Fundamental questions: America debates the place of Darwin and God in schools

Knowledge goes on trial this week at a series of special hearings by a Mid-West education board to determine how science is taught in its schools. Andrew Gumbel reports from Topeka, Kansas
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The Independent US

Bruce Simat, a genetics specialist from a small college in St Paul, Minnesota, wants to make one thing clear about his sceptical views on evolution. "First of all," he insists, "I'm not a cheesehead."

Bruce Simat, a genetics specialist from a small college in St Paul, Minnesota, wants to make one thing clear about his sceptical views on evolution. "First of all," he insists, "I'm not a cheesehead."

His defensiveness is understandable, given everything that follows in his presentation to the Kansas State Board of Education. Like almost every other witness attending a series of special hearings this week in Topeka, the Kansas state capital, Dr Simat thinks that Darwinian evolution is not a scientific theory so much as an expression of dogma -- a sort of blind faith among mainstream scientists predicated on a rejection of God as the creator of the Earth.

Dr Simat has come to Topeka to bolster the cause of Intelligent Design, a newish, relatively sophisticated variant on the old creationist theme that seeks to overturn 150 years of scientific orthodoxy and give God - or whatever else you want to call the eponymous Intelligent Designer - pride of place in the debate on the origins of humanity.

Luckily for him, he has a receptive audience. The chair of the Board of Education, Steve Abrams, is a Young Earth creationist, which is to say he believes the world was created by the Almighty no more than 6,000 years ago. The two other board members selected to attend the hearings are also Christian conservatives, who won election to their posts by pledging to insert prayer and religious principles into America's ruggedly secular public education system.

Together, the threesome is charged with approving a new set of science standards for Kansas schools. To call it a contentious issue would be a vast understatement. As far as secular groups like Kansas Citizens for Science are concerned, it is like handing control of a blood bank over to a cabal of vampires.

It has been only six years since Kansas covered itself in ridicule by giving schoolteachers the green light to teach the Genesis creation story as a serious scientific alternative to Darwin. That decision was hastily reversed, and the Christian fundamentalist majority on the Board of Education overturned, following a hue and cry from scientists and educators from around the world.

Now, though, the Christian conservatives are back in the ascendant - as indeed they are in every area of Kansas politics, and in much of the United States. The seemingly pleasant, down-to-earth sensibility of the American Midwest has been upended by a new radicalism, one which has fundamentalist protesters wielding "God Hates Fags" placards in the streets of Topeka and Christian choirs singing in the rotunda of the state capitol. As one of the vanguards of this new radicalism, the board of education has every intention of defying the conclusions of its own standards committee by endorsing Intelligent Design and changing the state standards accordingly.

This week's hearings were the one concession that Dr Abrams, a country veterinarian turned right-wing Christian pointman, was prepared to give to mainstream opinion. "We'll put our experts on the stand", he suggested a few weeks ago, "and the pro-evolution scientists can have an equal amount of time to make their argument".

As it turned out, however, no mainstream scientist wanted anything to do with a public spectacle many of them variously denounced as a kangaroo court, a show trial, a dog-and-pony show and a farce reminiscent of the infamous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925. "We concluded it's not worth debating creationists because you can't win," said Liz Craig of the Kansas Citizens for Science. "so we organised a boycott instead."

Naturally, the Intelligent Design advocates had a different interpretation of their opponents' failure to show up - Darwin was wrong and they didn't want to admit it! "When they are held to the light of public scrutiny," thundered William Harris, the first witness at the hearings and a key figure in the effort to Christianise Kansas's science curriculum, "it will be clear the emperor is not very well dressed."

The hearings weren't a farce exactly, but they were certainly shot through with a certain unintentional black humour. In a snugly sized auditorium just across the street from Topeka's soaring sandstone capitol building, one university professor after another came to the stand, brandishing fistfuls of Ph.Ds if not necessarily an over-abundance of direct experience in the field of evolutionary science, only to come across as patently ridiculous as they said they didn't believe there was a hominid precursor species to homo sapiens.

Many of them, when pressed, acknowledged the centrality of a fairly extreme form of Christianity in their belief systems. Jonathan Wells, a fellow at an explicitly pro-Intelligent Design thinktank called the Discovery Institute, is a longtime follower of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. As he once said: "Father's words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism."

Ralph Seelke, a microbiologist who is one of the few experts to have done bona fide scientific research in the field (he has watched microbes reproduce over thousands of generations, waiting to see if there will be any mutations - there haven't been) was described in the Board of Education's mini-biography as having an "ongoing interest in Christian apologetics": He" is convinced that Christianity is not only true, but that it is perhaps the only way of viewing the world that allows both meaning and rationality in life."

Their very presence inspired the board of education members to deliver paeans of praise for their work, even if they professed to understand little about it. "I'm a little confused by the prebiotic soup," board member Connie Morris blurted out at one point. Her colleague Kathy Martin offered to help out. "We can't see a soup in nature, so talking about it is not naturalistic. It's speculation." Everyone seemed quite satisfied with that sentiment, and the proceedings moved on.

The anti-evolution movement has been very smart to seize something resembling the intellectual high ground, so it can no longer be accused of being a rabble of backwoods primitives brandishing their Old Testaments and refusing to believe they were descended from monkeys. Intelligent Design accepts just enough of Darwinian theory - notably, the reality of change over time within individual species - not to be dismissed out of hand.

But it replaces the old hick rhetoric with something much more duplicitous, a kind of doublespeak in which it is suddenly the mainstream scientists who are the dogma-peddlers and the ideologues and the traitors to objective study.

The ID-ers, as they are known, accuse mainstream scientists of subscribing to something they call "methodological naturalism" that insists as a matter of faith that biological evolution occurred on its own, by accident, at random, with no intervention from a higher being. In their opinion, such a conclusion is unscientific, because there is no proof that God was not involved and plentiful evidence, at least in their eyes, that certain species and natural phenomena are designed objects, the creation of a higher consciousness.

The ID argument is absurd for a number of reasons, first because there is nothing in orthodox interpretations of evolutionary theory that precludes religious belief, and secondly because the insistence on an Intelligent Designer inevitably pushes evolutionary study into the realm of the supernatural, and thus away from the ambit of scientific inquiry. The ID-ers' tendency to argue against many of the central tenets of Darwinian thought, deriding it as "just a theory", also does nothing to impress mainstream science, and indeed moves many prestigious institutions to something close to blind fury.

It's hard not to conclude, after listening to them carefully for a few hours, that this is really about something other than the finer points of evolutionary science - on which plenty of respected scientists argue every day of the week. It is certainly hard to believe that all this effort is really being expended to enhance the learning experience of Kansas high-schoolers. After all, most school science teachers would be thrilled if their students could write even a paragraph accurately summing up The Origin of Species; the controversies, manufactured or not, over the molecular evidence supporting the notion of common ancestry are not likely to detain the average student until graduate school.

ID's sharpest critics believe their project is really about bringing Christianity into public schools, and further empowering the Christian right. Jack Krebs of the Kansas Citizens for Science said: "they are trying to make science stand for atheism so they can fight atheism. They are trying to saddle science with an atheistic interpretation."

This, in turn, has many prominent scientists extremely worried. Kenneth Miller, a leading evolutionary scientist at Brown University, said ID was in some ways a greater threat than the more boneheaded creationism floated in Kansas in 1999. "Unlike the situation in 1999, the [ID proponents] may have hoped to escape scrutiny by leaving evolution in the curriculum - but what their changes would actually do to Kansas' science standards is far more radical and much more dangerous," he said. "They plan to use the classroom to redefine religious beliefs as scientific ones."

Some of these suspicions are borne out by the ID-ers themselves. Phillip Johnson, whose book Darwin on Trial is one of the key texts of the movement, explained a little while ago that the objective "is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism versus evolution to the existence of God versus the non-existence of God."

To those who subscribe to a literal reading of the Bible, ID is in fact quite a climbdown. No longer is it deemed acceptable to say the world was created in six days, or that all the world's species came out of Noah's Ark. Johnson has been explicit about the reasons for this: "Get the Bible and the Book of Genesis out of the debate," he said on a right-wing radio show, "because you do not want to raise the so-called Bible-science dichotomy. Phrase the argument in such a way that you can get it heard in the secular academy and in a way that tends to unify the religious dissenters."

Kansas is far from the only place where furious fights over evolution are taking place. In the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, the local science teachers staged a revolt after they were told to put ID on the curriculum. And in Cobb County, Georgia, the school board has inserted a sticker inside the standard biology textbook warning that evolution is "a theory, not fact" and should be approached with extreme caution. Georgia's state superintendent of schools wanted to ban the word evolution altogether and replace it with "biological change over time". He only backed down when faced with a possible lawsuit.

Kansas is nevertheless the centre of the debate because it has the most politicised state board of education in the country and because it is one of the national strongholds of the Christian right.

The way the evangelicals moved in on the board of education was a masterpiece of political stealth. The board seemed too insignificant for the state's major media and political pundits to pay much attention at first. Creationist candidates were promoted through aggressive radio advertisement and direct mail shots, as well as Sunday sermons in the state's many Southern Baptist churches.

One longstanding board member was booted out when a last-minute ad said she had been endorsed by an atheists" association and must therefore be a godless bane for all Kansas children - a blitz that caught her off-guard and left her no time to respond.

The Christian right now controls six of the board's ten seats, which means it can change the science standards more or less at will. When the standards changed in 1999 to allow the teaching of creationism, Kansas received an F-minus grade from the conservative but still mainstream education thinktank, the Fordham Foundation.

That, and the rest of the outcry, was enough to embarrass the state into paying greater attention at the next education board election. The big unanswered question is whether there will be a fresh wave of embarrassment if, as seems inevitable, the science standards change once more. The right has made tremendous political hay out of depicting itself as the underdog, in thrall to an arrogant liberal intellectual elite, and this issue could end up fitting right into that pattern.

"I am definitely in the minority," Jonathan Wells proclaimed proudly at one point. "I enjoy being in the minority." Someone shouted out: "More than being right"" The good student of Sun Myung Moon chose not to answer.