The state of Georgia last month ordered a ban on the word "evolution" from its science classrooms. The state school superintendent ordered the word removed from all textbooks.
Thanks to the intervention of former President Jimmy Carter, schools superintendent Kathy Cox, an elected official, was compelled to rescind her order. Charles Darwin's name can remain in Georgia textbooks, along with those of Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and others who have made their little contributions to our understanding of things.
One cannot help wonder what would have become of the schoolchildren of the modern state of Georgia if Carter did not happen to live there. We like to believe we have come a long way from that steamy Dayton, Tenn., courtroom in 1925, when America gave to a laughing world the so-called "monkey trial" of John Scopes. Scopes was a high school biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution.
From the back hills of Tennessee and Georgia, to the plains of Kansas and the foothills of California (Vista), the common complaint against evolution is that it's "only a theory." So said the Kansas Board of Education when it banned the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools in 1999, arguing it was no more "provable" than creationism, the Bible's story of how human life was created.
In each of these cases – Georgia, 2004; Kansas, 1999; California, 1994; and Tennessee, 1925 – individuals denying the facts of science sought to deny them to schoolchildren as well. Misunderstanding that religion and science occupy separate places in our lives – one dealing with facts, the other with beliefs – they made them into antagonists.
One doesn't normally think of modern Georgia as a backwater. But when an elected superintendent of schools bans evolution because, she says, it's "a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction," we have to wonder how far Georgia has come since Scopes.
Ask this: How did Cox's action differ from that of the Roman Inquisition, which demanded that Galileo recant his theory (from Copernicus) of the Earth's revolution around the sun? Revolution, said the Inquisition, didn't square with a literal interpretation of Scripture. For example, Joshua 10:13: "So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven;" and Isaiah 40:22: " ... the heavens stretched out as a curtain" above "the circle of the Earth."
Speaking, "as a Christian and a trained engineer and scientist," Carter accused Cox of "an attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students." He said the schools superintendent opened Georgia's education system to "nationwide ridicule." Carter got no support from Georgia's unenlightened governor, Sonny Perdue, who said it was up to Cox to make "these kinds of curriculum decisions."
Sorry, guv, it's not. When a statewide education system falls to the creationists, the governor has a responsibility to remind people we are not back in 1925, let alone the Inquisition's 1633. The modern state of Georgia has pretensions. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, bills itself as "one of the nation's top research universities, distinguished by its commitment to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology."
Georgia Tech would need to go out of state for its students if Cox had her way. Ignoring 150 years of advances in biology, Cox objected to evolution because, she said, people might think Georgia was "teaching the monkeys-to-man sort of thing."
Teaching biology without evolution, which Cox would have done, is like teaching physics without Newton or philosophy without Plato. You deny students the great intellectual frameworks for learning. Darwin called natural selection "the main means explaining the modification of species." More than a century later, Stephen Jay Gould called it, "the genealogical connection of all organisms."
The creationists lose these battles, but keep coming back. They must be watched. They keep their intentions private, then spring them on unsuspecting publics, as in Georgia. It took Kansans three years to replace their creationist school board. It took Vista voters almost as long.
The "it's only a theory" argument against evolution is rooted in ignorance. Once science is satisfied that observable evidence through controlled testing validates a hypothesis, it can label the conclusions theory or law, it doesn't matter. Newton's laws of motion are the basis for his theory of gravitation, though it could as easily be the other way around.
We may not like the idea that homo sapiens are here because our ancestors crawled out of some prehistoric slime and escaped predators (rather than popping into existence in Eden), but there is all that evidence for it.
The latest creationist trick is so-called "intelligent design." According to intelligent design, natural selection is insufficient to explain the DNA mutations necessary to create homo sapiens. God must have directed the process.
The answer to that is a simple: God may exist, who knows? But God isn't needed to explain natural selection. DNA mutations are quite capable of getting us out of the slime.
Children can learn about God in church. In schools, we teach science.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.