There’s a lot to find puzzling in the ongoing controversy in Cobb County over the evolution disclaimer stickers that a federal judge has declared unconstitutional – in violation of both the Georgia and the U.S. Constitutions.
But the part I have the hardest time fathoming is why a group of officials, elected to run a public school system, allows itself to be hijacked by a small but vocal group of zealots pushing a very narrow religious agenda.
Somehow the fundamentalists have managed to convince the school board that anyone who opposes science-book stickers that call evolution “a theory not a fact” is a heathen, an infidel, a godless wretch. It’s hard to understand why these school board members, who are appealing the court ruling, are unwilling to stand up for education.
Sharon Radford is an old friend, a science teacher at Paideia School, the 1992 National Association of Biology Teachers “Biology Teacher of the Year” and an NABT director.
Where does she start, I asked her, with a classroom full of high school biology students?
“I start with the acknowledgement that religion and science are two different ways of looking at things.” In this class, she tells them, “We’re going to talk about science.”
Both religion and science are important in human life, she says. “But you don’t look for religion in your science textbook. You don’t look for religious truths. And you don’t look for scientific truth in your religion texts. People who try to bolster their religion with science – I wonder about their religion. A religion is something that you take on faith.”
Take the biblical story of Noah and the flood. “The story has religious truth in it,” Sharon says. “You do not have to find the remnants of a boat on Mount Ararat to prove that it has religious truth: God will punish you if you misbehave. That is a religious truth and needs no scientific bolstering.”
In some beginning classes she may have to explain what a scientific theory is. “Unfortunately, the word theory has a colloquial meaning,” she says. “I have a theory that it’s going to be sunny tomorrow…that’s not what I mean. I really mean I have a hypothesis.
“In science, a theory is a statement that pulls together information from a lot of different sources, like the cell theory – all living things are made of cells or cell products and cells come from pre-existing cells.
“The theory of evolution unites evidence from embryology, biogeography, homology – structures, protein sequences, DNA sequences. And every time we’ve gotten some new techniques we test them, and it [evolution] seems to explain it all. It does explain it all. Scientists argue about…maybe it wasn’t all the way natural selection, maybe it was something in addition to that. Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean that scientists doubt evolution. Scientists are just thinking about the mechanism.
“Science doesn’t deal with questions like why. It deals with how or what. There is the question of where does this matter come from. Science stops there. Physicists talk about the Big Bang, and there’s a lot of evidence for that. But…was there a step before that? Where did that energy come from? Where did that mass come from?
“There’s plenty of room for religion. Evolution is not a religion.”
One of the things intelligent-design proponents like to say, in framing their arguments, is that you can’t build a mousetrap with less than five pieces. “But you can,” she says. “It’s not a wonderful mousetrap, but you can do it.
“That’s the whole point about evolution. If things did not fall from each other, if there were not a common ancestor, things would be put together a whole lot differently. We would not have the respiratory [system] and the digestive tract crossed, for example. That’s a terrible design, but lungs developed from air bladders, which used to not be connected to the outside.
“When you know a fair amount about science and molecular biology and genes and genotypes and selection and the fact that DNA is the genetic material for us and amoebas and oak trees and whatever,” Sharon says, “to me that makes God much more grand than [simply some Being who says], ‘Zap! You’re a giraffe.'”
Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend.