There's an anti-evolutionist brushfire sweeping the United States, and at its heart lies a paradox. These days, it seems, the less the creationists say about what they actually believe, the better they're likely to fare. In an attempt to avoid triggering the First Amendment's ban on commingling church and state, the more canny of today's fundamentalists have become clever minimalists.
Rather than discussing anything immediately recognizable as the Christian God -- much less the Bible -- they invoke "science" itself to undermine one of the most robust scientific theories in history.
This science-abusing strategy has reached a pinnacle in Kansas, where the state Board of Education, dominated by anti-evolutionists, has adopted standards that call for teaching about alleged "scientific criticisms" of evolutionary theory, and that redefine the nature of science itself to potentially include non-natural explanations. Call it the Ghostbusters
approach: According to Kansas, scientists are now free to go hunting for ghosts, genies, and other supernatural entities. If they happen to discover God along the way so much the better, but let no one say the board has explicitly required it.
This is a huge departure from the way the evolution debate played out at the time of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, when Tennessee had banned the teaching of evolution outright, and William Jennings Bryan famously declared the incompatibility of evolution and the Bible. The U.S. has fostered a strong anti-evolutionist movement for nearly a century, but our homegrown creationists have changed greatly over time -- in response not so much to scientific developments as to legal ones. In creationism's evolution, the greatest selection pressure has always come from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The first landmark decision came in 1968, when the Supreme Court declared that states could no longer ban the teaching of evolution. Creationists promptly changed strategies and cooked up something they called "creation science": In essence, a scientific veneer for the book of Genesis. The earth, they claimed, was just a few thousand years old, and there had been a catastrophic flood -- but these discoveries were labeled "scientific" rather than religious in nature. Moreover, according to creationists, their "science" should be taught alongside evolution and given equal time, in the interest of fairness.
But in 1987, the Supreme Court unmasked "creation science" for the thinly-veiled religious apologetic that it was, and declared its teaching unconstitutional in public schools, a violation of the separation of church and state. Anti-evolutionists promptly evolved again, further refining their strategic attempt to pose as scientists. Now, they would promote something called "intelligent design" (ID). Gone was any mention of a young Earth or Flood -- the most direct parallels to the Genesis account. Instead, ID advanced a vague philosophical argument: Biological complexity requires a designer for its existence, and could not have resulted from a mindless and directionless process such as evolution.
Once again, today's creationists claim ID is science. But as with "creation science" in the 1980s, we're now witnessing the unmasking of ID.
The designer is obviously God, the scientific bona fides of ID are scarce to nonexistent, and its proponents can't seem to check their religion at the door when it counts. When the Dover, Pennsylvania school board introduced ID into its biology curriculum, statements about religion abounded; they're now Exhibit A in a just concluded First Amendment lawsuit over the board's actions.
The court hasn't yet ruled, but in the meantime, Dover's anti-evolutionist school board members have been swept out of office -- a development that led Pat Robertson to assert that Dover has abandoned God and shouldn't expect His protection. So much for disguising ID as science.
Evolution's defenders are increasingly confident that Dover could mark the beginning of the end for ID as a creationist strategy. But if so, Kansas suggests what's likely to come next. Anti-evolutionists will once again evolve and will minimize what they're advocating even further. Thus in Kansas the attack on evolution is purely negative and definitional, but there is no explicit requirement to teach what everyone knows to be the desired alternative -- some form of creationism.
The stripped-down Kansas approach still has its vulnerabilities; the Board of Education's negative attacks on evolution have a clear creationist lineage. But if this tactic also fails, we can only expect creationists to pare down their message still further. Eventually, perhaps, they will come up with something that does indeed withstand legal scrutiny. But it will be a shallow victory indeed, for over the long course of our national battle over Darwin, creationists have become the anti-evolutionary equivalent of Kafka's hunger artist: They have so shrunken the substance of their positive position that it has all but disappeared.
Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of The Republican War on Science.