SIXTY years ago, Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was on trial for violating the state's infamous ``monkey law,'' banning the teaching of evolution. Last week, the US Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling that found Louisiana's modern ``monkey law'' unconstitutional. It seemed a fitting, if merely coincidental, commemoration of the Scopes epic.
Once again, an aggressive effort to inject religion into the natural science classroom has been rejected as an unacceptable breach of the separation of church and state. But there is more to the distinction between science and religion or individual belief than this important legal issue. Metaphysical views of the universe
Some scientists -- especially those in the fields of physics and astrophysics -- take an essentially metaphysical view of the origin of the universe these days. Impressed with the simplicity and symmetry that physical research increasingly shows to underlie the laws of cosmic development, these scientists wonder if a guiding intelligence may be behind it all. But they speculate as individuals. Although they have an expert knowledge of some scientific field, they cannot invoke the authority of science to support their personal beliefs.
It is important for laymen and religious thinkers who are intrigued by these speculations to recognize this distinction between scientific knowledge and metaphysical extrapolation. Otherwise, there is danger that the authority of natural science will be improperly co-opted and scientific knowledge distorted to support particular religious views. This would be another version of the intellectual corruption represented by creationism, although it would not raise the church-state issue.
The Louisiana law -- unlike the old Tennessee law -- did not ban the teaching of evolution. It mandated equal classroom treatment for creation science, which is basically a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story dressed up in pseudoscientific clothes. As the circuit court noted, ``the act's intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief.'' The court ruled that this cannot be allowed in public-school science classes. Barring further appeal, the ruling may settle this particular church-state issue. But it does not settle the larger question of the intellectual validity of using scientific knowledge to support religious positions. Old argument gains new force