The debate over how, and whether, to teach evolution boils down to the fact that any explanation of how life originated relies on theory, faith, or both.
“No one was present when life first appeared on Earth,” says a disclaimer the Oklahoma textbook commission drafted last fall for insertion in science books. “Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”
The statement—which was blocked by the state attorney general as being outside the commission’s authority—reflects the difficulty some states have had in teaching a central theory of modern science that many parents and students see as profoundly at odds with their religious beliefs.
As first postulated by Charles Darwin in 1857, the theory of evolution asserts that organisms change gradually in makeup over time to adapt to alterations in their environment. Since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, biologists and geneticists have refined the theory to posit that all life forms grew out of cells that lived in water for billions of years until their food supply ran out about 500 million years ago.
Fossil records support, according to the theory, the belief that organisms gradually divided into the millions of species that inhabit the Earth today.
While scientists call evolution a theory, they also say all the evidence points to its being true. And they stress that scientific use of the word “theory” means it’s more than a guess or a hypothesis. Evolution has become the “central unifying concept of biology,” according to “Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd Edition,” a booklet published last year by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization.
Evolution’s critics agree the concept is a “theory"—but in the popular senseand say it can’t be proven.
The debate has raged off and on in the United States since Darwin’s ideas entered the scientific mainstream.
From the 19th century to the present, many Christians have rejected the theory of evolution as contradicting their belief in the literal truth of the biblical story of creation.
Other Christians, including the Roman Catholic Church and most major Protestant denominations, have long viewed science and religion as different, but ultimately reconcilable, ways of understanding the world’s origins. They say that evolution’s findings do not invalidate a belief in God as traditionally defined by Christianity.
In recent years, a new wave of critics has emerged to challenge the evidence of evolution on scientific grounds. They contend that certain periods in the fossil record show the sudden emergence of new species, raising serious questions about evolution’s claims that all species grew from the same single-cell organisms.
The so-called intelligent-design theory suggests that multicell organisms emerged over the course of 5 million years, a progression that is much faster than evidence suggests is possible, the proponents maintain. Such rapid change, they conclude, means that a designer—or a God—must have played a hand in creating new organisms.
While such critics have widely published their views in popular books, the scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected them.
“Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention of the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by methods of science,” the National Academy of Sciences wrote in its 1999 booklet.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Life’s Origins: An Inconclusive Lesson Plan