SCHOOL textbooks have become the latest forum for the continuing debate between advocates of modern scientific teaching about evolution and exponents of Biblical literalism. In 1985, the state of California, which heavily influences the way textbooks are shaped, rejected science books that incompletely and unclearly taught the scientific view of evolution. New guidelines were set up requiring textbooks publishers to treat contemporary scientific views more thoroughly.
Last week, however, California - influenced by religious conservatives - backed off somewhat from its earlier position by removing a number of references to evolution in its textbook guidelines, including the statement that evolution is a ``scientific fact.'' In a compromise, new language describes evolution as ``both a fact and a theory.'' This is a political concession to those who believe in creationism and want it taught in public schools.
Educational policies should not be governed solely by a majoritarian view - scientific or otherwise. Nor should those policies be captive to narrow sectarian interests. Religion needs to be respected. But doctrinal teachings have no place in the public classroom.
Science ought to be clearly stated within its own boundaries. Evolutionary theory has undergone dozens of refinements and reinterpretations. Students should be free to examine them, to think critically, and to understand scientific inquiry.
At the same time, physical science ought not to be presented, as it often is, as a final answer.
The most profound questions about modern science and religion, matter and spirit, the ultimate nature of man, God, and reality can't be adequately handled in a local eighth grade classroom, or a biology textbook.