The most disturbing part of the board's debate on all of the versions was the clear suggestion from the majority of the board that one could not believe in both God and evolution-or, for that matter, in both God and science. Devout people-including many scientists-who find no conflict between their religion and their beliefs in evolution have been deeply offended by the board's action, feeling that it is an attempt to impose the religious views of the majority of the board on others. The fact that an incompatibility between science and religion has been rejected by Pope John Paul II, most Jewish theologians, and the majority of mainline Protestant denominations seemed not to affect the board's decision.
The repudiation of the board's standards has been international, and deeply humiliating to proud Kansans. Salman Rushdie, writing in Toronto's The Globe and Mail, summarized the argument: "Thus, in one pan of the scales we now have General Relativity, the Hubble telescope, and all the imperfect but painstakingly accumulated learning of the human race, and, in the other, the Book of Genesis. In Kansas, the scales balance." Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Time magazine, said the Kansas board "transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, `They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real world anymore.'" Bill Graves, the governor of Kansas, called the board's actions "a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist." Wags say the board solved Kansas's Y2K problem by turning the clock back to Y1K.
What has been overlooked in all the commotion is the philosophical premise underlying the thinking of the majority of the board. I believe that it wishes to destroy the idea that the public schools should be a source of truth or certainty. Whereas educational institutions-especially colleges and universities-define their mission as the pursuit of truth, the majority of the board seems to believe that the only sources of truth or certainty are the church and the family. According to that view, family values are expressed as the family's right to determine what a child shall believe, and religious values are expressed as theological beliefs that schools must accommodate. If scientific evidence conflicts with those religious beliefs, science must be rejected, no matter the weight of the evidence.
The irony of this position is worth contemplating. By rejecting scientific facts, and using the term "theory" in its lay meaning of speculation, rather than in its scientific meaning of an understanding that develops from observation, experimentation, and reflection, the Kansas Board of Education is trying to use the integrity of science to destroy science. If all science is "theory," then its uncertainty demotes it, and there is no question of its inferiority to religious faith.
Most scientists, of course, believe that science is never fully certain and complete, and that new truths lie just around the corner, somewhere in the next experiment or observation. But that hardly means that scientific theories-incorporating facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses-are not truths that can be used to explain the natural world. Evolution is still the central unifying concept of biology-and that is an understanding that schools and universities must teach if education is to maintain its continuous search for biological truth.
When one reaches that level of abstraction, and sees what is at stake in the argument, one understands why the board has been willing to risk such notoriety. Its actions attack a basic premise of public schools and universities in the United States: that public education should be pursued in a secular setting, as the Constitution requires.
Philosophical disputes aside, what happens next? Most Kansans believe that the next election of members to the Board of Education, in the fall of 2000, will result in a new, moderate majority and a return to sound science and support for the teaching of evolution. That would take care of Kansas's problems. What about the rest of the nation? If we as academics believe in the Constitution, which says that church and state should be separate, and if we believe that the attempts to undermine the teaching of science grow from a misunderstanding of scientific principles, a mistaken notion that one must choose between God and science, and a desire to undermine public education's mission of teaching truth, then we should lead a crusade for science education across the country. We need to show support for science teachers, many of whom are feeling beleaguered, and we need to educate our students to understand the public role of science.