Evolution and Science in the Public Schools

by Catherine Roberts
[Adapted from a letter written in October 1989 at the request of a member of the California Board of Education who read it at a meeting of the Board. Catherine Roberts, microbiologist and geneticist, received her Ph.D. in 1943 at the University of California, Berkeley. She was also a Platonist. After fifteen years of research at the Carlsberg Laboratorium in Copenhagen, she gave up her work in that field to devote her talents to writing against current scientific practices with particular reference to laboratory animals exploited for medical research. Among her published works are The Scientific Conscience (1967), Science, Animals, and Evolution (1980), as well as numerous articles in scientific and philosophical journals. Catherine Roberts died on April 12, 1993.]

The California State Board of on January 13, 1989, adopted a policy statement on the teaching of natural sciences which makes discussion of any religious view on the origin and evolution of life inappropriate for the science classroom, but suitable for the history/social science and language/art curricula. This may be said not to disparage religion but to relegate it to its "proper" place. Yet such an attempt to create an unbridgeable gap between science and religion, made in part in the hope of ending the long educational controversy between evolutionists and creationists, merely supports the secular view that science, being based upon observable facts and testable hypotheses, is a more valid form of teachable knowledge than the dogmatic, unverifiable beliefs of religion.

Now an important proposal has been put forward, to consider evolution as the foundation of biology and to make it the center of the science framework for California public schools. [The Science Framework for California Public Schools was adopted by the State Board of Education on November 9, 1989.] The geological and paleontological records reveal that life on this planet has evolved with time from simple to more complex forms. Biological evolution is not, however, an easily teachable subject. Science teachers have to deal with the incompleteness of the fossil record and the inability of scientists to account satisfactorily for the mechanism of evolution in the successive emergence of new species. Although Darwin's theory of natural selection has since been supplemented by results from a large number of morphological, genetic, and chemical investigations of life forms, not all scientists today accept neo-Darwinism as the explanation of the evolutionary process. Based partly on observational facts acquired in the field and in the laboratory and partly on hypotheses which may or may not be true, modern evolutionary theory represents both scientific truth and scientific speculation that is continually being expanded or modified by new evidence and new ideas.

Aware that natural science, with its many unverified evolutionary hypotheses, does not have the final answers to evolutionary problems, the State's educational policy holds that while students need to be informed of major trends of scientific thought, they need not accept everything that is taught in the natural science curriculum. At the same time it emphatically prohibits dogmatic teaching of any field of knowledge by compelling acceptance of beliefs that are not amenable to scientific verification or refutation. It is as though these educators, envisaging a possible prolongation of irreconcilable conflict between scientific and religious worldviews, wish to protect students learning about evolution from the danger of science teachers or textbooks using the word "divine." Apparently, when evolution is taught as secular fact and theory derived from scientific principles alone, students are expected to attain the fullest understanding now possible of what has happened in the biosphere since life began here some three and one half billion years ago. One need not be a creationist to have strong reasons for objecting to this position: anyone convinced of the existence of a human-divine relationship has cause to protest.

In this new age of spiritual awakening, it is becoming increasingly obvious that natural science and religion are not mutually exclusive areas of human thought and activity. Human understanding of the evolution of life is depending more and more upon our ability to recognize the inseparable link that exists between biological considerations and spiritual questions of ultimate cause and purpose. A science framework for public schools that attempts to explain how a living process works without giving any thought to where it is going or even why it exists at all can hardly promote full understanding in the late twentieth century. And as time goes on, the science teacher can be expected to feel morally obligated to provide young minds with certain religious perspectives on evolving life to supplement, enlarge, and enlighten scientific facts and hypotheses. Such perspectives involve something quite different from the specific doctrine of special creation, reaching out instead to the common spiritual essence of religions.

In contrast to natural science, religion and religious philosophy hold that evolving life has indeed a purpose — to aspire to self-transcendence by centering thought and activity ever more closely upon divine reality. Spiritual purpose of this kind would seem to be a prerogative of Homo sapiens, as many religions have long supposed. Yet if science is right about the essential oneness of evolving life, it is possible that life's spiritual aspirations had their primitive beginnings in nonhuman species and may have been a significant factor in evolution. Speculation of this kind represents life looking at life, man attempting to understand his origin, nature, and development, which he cannot do if science curtails his vision by deliberately ignoring life's spiritual aspects. That the evolution of life is a spiritual as well as a biological process is a widespread religious doctrine that scientists and science teachers need to keep in mind. Although unverified by objective scientific principles, it is valid evolutionary speculation that belongs in the natural science curriculum.

In 1982 Robert Muller, then Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated that, "Science in my view is part of the spiritual process; it is a transcendence and elevation of the human race into an ever vaster knowledge and consciousness of the universe and of its unfathomable, divine character." In reading these words, I made the marginal notation "not yet." Biology, at least, cannot become an essential part of the spiritual process before it is willing to unite with the essence of religion and religious philosophies in searching for further truths about life.

To provide the public schools with a science framework that can ensure the most complete understanding of evolution, we need to look beyond the evolutionist/creationist controversy to the wider vistas that more perfectly syncretize the scientific and the spiritual. To do so requires cognizance of the streams of new ideas relating to evolution and the inevitable transformation of science, particularly the science of life. Some of these ideas are actually not new at all. For example, the spiritual wisdom of ancient cultures is said to be the source of current theosophical ideas about the origin and nature of life and about the coming convergence of science, religion, and philosophy. Although the many detailed speculations of theosophy on how life evolved on earth may not all point directly towards the truth, its spiritual perception of the whole purposeful sweep of the evolutionary processes is of extraordinary beauty and rings true. So does the majestic evolutionary vision which Arthur Young brought forth in 1976. These, as well as more recent views on life and the sciences of life, are too important to be neglected by educators concerned with teaching evolution in the public schools.


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(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)


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