposition by even engaging in reasonable discourse as if this is something that could be discussed reasonably. But once you do that, then you push the other side out of the game and you dogmatically refuse to even consider the options, or to consider even the critique of your own option. And that’s not education.

That’s why I say it’s so much easier just to simply dismiss it, call it a name. “Oh you flat earth people. You are ignorant. What do you know? I don’t even have to talk to you.” Now the Orange County Register editorial suggests that when the challenge comes on the front lines in the classroom “It should be resolved with a ringing affirmation from the courts.” Well, that’s right. Call out the militia. That’s how to resolve this. That will solve the problem. You can assure victory this way. The way to win the game is to run the other team off the field. Use the courts to do that.

It seems to me that maybe the challenges in the classroom, since they are challenges that are scientific—that’s what the real challenge is, that’s the beef, not religious dogma, science—the challenges in the classroom should not be solved in the courtroom because, after all, courts don’t determine what is true. They only determine what is legal. Classrooms, however, are supposedly the arena where truth can be discovered. Maybe knowledge and truth would be better served by an even-handed analysis of the facts in an open debate with full disclosure rather than through the strong arm of the court, deciding which ideas get to play in the game.

Since this editorial cites the first Scopes trial, that’s the way Clarence Darrow argued in the first Scopes trial. Let’s not have the laws and the courts decide, barring one view over another. Let’s have a free play of ideas, and let’s let the best idea win on its own merit. You know something? On that count Clarence Darrow was right.