Yes, Evolution is a Theory. It's Religion and Politics that are the Problems

Students in Cobb County, Georgia, are being told by the school board that scientific material should be approached "with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." And this has irritated some so much that a lawsuit was filed, demanding that this outrage be stopped. U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the outrage should be stopped. His ruling demonstrated what the Cobb County School Board called "unnecessary judicial intrusion into local control of schools"--judicial activism run amok, according to full page ads in the local paper. The school board has voted to appeal the judge's decision. Local writers of letters to the editor have made it abundantly clear that the ACLU and those who support the case are anti-freedom, anti-science, anti-religion, socialists, and atheist devils to boot.

This specific brouhaha began in 2002, when the Cobb school board, bowing to pressure from local fundamentalist activists, voted to paste a sticker into the front of certain science textbooks. The approved sticker did not say "Evolution should rightly be called 'Evil-ution' and is a communist plot" or even "Intelligent Design deserves careful consideration as an alternative to evolution." What it did say seems remarkably innocuous and commonsensical. Ending with the language quoted above, it started, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things." The board no doubt thought, "Now who could argue with that?" No mention of religion or God. No attack on science.

Of course all these loud voices insisting that the sticker is properly educational or harmless are wrong. They ignore the facts:

In science, unlike in common usage, a successful "theory" is an overarching explanation that accounts for all known facts, hypotheses, and observations.

It is a fact, supported by millions of observations over at least 150 years that life has evolved on this planet. This fact of evolution did not have a scientifically satisfactory overarching explanation--a theory--until Charles Darwin developed his complex ideas. His explanation rapidly convinced the scientific minds of his own age and of every generation since then.

No scientifically supported theory of why life on this planet evolved rivals basic Darwinian theory. If there was a legitimate alternative, scientists would go to great lengths to win prestige by testing and developing the alternative.

The surest evidence that the Cobb School Board was using the sticker to mollify a religious minority in the county, rather than to improve science education or to encourage critical thinking, is the much better sticker they rejected. While no sticker at all is needed, the board was presented with one that encouraged students to reflect critically and thoughtfully on all scientific theories in all fields, and that acknowledged that, while most scientists realize that Darwinian theory is well supported, some people do not. The board rejected that broader and more accurate advice to students.

Evolutionary theory is not the only part of science subject to religious dispute and controversy. The germ theory of disease, while overwhelmingly supported by scientists--as is evolution theory--is not accepted by Christian Scientists or by some other religious groups. The board did not put a sticker in high school health texts about this, for good reason.

Tempting as the solution presented by a local letter writer may seem to some, avoiding all the controversy by not teaching about evolution at all, or only in elective courses, would seriously cheat students. Almost everything in modern biology and much of astronomy, geology, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines cannot be well understood except in light of evolutionary theory. Young people would suffer greatly in colleges and universities, including in most religious schools, if their education was so inadequate. Their understanding of life itself would be severely hampered.

Science classes and textbooks should be restricted to scientific inquiry. There is much that evolutionary theory cannot explain, and the compatibility or conflict of science and religion, while controversial, cannot be determined by science.

The case is not part of "the ongoing controversy between atheists and Christians." Many scientists, including the Cobb high school science department chair and the textbook author who both testified eloquently against the sticker, describe themselves as deeply religious. Some Christians may be threatened by science, but most are not.

The court held that the sticker is unconstitutional because it "conveys an impermissible message of endorsement and tells some citizens that they are political outsiders while telling others that they are political insiders" and because it violates the Georgia constitutional provision regarding "Separation of Church and State" (yes those words are in the Georgia Constitution).

The full-page newspaper ads cited above that supported the school board and attacked the sticker decision also attacked the separation of church and state--and the ads were sponsored by a local Christian church. This supports a key claim of the plaintiffs in the stickers case; this is a controversy about religion, not about science.

Ed Buckner is Southern Director for the Council for Secular Humanism; Buckner co-edited, with his son Michael E. Buckner, Quotations That Support the Separation of Church and State (1995).