Whether by random selection or grand design, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born 200 years ago on Feb. 12, 1809.
Vastly different in background and education, they grew up to become two of the most polarizing figures of their era.
But while Lincoln is now widely lionized as a unifying leader, Darwin remains one of the few historical thinkers whose very name can provoke a fight.
And what a fight it has been. In the United States, fierce opposition to Darwin – or more specifically to Darwin’s theory of evolution – has been spearheaded for decades by conservative Christians who pit their interpretation of the biblical account of creation against what they see as the false and dangerous idea that human beings and other living things have evolved over time through natural selection.
Unfortunately, the locus of the battle has been and continues to be public schools, institutions largely unprepared and unequipped to broker ideological conflicts between religion and science.
Lawyers and judges haven’t been able to put the controversy to rest despite two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1968, an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution in schools was declared unconstitutional by the Court under the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
Then in 1987, the Court struck down a Louisiana law mandating “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism, ruling that the First Amendment bars religious views from being taught as science in public schools.
But opponents of evolution keep coming back to fight another day.
The latest battleground is Texas, where last month the State Board of Education tentatively dropped the requirement that students explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution – a provision that many science educators charge has been used to promote creationism in schools.
The new language requires students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.” Supporters of teaching evolution aren’t declaring victory yet; a final vote is expected in March.
Opponents of evolution in Texas and other states want to make the debate about the freedom of students to learn about the “weaknesses” of evolution.
Unlike the creationist arguments of the past, this strategy has broad popular appeal. According to a recent Zogby poll, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory.”
Of course, who can be against “academic freedom”? But the real question – the one that concerns the science community – is, Who gets to define “weaknesses”?
Yes, there are questions still to be answered about evolution, just as there are unanswered questions about any scientific theory. For the vast majority of scientists, however, the theory of evolution is the foundation of modern biology, and no credible scientific evidence has been found to challenge its major tenets.
Science organizations worry that pushing for evolution’s “weaknesses” to be taught in public schools is little more than a back-door attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution.
They are right to worry. What’s most disturbing about this fight is the damage it does to science education.
I won’t go so far as to blame America’s widespread scientific illiteracy on our culture wars over evolution. But I think it’s fair to say that endless conflicts and lawsuits contribute to dumbed-down textbooks and teacher avoidance of the much-feared “e-word.”
I’m all for exposing students to some of the philosophical, religious and political issues surrounding the challenges to evolution – as part of studying the history of science, for example.
But at a time when American high school students rank 27th among students from developed nations in scientific literacy, and in the face of environmental crisis and economic uncertainty, the U.S. can’t afford for biology classrooms to be church-state war zones.
The Texas state board got it right: Encourage students to evaluate scientific theories, but make sure they learn how to do so using the scientific method.
Love him or hate him, 200 years after Charles Darwin’s birth his theory of evolution has largely won the day in the world of science – forever changing how we understand ourselves and the world around us.
But with religious opposition still at a fever pitch, Darwin is likely to remain a figure of controversy and conflict far into the future. After all, it took 400 years for Galileo to get his apology.