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Evolution Revolution

Scientists and educators fear conservative political muscle could force religious ideology into public-school classrooms

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When Arizona Sen. Karen Johnson (R-Mesa) co-sponsored a bill that would've required the state's science teachers "to present evidence that supports and evidence that does not support the theory of evolution," she received a flood of supportive e-mails.

"They were the best and nicest letters from people saying, 'We're so happy that you're finally taking this on,'" Johnson says, reflectively. The bill made it out of committee during that year, 2000, even after heated testimony from scientists. Then, extinction.

"University professors went wild," Johnson recalls. "They were livid that we would question this theory. They showed no willingness at all to have balance. ... The bill got clobbered."

Though Johnson has no immediate plans to sponsor new science-education bills this year, she agrees with some who say a changing political climate could encourage new efforts to get anti-evolution materials into public schools.

In a poll conducted after November's elections, CBS News found that 55 percent of Americans believed the standard creationist idea that "God created humans in present form." Only 13 percent believed humans evolved without the help of an all-powerful creator. Of those who voted to re-elect Bush, 67 percent believed in special creation by God--and half of the Bush backers surveyed said they'd support replacing the teaching of evolution with creationism in public-school curriculums.

To Johnson, a Christian fundamentalist, the teaching of evolution in the schools isn't simply unfair; it could be "faith-destroying," she says.

"It's hard for me to understand how evolution can get put into school science programs and get stuffed down the throats of those who don't want to hear it and who don't believe it anyway," Johnson says. "Children should choose what they want to believe. ... Science is basically the search for truth. The opposite of truth is myth. In my opinion, evolution is a myth. Those who adhere to the evolutionary theory, it's like a religion for them."

When Johnson talks to constituents, she's often struck by how few accept evolution.

"I can only find a few who think (the) theory of evolution has any merit," she says, "like professors at universities."


Indeed, the majority of America's university professors aren't willing to see evolutionary theory supplanted or confounded by religious mythology in the guise of scientific creationism.

After creation scientists rounded up a spurious group of scientists to sign a statement claiming evolutionary theory was in trouble, the staff of the National Center for Science Education decided to have a little fun with the idea.

In 2003, NCSE launched its "200 scientists named Steve agree" effort. More than 220 scientists with PhDs--including two Nobel Prize winners, eight members of the National Academy of Sciences and many authors of scientific texts--signed the group's statement: "There is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to 'intelligent design,' to be introduced into the science curricula of the public schools."

To clearly communicate the satire--scientific truth isn't arrived at through petitions or opinion polls--only scientists named "Steve" or "Stephanie" were allowed to sign the statement. That represents about 1 percent of the science community, according to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

"Creationists are fond of amassing lists of PhDs who deny evolution to try to give the false impression that evolution is somehow on the verge of being rejected by the scientific community," says Scott. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."

Scott, a physical anthropologist, has been researching, speaking and actively fighting to keep religion out of science education for more than 20 years. She addresses legislative bodies, school boards and universities, talking about how the strategies of creationists have changed in order to gain acceptance from the scientific community and, especially, to get anti-evolutionary materials into public schools.

On the cutting edge of this effort is the "intelligent design" movement. Gone is talk of God and the Bible; proponents instead argue that the universe was crafted by intelligent, orderly forces--whether gods or extraterrestrials--of inexplicable origin.

Scott calls intelligent design "new wine in old bottles"--an evolved form of creationism.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an equal-time provision for teaching creationism in public schools in 1987, anti-evolutionists scrambled to find ways to get material into classrooms, says Scott. Now, proposals for science curriculum revisions are packaged as "critical thinking" or "teaching the controversy."

Intelligent design proponents argue for the teaching of " the strengths and weaknesses of evolution," similar to the wording of Johnson's bill at the Arizona Legislature in 2000.

This sounds logical and not explicitly religious, Scott says.

"Ask the average person on the street, 'Should we be teaching strengths and weaknesses of evolution?' They're going to say, 'Sure.' Ask them, 'Should we teach the strengths and weaknesses of heliocentrism?' And they'll say, 'Sure.'"

But ask a scientist about the "strengths and weaknesses of heliocentrism"--the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and you'll get a blank stare.

"There aren't any alternatives to the Earth going around the Sun," Scott says. "Ask a biologist about the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, and you'll get that same blank look."

With intelligent design, gone are the controversies that made scientific creationism untenable.

"They avoid fact claims like the Grand Canyon being cut by Noah's flood or the Earth being 10,000 years old," Scott says. "Intelligent-design proponents make virtually no fact claims whatsoever and that gives them a more bullet-proof position."

Intelligent-design advocates package their message so well that even educators misconstrue evolution, considering it somehow controversial.

"There is no debate within science over whether evolution happened, only how it happened," says Scott. "To dissemble to students that there is an actual controversy going on is mis-educating them and also lying to them."

This can lead to some science teachers avoiding the subject altogether. But not teaching evolution in, say, a biology class is like skipping the Periodic Table of Elements in a chemistry class, Scott says.

"(Evolution) is what makes biology make sense, what ties together the facts that we know," Scott says. "If you don't have that substratum of common descent, you're just memorizing words."


Mathematician William Dembski, a leader in the intelligent-design community, never gets tired of debate.

"This is what I was made for," he says. "I'm charged ... I enjoy the rough and tumble of debate."

Dembski, a researcher at a religious university in Waco, Texas, has degrees in philosophy, mathematics, statistics and theology. He argues that intelligent design is not, as his critics contend, "pseudo-science" or "creationism in a cheap tuxedo."

Intelligent design functions at "a purely scientific level," Dembski says, referencing his books, Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. "You're looking for scientific detectability of intelligence in the natural world."

This search for a designer goes deeper than science--and involves the way humans view the world, he says.

"The elite in our culture are materialistic and atheistic," Dembski says. "Intelligent design challenges their materialistic science and materialistic evolutionary theory. If you look at discipline after discipline, it's been evolutionized--medicine, business, religion, literature. ... If we are right, all these superstructures built on evolution need to be questioned."

In September, Dembski and other design experts met at a conference in New Mexico--"Darwin, Design and Democracy V." They discussed, among other things, strategies for working intelligent design ideas into public school curriculums.

Challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools are on the table in Kansas, Missouri and South Carolina. In suburban Atlanta, a higher court ruling negated a school district's 2002 adoption of a warning sticker for science textbooks that labeled evolution as "theory, not a fact." In Dover, Pa., last month, the local school board voted that science teachers must inform students of the existence of "alternatives" to Darwin's theory.

These days, more than 80 years after the famed Scopes trial that ended a ban on teaching evolution in public schools, the topic is hotter than ever. Stories about evolution have been featured recently in Time, Newsweek, Wired and The New York Times.

In October, National Geographic ran a cover story by author and island biogeographer David Quammen, "Was Darwin Wrong?"

Quammen's answer: "No."

"If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that (evolution) is 'just' a theory," Quammen wrote. He listed other "theories"--the notion that Earth orbits the sun, continental drift, the existence of atoms and electricity. "Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact."

In The Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote, "When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei ("The voice of the people is the voice of God"), as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science."

Though science is not democratic, appealing to a broad swath of spiritually needy humankind is what advocates of intelligent design do best.

"Increasingly, people with any sense of religious sensibilities believe there's an underlying purpose to the world," Dembski, an evangelical protestant, says. "Intelligent design is the only view opposed to the reductionist materialism that prevails in the academy and in the scientific view of the elites of the culture. Most of the unwashed masses, and I count myself among them, believe there's a sense of purpose. We're giving a voice to those people, saying 'The science backs you up.'"

Like those ancient critics of heliocentrism, Dembski references common sense to prove a design inference.

Say you're driving through South Dakota, Dembski says as example, and you come upon a rock formation with the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.

"Are you going to think to yourself, 'Did wind and erosion do that?' No. But that's what the Darwinists are saying, that natural forces brought about this complexity. Obviously, Mount Rushmore is the result of intelligence."

The idea that the complexity of a human cell can only be the work of an intelligent designer harkens back to 18th-century Christian philosopher William Paley, who came up with the watch metaphor for intelligent design. A watch, Paley argued, was so intricate, "so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day" that it could not result from chance. "The watch must have had a maker," Paley wrote in Natural Theology.

The problem with Paley's argument was as evident to Darwin in the 19th century as it is to scientists today, who point to the evidence of the fossil record and its evidence of transitions from simple organisms to much more complex organisms. A cell is not a watch.

Paley's ideas were given some consideration in the 1800s, but by the beginning of the 20th century, he'd been thoroughly discredited, explains Karl Flessa, a professor of geoscience at the UA.

In his college paleontology course, Flessa includes a lecture on creation science. In it, he explains--with respect for divergent religious beliefs--why creationism and intelligent design are "junk-science."

"There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that indicates that all life is related through a system of ancestry and descent, that new species form out of old ones, that natural selection is effective in shaping organisms," he tells students. "Debate continues on some aspects of mechanisms, but no one doubts that evolution has occurred."

Flessa carefully examines and discredits creationist fallacies. For example, creationists invoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that disorder increases over time in a closed system, to argue against evolution. However, explains Flessa, the Earth is not a closed system, as it gets energy from the Sun.

As for the claim that amino acids, proteins, organs, and life itself are much too complicated to have come about through chance processes, "No one says they formed through chance," Flessa says, "only that they formed step by step, rather than a single, full assembly of a human from raw chemicals."

Flessa isn't trying to rob students of their religious beliefs--far from it. Many religions accept evolution.

"There are lots and lots of Christians who have absolutely no problem with evolution," Flessa says.

Roman Catholics teach evolution in their schools. A papal decree in the 1950s, reiterated since, allows that evolution is compatible with Christianity, that science and religion need not be at odds. Many Catholics believe in a creator or intelligent designer called God; yet they don't need to apply a literal reading of Bible's creation story in Genesis. The mechanism of natural selection poses no challenge to their faith.

Not so for fundamentalist Christians.

"We're looking at one portion of one religion that seems to want to structure this portion of science education," Flessa says. "They're not going after continental drift. They don't want to teach alternatives to the spherical Earth theory.

"They feel threatened by (evolution), as if it's a threat to fundamentalist Christianity," Flessa continues, "because they read the Bible as a scientific textbook."

Flessa tells his students that he has "no trouble if someone believes, as a matter of religious faith, that the universe, Earth and life were created in six days.

But "I do have trouble," he adds, "if someone wants to claim that such views are scientific, that there is evidence in the rocks and fossils for them, or that such views should be presented as science in public schools."

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