by Sylvia Weinstein
In August, the year of Our Lord 1999, the Kansas state Board of Education passed a decision to delete any references to Darwin’s theory of evolution from the science curriculum in the Kansas public schools.
The Board of Education seems to have based its ruling on the basis that “events witnessed by humans can be known with certainty, and events not witnessed can only be guessed at.”
Of course, there will be plenty of fundamentalists who will swear they see Jesus behind every tree-and who are we to scoff at their eyewitness account?
Yet in one letter to the Aug. 16 New York Times, a Mr. Ben Normark says that the eyewitness account of the Kansas education board is dubious at best.
Normark points out that “this theory is surely as alien to historians, jurists, and every other kind of scientist as it is to evolutionary biologists. Even those who prefer teachers’ instructions to follow this theory might pause if judges followed suit, instructing juries to disregard DNA evidence, ballistics-indeed all forensic evidence-and routinely dismissed charges in all cases lacking eyewitnesses to the crime itself.”
Normark continues, “Virtually every advance in every field of inquiry since the invention of writing has relied on evidence other than eyewitness accounts, which have not themselves noticeably improved in reliability in the last few thousand years.”
Credit must be given to the teachers of science and biology in Kansas, most of whom say they will continue to teach evolution despite the decision of the Board of Education.
“If you take away evolution because it’s a theory, you can’t teach science,” said Steve Angel, a chemistry teacher who is president of the school board in Topeka and a member of the committee of experts whose standards were rewritten by the state board. “All of science is theory.”
So we are back to 1925 again to hash over the Scopes Trial. On July 10, 1925, in Dayton, Tenn., John Thomas Scopes, a teacher of science in Rhea high school, was charged with violating the Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching in public schools of any theories that deny the divine creation of human beings, as taught in the Bible.
Scopes, a biologist, had been teaching evolution. The basis for the sensational nature of the trial was laid by the increasing alarm of Christian fundamentalism over the challenge raised by science and evolutionary theory to a literal interpretation of the Scriptures.
The American Civil Liberties Union in New York City offered to defend any teacher who would personally test the constitutionality of the Tennessee statute by his or her classroom teaching. Assured of support, Scopes formally violated the law, and the public prosecutor in Dayton indicted him.
The case and its lawyers captured the attention of the press and it became a national issue. The two lawyers were William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer of his generation, for the defense.
The judge prevented any testing of the civil liberties issue of the constitutionally of the law or any testimony as to the validity of the doctrine of evolution. The sole relevant issue, said the judge, was whether Scopes had actually taught evolution. Scopes said he certainly had.
Bryan made the serious mistake of letting Darrow get him on the witness stand. Darrow examined Bryan on his beliefs on fundamentalism and on science. The examination, perhaps Darrow’s most animated and sarcastic courtroom performance, was devastating to Bryan. In fact, Bryan died five days after the trial ended.
However, Scopes was convicted and fined $100. The defense appealed the case to the state supreme court. In 1927, the court upheld the constitutionality of the 1923 law but cleared Scopes on a technicality.
So teachers of Kansas, if you want to teach the truth and try to open students’ eyes to exploring the great wealth of science-be prepared to go to trial!
The world needs teachers who dare to improve the minds of their students. The world needs minds that are not blinded by religious fundamentalism.