This month, an anniversary will pass by that probably will not receive much attention in the media, but it is one I think everyone who believes in education should be aware of. On June 19, it will be 25 years since the Supreme Court handed down their decision on Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).
A little back story: The State of Louisiana had passed the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act” in 1981. The law required that if the science of evolution was taught in public school, then “creation science” must be taught as well. Creation science, of course, is the position that the Bible can be proven literally true through the use of science. Such events as the six-day creation and the Great Flood of Noah would be presented as facts, and dinosaurs would be presented as co-existing with humans. The stated purpose of the Act was to protect “academic freedom”. The Supreme Court ruled — correctly — that the law was unconstitutional because it was specifically intended to advance a particular religion and therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Creation science could still be taught in private schools, but public (taxpayer-funded) schools could not present a view that clearly favored Christianity.
The Court wrote, “We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught… Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.” In other words, creation science was to be banned because it was clearly religion draped in scientific clothing, but legitimate scientific challenges to evolution would be allowed and encouraged. Indeed, while evolution is today considered a fact, much debate still exists about its exact mechanisms and whether or not changes are gradual or start-and-stop (what is called “punctuated equilibrium”). Any evidence that goes against evolution is welcomed by the scientific community.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dissented, accepting the Act’s stated purpose of “protecting academic freedom” as a sincere and legitimate secular purpose. They construed the term “academic freedom” to refer to “students’ freedom from indoctrination”, in this case their freedom “to decide for themselves how life began, based upon a fair and balanced presentation of the scientific evidence”. Scalia wrote, “The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools, just as Mr. Scopes was entitled to present whatever scientific evidence there was for it.”
Scalia errs here, and it is a common enough error. He accepts at face value that creation science is, in fact, science. It is not. Its claims are untestable, and are therefore without merit. Scalia is correct that the people of Louisiana are entitled to any evidence for or against evolution. No scientist would argue against a healthy debate, and the majority opinion stated this. Students should question if evolution is correct, just as they should question the validity of tests that date the ages of fossils or any other complex idea. Still further, they should be made aware of gaps in the fossil record (“missing links”). But Scalia fails to realize that creation science is not a refutation of evolution at all, as it does not rely on empirical evidence.
Scientists had a victory party, but the celebration was short-lived. The Court’s decision directly lead to the rise of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Within two years of the ruling, a creationist textbook was produced: Of Pandas and People, which attacked evolutionary biology without mentioning the identity of the supposed “intelligent designer”. While those who push the ID hypothesis could just as easily be followers of Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or some other belief, they are invariably Christian. ID’s “father” and strongest proponent, Phillip Johnson, has explicitly identified the “intelligent designer” with an evangelical Christian God. Johnson’s scientific credentials (he is a lawyer by training) should be questioned by his followers: besides denying evolution, he has also been the champion of denying a link between HIV and AIDS.
And yet, if readers think I am attacking Christianity, I must make myself clear: being pro-evolution does not automatically make someone anti-Christian. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has recognized evolution as the way life developed ever since 1950, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII. Pius took a neutral stance personally, but fully accepted that evolution was worthy of study. Pope John Paul II would later acknowledge “the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”
The spread of Intelligent Design would eventually lead to another court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which went to trial on September 26, 2005 and was decided in U.S. District Court on December 20, 2005 in favor of the plaintiffs, who argued that teaching intelligent design in public schools was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. This sounds like another victory for science, but it was but a small one; because the Dover, Pennsylvania school board chose not to appeal, the case never reached an appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Man has long been afraid to admit he is not the most important being in the universe. We fought hard to deny that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that millions upon millions of planets exist. And now some of us continue to fight in order to have man be seen as a being created from dirt into the image of God. As truth must always triumph over myth, this is a vain attempt and a fool’s errand. But mankind has no shortage of vain and hopeless fools.
For fun creationist reading, be sure to pick up a copy of Of Pandas and People, The Central Question of Biological Origins