The politics and debate in Kansas and some 30 other states about evolution, creationism and the teaching of intelligent design in the science classroom is really about a larger issue: humanity's continuing struggle with two views of our existence.
The first view, essentially religious and typified by the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, says we and our world were made some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago by a creator who intercedes in this life and promises an afterlife. The second view, essentially secular and scientific, says we and our world are part of a cosmos that has evolved naturally during the past 14 billion years. View One cites supernatural causes derived from Scriptures; View Two, natural causes derived from empirical discovery. The chasm between them is deep, the conflict between them longstanding.
The science classroom is their current battleground, but it is the poorest place for bridging the chasm. During the past 500 years, natural explanations have replaced supernatural ones for virtually all earth and human properties, such as disease, weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, celestial mechanics and the planet's millions of species of plants, animals and microbes. We found these natural explanations satisfying and beneficial to our condition: Pasteur's germ theory, Newton's gravitational theory, Wegner's plate tectonics theory, Galileo's Sun-centered solar system. We teach these natural explanations in the science classroom, no longer fearful of upsetting the religious view of human existence.
The exception is Darwin's theory of evolution, the main event in the conflict between the two views. Although knowledge of evolution proved beneficial, being fundamental to medicine and understanding the biology of the planet, it also proved highly uncomfortable, mostly because of human origins. For many people, Darwin upsets the strict scriptural view of the centrality of humans on Earth, as Galileo once did for the centrality of humans in the solar system.
View One asks: How could we have evolved and still be special? How could our existence have purpose or meaning if our roots are as humblingly genetic and geologic as the rest of life on Earth? View Two answers that humans are special in myriad ways, but not for the same reasons given by View One. Humans are the only species on Earth capable of deciphering the workings of the cosmos and reconstructing our past origins. Not to mention writing "Romeo and Juliet," building a Sphinx, painting a "Mona Lisa," composing a "Christmas Oratorio," or filming the "Wizard of Oz."
In each act of creation, humans throw an individual bridge of purpose and meaning across the chasm. Perhaps most of all, only humans have the power, foresight and responsibility to steward the planet into the future. Among all of life, only we have inherited the Earth and the contract to sustain it.
The Catholic Church, from the pope on down, flits back and forth across the chasm. According to Pope Benedict XVI, the universe was made by an "intelligent project." This does not square with Pope John Paul II's recognition of Darwin and evolution in 1996, which Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn recently dismissed as "rather vague and unimportant." This must mean that papal infallibility does not apply here.
The Vatican's chief astronomer, Rev. George Coyne, countered that if religious believers "respect the results of modern science, and indeed the best of modern biblical research, (they) must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God. Science explains the history of the universe (whereas) intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science."
In thumping agreement, the good citizens of Dover, Pa., went to the polls on Nov. 8 and summarily threw out the eight school board members who had inserted intelligent design into the science curriculum. No sooner were the votes counted then Rev. Pat Robertson dismissed democracy in favor of his own infallibility. Dover, he thundered, would reap a natural disaster as divine punishment, a flood or tornado intelligently designed as God's wrath. Robertson claims evolution versus creation is a moral issue. It is. The extinction of millions of species of animals and plants was a moral conundrum for early theologians who believed life had been intelligently designed.
The lesson from Dover is that governments and boards of education should not use the science classroom to bridge the chasm between the secular and the religious views of human existence. Rather, let individuals build their personal bridges across this gulf between faith and reason and cross back and forth in the privacy of their own ideas.
One idea, if true, might be an interesting bridge. Some psychological research on children suggests that, during the course of human evolution, we developed an inborn predisposition for belief in the supernatural. Why? Perhaps as a mechanism for dealing with what perhaps is the most uncomfortable piece of knowledge we learn early on as children: our individual mortality. We are the only species on Earth with foreknowledge of our death. How ironic, then, if human evolution is now denied by the very belief it produced.