Evolution v. Not Evolution

When "evolution" and "creation" are presented close to each other sparks are bound to fly, especially in a political context, like - " -- [a]ll presidents, of course, have essential counselors and confidants...Mr. Rove, however is an evolutionary step beyond those accomplished professionals. President Bush is, in many respects, Mr. Rove's creation.

The words are especially contentious when they turn up in the education arena, which they often do. Here, apparently freighted with history, *Evolution*, -as in Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic - spars bitterly with *Creation*, or Intelligent Design, as in floods, Genesis (or John), and six days, says a Sunday School primer, -- or confusingly -- seven , says the New Yorker.

Some people jump in with both feet to the talk about the place of religion in science class, vigorously defending one position or the other. Others feel that the debate is too overcharged, outdated, over-rated; they stand on the sidelines. Many of us were led to believe the science had prevailed in the evolution debate. We believed the derivative play about the Scope's Trial, Inherit The Wind, that lawyers in Dayton, Tennessee argued on behalf of science in 1935 and triumphantly banished the moth-eaten explanations of creation theory. These people are most bewildered by current events and the Dover trial on teaching evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. Have we not moved on?

The science/religion issue arguably replays itself throughout history, some say since Plato, others say since Galileo. However, quite a few historians argue that the rift is a recent one, within the last two centuries. It's predictable said George Gaylord Simpson who noted: "...attacks on the teaching of evolution are cyclical and largely coincide with more general anti-science and anti-rationality trends. (Science 6 Sept. 1974 p. 832).

Indeed, by many accounts there is an anti-science edge today, seen in a reluctance of political leaders and citizens to accept environmental data, an increasingly ideological bias in science funding, and a staunch refusal to endorse emerging technology like embryonic stem cell research. The media adds to the perception that this is a cyclical "debate". They labeled the Dover trial "Scopes II", which coincidentally isn't unique. The Epperson v. Arkansas case in the late 60's and cases and challenges in the 70's, 80's and 90's and recently have all been labeled "Scopes II". Indeed, if we were really counting, we may actually be up to "Scopes XL" or "Scopes LX" by now.

Whether this is the return of a centuries old argument or not, the one thing that remains constant is the imperative to keep the issue alive. Not only alive but contentious, as a "debate", a "disagreement", a "controversy", a "battle", a "stand-off", or a "war".

Edward Larson's 1997 book Summer of The Gods documents how the rift behind the Scopes trial was more or less manufactured by a couple of influential authors in the early 19th century. Over time "the warfare model of science and religion had become ingrained into the received wisdom of many secular Americans"(p 21).

Some philosophers weigh in to note that "the controversy" is specious. It's a way to draw scientists into an arena to spar but it's also a ploy of the fundamentalist social conservative movement. It's trickery, says esteemed philosopher Daniel Dennett:

"First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach...Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic."

Scientists are invariably drawn in to correct the record. They ably defend science. However most would argue that its not about science at all. One Pittsburgh paper quoted the defending witness (Professor Behe) for Intelligent Design playing the role of the consummate scientist by arguing that a school board statement urging against teaching alternatives to evolution was flawed because, "What scientific paper do you know where it says, 'whereas'?" Similarly specious, he argued that his own University's statement that IT "has no basis in science", was flawed because it wasn't supported by "a single [scientific] journal paper". ID's strategy is a study in twisted logic, but it seems to work.

The fact that it does work, however, and that the debate has attracted so much attention, is itself an outstanding argument for increasing the scope and intensity of science education in schools. As others have said, it can be excruciatingly discouraging when money and resources are used for the purpose of defending science, as opposed to working on tangible problems with benefits to the environment, life, medicine. However without widespread understanding of science, none of these problems with be recognized and solved.

In the face of the absurdity, humor is welcome. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's account of the last day of the trial; "one lawyer pointed out that, 'this is the 40th day of the trial, and tonight will be the 40th night...'" To which the judge replied: "That's an interesting coincidence. But it was not by design."

(To be continued)

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