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5 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

WITH PAT BUCHANAN SOUNDING OFF on everything from abortion to foreign aid, it’s perhaps not surprising that he would have something to say about science as well. He’s not descended from monkeys, the presidential candidate told Sam Donaldson on ABC’s This Week, and he doesn’t think children should be taught that they are. “I believe you’re a creature of God,” he said. “I think [parents] have a right to insist that Godless evolution not be taught to their children or their children not be indoctrinated in it.”

Nearly 140 years after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, that message still has remarkably broad appeal. Polls consistently show that nearly half of all Americans reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. They prefer to believe, against all scientific evidence, the Old Testament account of how God created the world in seven days.

The Constitution protects their right to express that view, of course. But in decisions dating back at least 30 years, courts have ruled that the separation of church and state forbids religious groups to make the Bible part of the public-school curriculum. That hasn’t stopped folks from trying. Rather than teach Genesis in the classroom, however, they now try to discredit evolution by teaching seemingly scientific but subtly Bible-based alternatives.

It’s a tactic that appears to be working. Just last week the Tennessee state assembly voted on a bill that would require schools to fire teachers who present evolution as if it were a scientific fact. (The measure, which had been expected to pass, was sent back to committee.) Similarly, the school board of Hall County, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, ruled last month that teachers must put forward a variety of theories on the origin of life, not just evolution. Beginning next fall, all biology textbooks in Alabama must have a disclaimer inserted stating that evolution is a “controversial theory” accepted by “some scientists.” And school boards in Washington State and Ohio are considering adopting a textbook titled Of Pandas and People, which contains something that would make an evolutionist squirm on virtually every page.

The new approach dates to a landmark 1987 Supreme Court ruling. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the court overturned a Louisiana law that required creationism to be taught alongside evolution. At the same time, it opened a creationist loophole by stipulating that schools could teach “a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind.” That sounds reasonable. If scientists argue about the merits of one theory as opposed to another, why shouldn’t anti-evolutionists be able to present their side of the controversy in the classroom?

The reason, scientists say, is that there is no controversy, except among Bible literalists. It’s true that evolution is “just a theory.” So is Einstein’s theory of relativity, the theory of plate tectonics and the theory of subatomic particles. Yet no one argues that teachers should present alternatives to these ideas, for the simple reason that no good alternatives exist. All these theories have unanswered questions, and any of them might someday be overturned by a new idea that explains the facts better. But at the moment, no other is even close.

The same goes for evolution, as the overwhelming majority of biologists, and most theologians, agree. The only dispute comes from a small, vociferous band of religiously motivated scholars who focus on evolution’s admitted inconsistencies and ignore its powerful insights. Much of this debate is generated by the California-based Institute for Creation Research, founded in 1975 to bring people “back to Genesis.”

The institute’s eight full-time staff members, all Ph.D.s, spend much of their time lecturing to church groups, attending seminars and participating in campus debates. Among their favorite talking points: that Earth is only 10,000 years old at most, not 4.5 billion years, so evolution has had no time to occur (nonsense, say geologists); that DNA molecules could never have arisen without the involvement of an “intelligent agent” (unsupported speculation, say chemists); that there is no evidence for intermediate forms that would prove one species can evolve into another (untrue, say paleontologists); and that huge gaps in the fossil record mean species arose fully developed with no antecedents (the gaps are real but the interpretation bogus, say biologists).

Scientists may be able to demolish these points, but conservative local school boards still use them to justify equal-time requirements for ideas like the “intelligent-design theory” espoused in Of Pandas and People. The book’s authors, like most modern-day anti-evolutionists, are careful to distance themselves from the Bible: a note at the end of their text explains that intelligent design differs from sectarian religion because it makes no explicit mention of a global flood, a young Earth or the existence of God. The notion that the world’s complexity bespeaks deliberate design is intuitively appealing. But while it’s a legitimate religious belief or philosophical speculation, scientists insist it isn’t science and shouldn’t be taught as such.

Faced with a requirement to teach creationism and evolution side by side, many teachers are opting to skip both, says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “That’s like trying to teach chemistry without using the periodic table,” she says. “And every time that happens, it’s a victory for creation science.”

–Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York

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