For an illustration of how the theory of evolution by natural selection works, one could do worse than to examine the evolution of the theory’s opponents. After all, anti-evolutionists have been around since the publication of The Origin of Species, and the original generation of creationists spawned innumerable progeny that have adapted to a variety of environments. The United States has proved to be an especially welcoming habitat, one where creationists have mutated and flourished. Even when they have experienced setbacks, such as adverse Supreme Court rulings, creationists have survived with their beliefs intact, exerting a strong pressure on public education in the United States. A new book titled Not in Our Classrooms, a collection of essays by science educators, biologists, and lawyers, offers a useful overview of the ever-evolving movement to boot Darwin from the classroom.
The succession of terms employed by creationists to characterize their brand of so-called science can be difficult to follow. Over the years, it has included “creation science,” “special creationism,” and, most recently, “intelligent design” (ID). ID, which has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s, argues that life is too complex to have evolved without the guidance of a conscious agent. Though the movement’s philosophy is vague and its proponents have published no solid research in serious peer-reviewed scientific journals, ID has nonetheless seized the imagination of the latest generation of would-be creationists. As recently as September 2006, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, a Republican, expressed his interest in “ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory.” And in Ohio, the November election for the state board of education—not usually a political barnburner—recently received attention from publications as far away as The New York Times. Five of the board’s 19 seats were up for grabs, and the defining issue dividing the candidates was whether intelligent-design theory should be introduced into the curriculum. (The creationists wound up losing that round.)
While ID continues to make its way through courts and local elections, anti-evolutionists, fearing setbacks, are transitioning to yet another offshoot of creationism: “critical analysis.” The term may sound vague or harmless. In fact, as far as creationists are concerned, that’s the idea. But it emphasizes the idea that evolution is a “theory,” not a “fact,” and should be scrutinized as such. This, of course, is technically true. However, it intentionally blurs the difference between the word “theory” as used in two different contexts: one quotidian, the other scientific. In daily life, a theory can refer to anything from a decent guess to a silly fantasy. In science, on the other hand, a “theory” can refer to an explanation supported by such an overwhelming body of evidence and experimental findings that virtually no professional scientist doubts its validity. Just as physicists assume the correctness of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—and, in fact, send men and objects into outer space trusting in its reliability—so, too, the vast majority of biologists sees evolution as established science.
With “critical analysis,” creationists evidently hope to sow enough doubts in people’s minds to convince them that the theory of evolution should be treated with more skepticism than it currently is. Once that has been achieved, then, presumably, material once off-limits could again make it through the gates: little-known theories that supposedly undermine evolution, for instance, or natural wonders supposedly too miraculous for evolution to explain (like the human eye, an ever-popular creationist example), or instances of disagreement about specific evolutionary mechanisms that would be magnified and presented as evidence against the theory itself. Taken together, the thinking goes, all of these anti-evolutionary sentiments might suggest some avenue other than materialistic science by which to understand life’s origins.
As Not in Our Classrooms points out, creationism might have endless variants, but these variants have certain traits in common. All creationist theories cull the choices on the possible origins of life down to two, without explaining why. The book labels this “contrived dualism”—the implicit suggestion that evolution and creationism (or, depending on the year and recent court decisions, special creationism or ID) are the only two possible explanations of life’s origins and history. But as anyone who’s studied evolution knows, creationism and ID offer no more explanatory power than any other non-scientific theories of life’s origins. Maybe God snapped his fingers; maybe eggs landed from the moon; maybe Sean Hannity sneezed, forming the primordial ooze that gave rise to our species. The possibilities, once one ventures down that road, are infinite.
The good news is that courts have regularly handed the anti-evolutionists embarrassing defeats. These are ably chronicled by one of the contributors to the collection, Jay D. Wexler, a faculty member at Boston University’s School of Law. Wexler canvasses the acrimonious history of creationism and the courts, summarizing two important cases in which the Supreme Court struck down state attempts to change how evolution is taught: Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard. Epperson, decided in 1968, ruled that state prohibitions on teaching evolution were unconstitutional. In Edwards, decided in 1987, the court struck down a law in Louisiana requiring the teaching of so-called creation science whenever presenting evolution. In both cases, the states were found to be in violation of the Establishment Clause, since no plausible secular motive could be attributed to the laws in question. Last year, a Pennsylvania judge drew a similar conclusion when presented with ID-friendly changes made to the district of Dover’s science curriculum. In fact, so strong was the logic of the ruling, written by Judge John E. Jones III, that it was hailed as a lasting impediment to the ID effort. Whether the subtler doctrine of “critical analysis” will experience similar setbacks in the courts, however, is another question.
Creationism and its spawn continue to survive, and proponents occasionally get themselves elected to school boards, for a simple reason: The vast majority of Americans today still harbors doubts about evolution and will say, when asked by pollsters, that they support the idea of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in the classroom. Yet despite this apparent public sympathy, the movement hasn’t been faring well at the polls lately. In the 2006 midterms, for instance, voters threw out high-profile pro-ID school board members in Kansas and Ohio.
Not In Our Classrooms makes its case well, underscoring the fatuousness of creationist science on every level: constitutional, educational, and scientific. The contributing scientists do especially well in defending evolutionary theory and in rebutting creationist arguments. One of the book’s few weak points is the chapter “Theology, Religion, and Intelligent Design” by Martinez Hewlett, a professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona, and Ted Peters, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and professor of theology. Hewlett and Peters, who attempt to grapple with the interplay of religion and science, offer surprisingly sloppy arguments (repeatedly referring to religion that is “healthy,” for example, without defining what this might mean in practice).
But on the whole, Not In Our Classrooms delivers refreshingly on a number of topics, and it even tackles a fairly practical question: What should concerned parents and teachers do to make sure that science remains properly taught? The key, argues Glenn Branch, deputy director of the anti-creationist National Center for Science Education, is simply vigilance at the local level, particularly with regard to school boards. Anti-evolutionists aren’t about to get Congress to pass legislation, nor will they get states to enact constitutional amendments. Rather, their best hope is to keep trying to get their people onto school boards and then use their representatives to muddy the waters with humbug masquerading as “critical analysis.” At its core, the evolution “debate” is a local one, and it’s at that level that the daily battles happen. Thanks to this collection, winning them might become a little easier.
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Jesse Singal is an intern at The Washington Monthly.