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Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?

By Martinez Hewlett & Ted Peters

In this Theological Brief we take the position that a religious commitment implies a commitment to the best science. We write as a scientist and a theologian. Marty is a molecular biologist and virologist at the University of Arizona. Ted is a professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.See: Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Evolution from Creation to New Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). We are concerned about the widespread controversy over the teaching of evolution in public and religious schools. Here is what we recommend. We wish to make Six points.

First, children of every religious tradition, including those from Christian families, should be exposed to the best science.A helpful resource for public school education and a defense of he merits of the Dawinian model is the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, directed by former a University of California... It is the obligation of every school system to provide the highest quality education possible. This means science teachers should be well trained and up to date. The ability of today’s children to function in tomorrow’s world depends on this. No theological reason exists to justify teaching or learning half baked or inferior science.

Second, it is our position that Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design, even if conceived for wholesome reasons by well intentioned people, do not represent the best science. We measure the quality of science by its fertility. By ‘fertility’ we mean the ability of a scientific theory to generate research projects that lead to new knowledge. What fertility leads to is a progressive research program that advances human understanding of the natural world; and in many cases this advance in understanding leads to innovative technology, such as medical therapy. The theory we know as Neo-Darwinian evolution meets this criterion. It’s producing new knowledge every day. Scientific medicine among other fields benefits from the new knowledge this theory generates. It’s the theory that our young people need to know if they are to progress academically in the life sciences and professionally in medical school, nursing, veterinary medicine, or any profession requiring biochemistry. We would be cheating our children by confusing them regarding how we measure successful science.

As we said above, Marty is a virologist. He is the co-author of a widely read textbook in medical schools.Edward K. Wagner and Martinez J. Hewlett, Basic Virology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). In order for Marty to study viruses and to pursue research that lead eventually to medical therapies, he must rely on Darwin’s concept of random variation as exemplified in genetic mutations, among other principles of Darwinian evolution. In an indirect way, reliance upon the Darwinian model of biology leads to the saving of human lives. Nothing in the theories of Scientific Creationism or Intelligent Design provide the research scientist with such a fertile understanding of how nature works. It would be tragic to take away a demonstrably successful science and replace it with an inferior one just to satisfy religious expectations.

Third, this implies a full commitment to support the teaching of evolutionary theory and laboratory practice in the public schools, Roman Catholic parochial schools, evangelical Christian day schools, and others. Once this commitment has been made, then consideration can be given to lifting up alternative models. A healthy curriculum will provide room for discussion of the cultural controversy that includes Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design as well as Theistic Evolution. Because the swirl of controversy whelms all our children on a daily basis, a non-anxious discussion of the spectrum of beliefs should be made available. Once the children return to the laboratory, however, we recommend that the Neo-Darwinian model guide what takes place. In sum, we oppose the idea of ‘equal treatment’ under the label ‘science’ for non-Darwinian models.

Fourth, much more is at stake than simply showing respect for Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design. What is at stake is faith, faith in the God who has created our beautiful world and who promises still yet more magnificent natural beauty in the future. In a religiously safe setting such as a Roman Catholic parochial school or an evangelical day school, the study of nature should be accompanied by a biblical appreciation for the God of nature. Our faith in God should not be reduced to its bare bones formulation by either the Creationists or the Intelligent Design advocates. Our faith is not dependent on either of these theories about evolution. We definitely oppose the misleading association of the Christian faith exclusively with anti-Darwinism. A conscientious teacher should be able to point this out in an inspiring and edifying manner.

Fifth, we affirm that the faith of our biblical ancestors is not out of date, nor is it superseded by modern science. The temptation to disqualify religious commitments because they are pre-modern must be resisted. Our teachers must avoid embarrassing religion simply because it is old when touting the virtues of the new sciences. Rather, the depth of reality plumbed by faith should be presented as a complement to the surface understandings of the physical world provided by science. Disrespect for religion must be avoided, even in the public school setting

Sixth, when a school teacher is well prepared to deal with the controversy, we urge that the distinction be made between Darwinism as a scientific method and Darwinism as an ideology. We want our young people to learn what Charles Darwin meant in the 19th century by random variation in inheritance and natural selection; and we want them to see how in the 20th century new knowledge of gene mutations led to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. We want our young people to come to an appreciation of our natural world through the eyes of now updated evolutionary theory.

This science qua science must be distinguished from the ideologies that have been attached to it. There are four such ideologies (a) atheistic materialism, as promulgated originally by Thomas Huxley; (b) social Darwinism, as promulgated originally by Herbert Spencer; (c) eugenics, as promulgated originally by Francis Galton; and (4) sociobiology, as promulgated today by E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. These are secular ideologies; and religious activists are in the right when they protest the teaching of such ideologies in our schools. The science of the Darwinian tradition, however, is fertile. We need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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