Discovery Phase

It's official. With recent news of lawsuits over the teaching of evolution in both Georgia and Pennsylvania, even Time magazine now considers the fight over Charles Darwin's theory a live issue again. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both come out against the new anti-evolutionism, while on FOX News, a braying Bill O'Reilly recently announced that "there are a lot of very brilliant scholars who believe the reason we have incomplete science on evolution is that there is a higher power involved in this." O'Reilly then proceeded to call the American Civil Liberties Union "the Taliban" for opposing the teaching of anti-evolutionist perspectives in public-school science classes.

President Bush's re-election and the growing political strength of religious conservatives have done a lot to put evolution back on the radar. But in fact, this battle never ended -- and The American Prospect covered it back in 2002. Today's journalists, however, are on a steep learning curve, laboring to understand a struggle that groups like the National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, California, have monitored ceaselessly for years with or without major media attention.

There are few issues where a knowledge of history matters more than the debate over the teaching of evolution. In a few breathless sentences, the story goes like this: Some religious believers have always had moral and theological problems with evolution, Protestant fundamentalists in America especially. And they haven't wanted their kids to hear about it. But these anti-evolutionists have themselves evolved over the years in response to a series of unfavorable court decisions. Because of the nature of the First Amendment, these dicta have increasingly forced Darwin's enemies into the awkward position of claiming that rather than being driven by religion, they have science on their side.

It's a tough act for anti-evolutionists to pull off, especially because they can count on the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and huge lists of Nobel laureates to shoot them down. But if you'd been slammed by the Supreme Court in 1968 (Epperson v. Arkansas) and then again in 1987 (Edwards v. Aguillard), you might try such a strategy, too. And, in fact, anti-evolutionists have gotten better at claiming to be scientific over the years. They've perfected a losing approach.

There were always creationists who claimed to be scientific, of course. James Gilbert, a historian at the University of Maryland, opens his book Redeeming Culture: Religion in an Age of Science, with a second chapter titled "William Jennings Bryan, Scientist," explaining how the great Scopes “monkey trial” crusader himself joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1924. In some odd way, Bryan actually thought he was engaged in a scientific activity.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, we saw the official emergence of "creation science" or "scientific creationism," which centered on the attempt to show that geological studies proved the reality of Noah's flood. But few were fooled, and the Supreme Court nixed this supposed alternative to evolution in public-school science classes in 1987.

The anti-evolutionists, however, saw a loophole: They still might be able to teach "scientific" criticisms of evolution, even if they couldn't positively advance their own views, which were clearly theological. Enter the "Intelligent Design" (ID) movement.

ID is an idea with a respectable philosophical pedigree, though no credibility in modern science. The basic notion hinges on the organizational complexity of living organisms, and especially anatomical marvels such as the eye. How could evolution have done that, ask ID proponents?

The answer, provided by Darwin and repeatedly supported by scientific investigations since then, is that given enough time and selection pressures, evolution tends to find a way. Moreover, its solutions, while certainly workable, are not always ideal. As anyone with any experience of aging knows, the human body isn't a paragon of perfection. Its flaws and rudiments -- the appendix, male nipples, and so forth -- seem far more characteristic of the mindless tinkering activities of natural selection than of an intelligent craftsman.

The ID movement has its home base at a Seattle think tank called the Discovery Institute. Mindful of legal precedents, Discovery does not officially advocate bringing up ID in classrooms (as has happened in Dover, Pennsylvania, to Discovery's chagrin). Rather, the institute wants students to learn about the "controversy" over evolution -- a controversy that is supposedly scientific in nature. And in fact, just like adherents of "creation science," ID proponents have been able to cobble together a few Ph.D.s who support their cause, providing "scientific" critiques of evolutionary theory.

But the Discovery Institute made a key tactical error. Somehow, a document that seems to bare the true soul of the institute leaked onto the Web. You can read it here, with Discovery's gloss on it. Unfortunately, not even the most consummate rhetorician could explain away lines like, "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." Once it lets its guard down, anti-evolutionism hasn't changed a bit.

Time gets an F: its latest coverage failed to uncover the really juicy stuff about the ID movement, like the passage cited above. But the press will catch on eventually, as will the courts. And unless they're radically reshaped by President Bush, it seems likely that they will reject ID just as they once rejected "creation science."

In the meantime, however, a lot of people are going to be confused about the theory of evolution. But in America, even that is nothing new.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose weekly column appears each Monday. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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