Teaching Evolution: Perhaps Unnecessary After All

Teaching Evolution: Perhaps Unnecessary After All

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It is now known all across the country and all over the world: The Board of Education in the State of Kansasdecided, on the basis of a vote of 6 to 4, that the children in that state ought not to be taught the theory of evolution, nor Genesis according to Big Bang. The board did not insist that students must be taught in their science courses that God made the world in six days, and Man in His image. Maybe this will come later.

The reaction to the board’s directive ranged from laughter to outrage. Many beyond the shores of Americawere convinced upon reading the news that the U.S.was not, as they had imagined, such an advanced country after all. People with little understanding of American democracy could not believe that a few out-moded, but elected voices, could dictate to the science teachers throughout a state what is to be taught, and what banned, in science courses. A great many science teachers within the country were shocked too. And most responsible and knowledgeable scientists were simply outraged. Some felt this was a national disgrace.

As one devoted to science, I sympathize with such reactions. However, I am not altogether convinced that the Kansasdecision will wreak much harm on science education or on the advancement of science in the country. It is even possible that, even after graduating from this scientifically disadvantaged school system, some eminent biologists will emerge from Kansasin the decades to come. I am confident that students who have never had a lecture on the chapter on evolution in their biology course in school can still do well in medical school and become competent physicians. And those who know nothing of Big Bang can still become good engineers, chemists, and geneticists or what have you. The application of positive scientific knowledge for practical purposes has little to do with scientific theses as to origins.

What should be relevant from the point of view of science education is whether students who have heard or learnt about evolution or the Big Bang in school are able to explain why (on what scientific basis) they accept these theories. The more serious challenge is to teach students and school board members (i.e. the general public) how science works, on what bases the scientific community accepts or rejects theories, and the significance of scientific uncertainties. If and when these are properly inculcated, students and citizens will automatically accept evolution sooner or later, and they will do so more meaningfully. It should be obvious to anyone acquainted with the elements of the scientific methodology that no other framework but that of evolution adequately explains much of what we know and understand about the variety of biological species we see around us today.

At the same time, it is fair to say that however inspiringly and passionately proclaimed by the devotees of science, it is a slight exaggeration to suggest, as one eminent scientist did that “no one ignorant of evolution can understand science.” After all, scientific giants like Galileo and Newton, Euler and Faraday, never knew anything about Darwinian evolution. Even in our own times there are competent physicists and chemists who have some doubts about the Darwinian model.

We need to distinguish between scientific theories that account for currently observed phenomena and those that pertain to origins. The history of science reveals how shifting our views have been as to the birth of the universe and of life itself. Scientific views on how life, our species, human languages, music and morality arose have often been very tentative.

On the other hand, given the massive observational evidence and logical arguments, the devoutly religious may have to learn that it is no blasphemy to recognize that the Divine Creator may well have chosen to introduce Life on our planet: little by little, in an emerging way, somewhat like composing a painting or a novel.

As to scriptures, I am inclined to think that the authors of the Book of Genesis, keen and inquiring minds that they were, would insist on issuing a revised edition, at least of the first chapter, if they were to reappear in our own times. Perhaps they would want to write, “God said, ‘Let there be electromagnetic waves’, and there were electromagnetic waves,” however unpoetic this might sound. The same may be said of the ancient authors of similar documents in other cultures too. And if the holy books are to be taken as revelations, who is to say that current scientific inklings of cosmogenesis and biogenesis are not revelations made by the same God to men and women of our own times who live at a different level of human understanding. Could it even be that God Almighty is teasing these puny creations with changing impressions at different ages and stages of human history?

The unrelenting upholders of back-dated views do not realize that they tend to alienate many genuine seekers of spiritual experience from membership in religious institutions by their stance, besides bringing a bad name to theology.

Fortunately, at this stage, there seems to be only a minority of religious enthusiasts who vehemently resent the description of Homo sapiens as “the ex-ape rather than the apex of creation.” Well-meaning theologians should learn to see the difference between pre-modern scientific explanations of the phenomenal world, and genuine experience of the spiritual dimension of human consciousness. When religion tries to usurp the role of science, it mistakes ancient mythologies for scientific truths; and the result can be awkward both to religion and to society.

Likewise, in the age in which we live, scientists need to understand that, notwithstanding all the spectacular successes of science and technology, there are deep human longings for things that transcend charts and facts, beyond cold-blooded logic and mathematical analysis. When scientists underestimate the relevance of the spiritual yearnings in human existence, when they mistake the transrational for the irrational and pooh-pooh the weight of traditions and the wisdom of the ages, they create the impression that science is an arrogant and heartless enterprise, even dangerous to the human spirit.