Battles over science in general, and evolution in particular, tend not to reflect concerns about science, but about society more generally. Ever since Darwin there has been a small corps of people interested in attacking evolution, but noteworthy public crusades arise only periodically. They erupt most intensely at times when the culture is changing in ways that many find confusing and disconcerting — the Roaring '20s, the 1960s and today. Scientists must continue to carry out their educational mission, but evolution will disappear from the headlines only when the whole constellation of social issues that animate the religious right recedes from public concern.
Second, the panelists tiptoed around the fact that scientific discovery can genuinely undermine religious beliefs. The focus of the panel was on teaching evolution, but discoveries in genetics and neuroscience are likely to be far more problematic in the long run. The two fields are verging on drawing the ultimate materialist picture of human nature — humans as nothing more than proteins and electrical impulses, all machine and no ghost, to play off Descartes' formulation. This view will challenge not only fundamentalist views about the soul, but more widely held notions about what it means to be a person. That will further complicate age-old questions about the nature of individual responsibility and morality.
Responding to these issues will be difficult for scientists and non-scientists alike. New discoveries about the human genome and neuroscience will no doubt be clearly linked to potential medical advances, but they may also raise new questions about what kinds of interventions are appropriate. The conundrums may leave even atheists longing for some theological guidance on how to decide what is moral. And wandering about this uncharted territory may make the well-rehearsed battles over evolution seem like the good old days.