Freedom to Err: The Idea of Natural Selection in Politics, Schools, and Courts

Article excerpt

The biologists are surely correct who proclaim that "there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence."1 But worthy of their salute is the wisdom of President Jefferson that "error of opinion maybe tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it."2 Jefferson' s wisdom was uttered in response to the deep division between Anglophiles and Francophiles that seriously threatened the stability of the Republic he governed.3 It now serves to call into question the quoted biologists' next sentence stating that "[i]t is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to 'intelligent design,' to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools."4

Especially questionable is the wisdom of elite federal courts acting on the advice of such eminent biologists to invoke the Constitution ofthe United States to suppress minor scientific heresies uttered in the education of adolescents by their parents or their parents' surrogates. The tendency of leading scientists to depart from Jeffersonian tolerance of errors that reason might in time correct is a cause of needless conflicts between science and religious faith,5 and between the professional elite and citizens of lesser status,6 over the conduct of public education. The difficult task of managing such conflicts is one well left, insofar as possible, to parents, teachers, and the local school boards who represent them and, if necessary, to state boards of education, state law and state courts. The federal judiciary should strive to avoid engagement in disputes of such a profoundly intimate nature.

Perhaps intolerance of error is a trait nurtured in the professional training of scientists for it seems widespread. Biologist Sahotra Sarkar, for example, questions: "[S]hould the teaching of evolution be diluted in our biology classes?"7 And he answers with certainty: "Obviously not, if we want our science standards to be high."8 But high standards in science are not the only consideration to be taken into account in conducting public education of adolescents. Parents who desire to make marginal sacrifices in the quality of the biology instruction received by their adolescent children also have fundamental rights that deserve a reasonable measure of respect. And religious parents are not wrong to detect an anti-religious agenda in the utterances of some scientists9 and others who insist on the absolute value of science.10 The principle of natural selection does have deep implications other than its explanation of the evolution of species. It can threaten not only religious beliefs that parents are entitled to share with their offspring, but also other social and political values important to communities and to democratic government. For these reasons, state and local politicians are not wrong, or necessarily driven by improper religious impulses, when they express scientifically incorrect thoughts by seeking to add a grain of skepticism to the teaching of natural selection to adolescents required to attend public schools.


At the center of the current struggle between science and faith is the common school, an institutional idea to be briefly recalled here because its assimilating role is not always kept clearly in mind by the elite. Compulsory school attendance laws enacted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries aimed to require religious instruction leading to correct moral behavior.1 x But in the early decades ofthe nineteenth century, as common schools spread across the United States, diversity of beliefs and disbeliefs was a salient feature of the culture and was inevitably reflected in the governance of schools. 12 Hostile feelings on a scale comparable to those exchanged today between scientists and those of strong faith often divided Protestant sects,13 never mind the sentiments they shared about faithless Quakers14 and their like. …