Oct 21 2007

From Scopes to Dover-1: Overview

I have always been interested in the law, especially constitutional law. And given my interest in the subject of evolution, I was intrigued by how the teaching of that subject has been, at least in the US, the focus of so many court cases, involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the US constitution. This week begins a fairly long series of posts that attempts to clarify this issue, although the series will be interrupted from time to time with posts on other topics.

It is almost impossible to think of the evolution-religion controversy (or the larger science-religion issue) in America without immediately thinking of the famous ‘Scopes monkey trial’ of 1925, where a high school teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the state of Tennessee. That event has become a touchstone, framing the issue in a way that is hard to shake off.

In some ways this is odd because that case played only a very minor role legally, setting no legal precedent. I recently read two books God v. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law by Marci A. Hamilton (2005) and Separation of Church and State by Philip Hamburger (2002) that dealt solely with the relationship between church and state and neither even mentioned the Scopes case. Yet, because of a curious confluence of factors, the shadow of the Scopes trial has hovered over all subsequent public discussions of the teaching of evolution in schools in a way that is completely disproportional to the actual legal significance of the case.

Because the legal questions surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools are a fascinating subject in their own right, it is easy to forget that the real underlying questions extend beyond mere legalities and raise fundamental, difficult, and yet unanswered, questions about the relationship of individuals to their government in a democratic society. In this case the question is: Who gets to determine what should be taught in public schools? Should it be the community which funds the schools, through their elected representatives to schools boards and state and national legislatures? Should it be the subject matter experts in the disciplines being taught? Should it be professional educators like teachers, principals, and professors in schools of education?

If one takes the view that since it is the community that pays for the schools through their taxes, that they should be the ones who determine the curriculum, then how far is one willing to take that idea? Is the ‘community’ defined purely by the local community that is directly served by those schools or should the larger groupings in which it is embedded, such as state and national governments, also have a say? What if a local school board is dominated by members of one religious sect that seeks to teach its own version of religion-based science or history to all students in the school, overriding any and all minority views? What if the local school board wants to teach something that is flatly rejected by the community of experts in that field of study, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old? What if they want to teach a version of history that is rejected by professional historians but inculcates in their students their sense of racial or regional pride? Should local bodies be allowed to do that?

In other words, should we adopt a majoritarian point of view and say that local communities absolutely do have the right to determine what should be taught and that the only recourse of the minority is to try and obtain redress through the ballot box?

On the other hand, if we dislike that approach, do we really want to adopt a purely technocratic attitude that says that local communities should abdicate their right to determine what their children should be taught and delegate it to content experts? Isn’t there a danger that in doing so we are creating an elitist technocracy that could, in the long run, undermine the democratic ideal?

Such tricky questions were less likely to arise in the past in the US when the communities involved were smaller, more homogeneous, less sensitive to the needs of minorities, and where the primary purpose of public (or ‘common’) schools was seen primarily as religious education. Indeed in the early days of Western science, even the scientific communities believed in the divine revelation of nature as taught in the Bible and could not envisage any contradiction between the two. The role of scientists and other scholars was seen to be to explain how god had done what he had said he had done in the infallible religious texts.

But starting with Copernicus and Galileo, that role for science became harder to sustain, and it was inevitable that scientists would, at least tacitly if not overtly. cut their ties with religion and start pursuing lines of inquiry that did not seek or require consistency with religious doctrines. The tremendous success of science that followed the Enlightenment validated this approach and it then became seen as the task of theologians to try and modify their beliefs about god to make them consistent with rapid advances in scientific knowledge. This caused a split within the religious community between those who adopted a ‘modernist’ approach and those who adopted a ‘fundamentalist’ approach. Both agreed that scientific truths and religious truths had to be consistent. But modernists argued that in any apparent conflict that arose between scientific truths and religious truths, it is religious truth that must undergo reinterpretation to re-achieve consistency, while the fundamentalists feared that such reinterpretations would destroy the credibility of the Bible by making it seem less than infallible. The fundamentalists wanted to draw lines in the sand beyond which they were not willing to compromise their beliefs. If science crossed those lines, they were unwilling to move the lines as the modernist theologians tended to do but fought to try and force science to return behind the lines.

Where those lines were drawn depended on the individual and there were many such lines at play: the age of the Earth, the age of the universe, the origin of new species, the common ancestor of humans and apes, the creation of the soul, and so on.

It was the theory of evolution that seemed, at least in the US, to be a kind Maginot line for many religious believers, the line that they would defend at all costs. As a result, this arena is where the high profile science-religion battles have been fought, starting with the Scopes trial.

In this series of posts, we examine the history of the legal battles over the teaching of evolution in schools (which itself is embedded in the broader question of the role of religion in schools), starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the 2005 trial in Dover, PA. As we see how the various cases were decided, the creation of various constitutional precedents, the evolution of legal reasoning, and the setting of the parameters of the decision making process, it is good to bear in mind that all these issues revolve around that single fundamental question: Who gets to decide what is taught in public schools?

POST SCRIPT: Interview on Machines Like Us

The indefatigable Norm Nason, the man behind the wonderful website Machines Like Us which serves as a gateway to the latest scientific developments, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (AL), conducted an interview with me where we explored some of my views and their origins.

You can read the interview here.

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