Very weird science.(creationists seek to remove teaching of evolution from schools)

Colin Campbell and Deborah Scroggins

4377 words

1 December 1995


THE OFFICE of Professor Kurt Wise could be a set in an Indiana Jones movie. Tall bookshelves, exotic fossils and stuffed birds jostle for space with heaps of esoteric journals in fields ranging from geomorphology to the Hebrew scriptures. Wise–a slight, pale paleontologist in his mid-30s–is courteous, absentminded and given to laughing at his own slightly obscure jokes. He and his office, in fact, wouldn’t seem odd at Harvard, where Wise got his Ph.D. What sets him apart from most scientists is his view on how life, humankind and the physical world came into being. Wise believes in the literal truth of the biblical tale of creation. Every word of it.

He doesn’t agree, as nearly all other scientists do, that the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old and that complex organisms evolved from simpler ones over time. He believes instead that God created the world several thousand years ago in six days, that a serpent talked to the first woman in Eden, that early lions weren’t carnivores and lay down with the lambs, that patriarchs fathered children when they were hundreds of years old, that Noah’s flood caused most of the fossils we see excavated from the earth, and that, until original sin entered the picture, humans and animals never died.

Wise and his students at tiny Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee belong to a new generation of Christian fundamentalists trying to overturn the scientific theory of evolution.

Dayton, of course, was the site of the notorious Monkey Trial of 1925, in which a local high school teacher named John Scopes was convicted of violating Tennessee law by telling his students that humans were descended from apes. Today’s creationists (as people who dispute the theory of evolution are called) still think Scopes was wrong. They mostly share the beliefs of Bryan College’s namesake, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic politician who helped prosecute the teacher. And today’s creationists are more politically ambitious than even

The modern creationist movement aims, as part of a larger agenda of the religious right, to supplant the teaching of evolution with scenarios more compatible with divine creation. The movement bristles with scientific pretensions, but it’s essentially political. Its most effective backers aren’t scientists but right-wing groups such as the Christian Coalition. Confronted in recent years with court rulings that find so-called creation science in the schools to be an illegal mixture of religion and government, creationists have resorted to new political tactics. They have removed references to God and the Bible from their literature and replaced them with secular-sounding explanations of life’s origins such as “intelligent design theory” and “abrupt appearance theory.”

The movement is sufficiently well organized to attract money to fight its battles in court, win occasional school board elections, add creationist planks to the platforms of state Republican parties and even gain quiet support from Republicans of national stature. Clearly, creationism draws strength from today’s conservative mood and from politicians who don’t care about pandering to a notion that has no basis in fact.

Creationists today are better educated, better financed and better organized than they used to be. In Louisville, Ohio, for example, a retired teacher has called in the American Civil Liberties Union to try to block a flashy new textbook that creationists want in the school science curriculum. Raymond Vasvari, one of the ACLU’s lawyers in the Ohio case, sounds nervous about its outcome. “Suddenly,” he says, “you have an organized group of 80 people descending on school board meetings.”

Creationists know the Christian Coalition has reported that a full third of those who cast their ballots in the great Republican rout of 1994 identified themselves as Evangelicals or religious conservatives. The Christian Coalition claims its national office doesn’t measure elected officials on their evolutionist or creaticmist stands. Nevertheless, a coalition spokesman, Mike Russell, says creationism should get “fair and equal” treatment alongside evolution. The coalition’s state chapters often press creationist views on politicians and school boards.

The Republican National Committee doesn’t take a position on creationism. But last spring Oklahoma’s GOP announced that it supported “the twomodel approach to teaching origins in the public schools, giving balanced treatment to the views of evolutionists and creationists.” Fundamentalists in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Iowa and other states have forced similar declarations into state Republican Party platforms.

Even seemingly secular Republicans are reluctant to alienate the creationists. Republican Governor George W. Bush of Texas–who most likely received an excellent scientific education at Andover and Yale–is on record as favoring local choice in the matter of teaching creationism. (“Choice”–the word used for the right to an abortion-is the term used by creationists to stress their right to teach an alternative to science.)

Another Republican, former history professor Newt Gingrich (who once dreamed of becoming a zoologist), refused to say if he agrees with the Christian Coalition that public schools should give “equal time” to creationism. One of Gingrich’s spokesmen, Allan Lipsett, told us amiably that he had posed our question to the speaker, but that Gingrich felt he could only get in trouble by answering. “No matter what he says on creationism,” Lipsett reported back to us, “it is a path he didn’t want to go down.”

Officials in the presidential campaigns of Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, Representative Bob Dornan of California, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan all failed to respond to repeated queries about the candidates’ stands on teaching evolution in public schools. A spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson said his man had not taken a position. The only GOP candidate who endorsed evolution was Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The Democrats haven’t been radically different. Many of them at the state and local levels backed creationist legislation during the Eighties, especially in the South. Bill Clinton, as a candidate for governor of Arkansas, opposed his state’s 1981 law mandating equal time for creationism in science classes. But as president he has suggested that prayer, proselytizing and religious literature in public schools may all be accommodated.

American political leaders have long been willing to make monkeys out of our children to advance their own political ambitions. Although most scientists have treated evolution as essentially correct since the mid-19th century, teachers could not legally teach evolution in some states until the Sixties. It took the Cold War, and especially the success of Sputnik in 1957, to force complacent politicians to see that scientific education was patriotic, and that a religious minority was keeping students ignorant.

If creationism can bully its way into the schools, anything can. “It sets a terrible precedent,” says Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University who frequently lectures on creationism and its errors. “There are a lot of things science comes up with that are opposed for political reasons by the right and by the left. It opens the curriculum to astrology, belief in mystic powers, any kind of New Age thing. It basically says that if you can get enough votes, you can have your views taught as facts.”

Most believers–Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists–manage to reconcile evolution with faith. But the creationists are different. They agree with parts of modern science but believe that to accept evolution is to deny God. They think that how humans first appeared must fit their religious concept of how people ought to live today. Thus, to accept that man evolved from natural selection, they say, means that there are no rules apart from those devised by man; for them, evolution renders human existence meaningless, even bestial.

The creationists come from a Protestant tradition that stresses man’s sinfulness and the need for personal salvation through obedience to God and the Scriptures. They also link evolution with what they call naturalism, in which nature is all, and in which man is subject only to laws that are discoverable by man.

A cartoon featured at a creationist conference in Roseville, Minnesota in 1992 nicely summarizes their odd mix of philosophy and moral alarm. It shows a Christian soldier chopping down a tree. The breeze behind his ax is labeled “creation science message.” The tree’s trunk reads “evolution”–and the branches being nourished by that trunk are labeled “paganism,” “abortion,” “sexual perversion,” “New Age religions,” “radical-feminist movement,” “humanism,” “racism,” “pornography,” “Nazism,” “communism” and “euthanasia.”

“Creationists believe evolution is the first step down the slippery slope to secular humanism,” says Raymond Eve, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-author of The Creationist Movement in Modern America. “What they really mean by secular humanism is humans deciding what is moral and what is not. These people tend to think human nature is generally bad and wicked, that humans will make the wrong decisions without the guidance of the Bible. For example, people might decide that it’s all right for unmarried women to have babies. So evolution is for them the catalyst that encourages all the great social problems of the 20th century. And, the way they see it, if the schools teach evolution, you lose control of the socialization of your own child. They feel they can’t pass along their own traditional values to their children.”

Bryan College’s Kurt Wise and the members of the Institute for Creation Research near San Diego belong to a group of hard-line creationists called Young Earthers. In general, Young Earthers go along with the “flood geology” of George McCready Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist bookseller who tried in the early decades of the 20th century to prove that Noah’s flood had reshaped the earth and buried fossils. Young Earthers generally maintain that our planet is less than 10,000 years old and that the extensive fossil evidence of slow, continuous development is an illusion. Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, a slick creationist book published by the ICR, argues that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that Noah’s flood carved formations such as the Grand Canyon.

“Each time a scientist or guide teaches that the Grand Canyon is the result of millions of years of slow and continuous processes, that person is questioning the past judgment by God,” the book asserts. “The evolutionary philosophy leads to the notion that each person owns himself, and is the master of his own destiny. This is contrary to the Bible teaching that mankind is in rebellion against God.” The real battle, claims ICR, “is founded not just upon creation and Noah’s flood versus evolution, but upon Christianity versus humanism.” Even stone has its religious meaning: “The layers of beauty on all sides are, in all likelihood, the grim reminder of sin, judgment and destruction.”

Another group of creationists, sometimes called Old Earthers, acknowledge the evidence for an older planet, but they stick to a fairly literal and antievolutionary interpretation of Genesis. They argue, for example, that a “day” for God might mean thousands of years by human reckoning. Like Young Earthers, however, they reject the idea that all species evolved from a few lifeforms by means of natural selection.

A third, more recent bunch of creationists doesn’t even like to be called creationist. They call themselves intelligent design theorists, and they avoid religious language. They use the secular language of science to attack evolution and to argue for ideas that creationists of all stripes find congenial.

Each variety of creationism has its own organizations, publishes its own literature and conducts its own antievolutionary campaign. The book Grand Canyon, for example, is only one of a torrent of books, journals and videos put out by the ICR that purport to prove the validity of “flood geology.” Intelligent design theorists, meanwhile, look for support to the Foundation for Thought and Ethics in Richardson, Texas. And if a citizen phones Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition to ask how to stop a public school from teaching evolution, a coalition staffer may suggest that the caller contact one or another full-time creationist group. “We are concerned about that issue,” a helpful woman at the Christian Coalition’s national headquarters told one recent caller, “but for real specific things about what you can do, let me see if I can refer you to someone else.” She quickly provided the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the ICR and the Bible-Science Association, a Minneapolis-based organization that publishes a range of creationist views.

Creationism has nearly always been more about politics and religion than about science. Most scientists quickly accepted Darwin’s evolutionary thesis after On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. And by the end of the 19th century, notes Ronald Numbers, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, “belief in special creation seemed destined to go the way of the dinosaur.”

The backlash occurred in America around the turn of the century, and it sharpened after World War One. Many Americans began to question the social influence of what they thought of as Darwinism. They wondered if ideas such as “survival of the fittest” and “descendants of apes” had helped spark a savage war. As William Jennings Bryan, one of the first big anti-evolutionary crusaders, remarked: “The same science that manufactured poisonous gases to suffocate soldiers is preaching that man has a brute ancestry and is eliminating the miraculous and supernatural from the Bible.”

After the Monkey Trial, evolution was downplayed in American textbooks–a suppression that continued for decades. Even in 1963, six years after Sputnik and three years after a Hollywood movie, Inherit the Wind, portrayed Scopes and his evolutionist defenders as cultural heroes, two university professors were reprimanded in Memphis for daring to discuss evolution in a college class. That same year, though, American scientists managed to put evolution back in public schools. In the wake of Sputnik, Congress voted to spend millions on scientific research and education. Some of that money was funneled through the National Science Foundation to the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, an academic organization that produced a new series of textbooks in 1963. These books defined evolution as absolutely basic to modern biology.

Meanwhile, the country had entered an era of liberal activism in the courts, including decisions that circumscribed religion in public schools. In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson vs. Arkansas that laws against teaching evolution were unconstitutional because they were based on religion. Epperson set the stage for creation science, pleas for equal time and other creationist strategies that weren’t always overtly religious.

By 1980 there were enough votes among creationists that Ronald Reagan was questioning evolution on the campaign trail. “Well, it is a theory, it is a scientific theory only,” Reagan said. “It has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. But if it’s going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical story of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should be taught.”

Creationists see evolution as a threat to morality, hut they can’t legislate their views without bumping into the wall between church and state. So they’ve grown more deceptive.

They use the paraphernalia of the scientific method to mask their agenda. They’ve also stolen a page from modernism by appealing to the values of tolerance and openness that they’ve condemned for years as “moral relativism.” They accuse scientists who oppose “equal time” of dogmatism and censorship. And in their lectures and publications, they attack all sorts of technical-sounding weaknesses they claim to have found in evolution.

The pseudoscientific documentation is telling. Grand Canyon, for example, isn’t just a Calvinist sermon. It’s filled with tables, graphs and footnotes. It has maps, equations, color photographs and a glossary. The advanced academic degrees the book’s authors have earned–in geology, biology, geological engineering and atmospheric science–are listed with their names. The book’s editor, Steven Austin, has a Ph.D. in geology from Pennsylvania State University.

Austin also stars in an ICR video that, like the book, has been distributed in private Christian school.s. The video deals with the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. A confident, scholarly sounding Austin explains to a receptive, adult audience that the changes wrought by the eruption–canyons, mud flows, devastated lakes–are proof for the creationist case. lie concludes that other apparently ancient features of the earth’s surface could have come into being just as rapidly–as the Bible says they did.

America’s widespread ignorance of science is precisely what makes so many people susceptible to creationist propaganda. “Americans are poorly equipped to judge the claims of scientific creationism,” sociologist Raymond Eve argues. “They can hardly be expected to analyze creationist claims about the second law of thermodynamics, for instance, if they lack any idea of what the first or third law is about. If they have no notion of the wealth and range of evidence for human evolution, they may find reasonable the claim that all Homo erectus fossils are either apes or modern humans.”

If creationists were truly interested in making a scientific case for their claims, they would have to play by the same rules of evidence and peer-judgment as the mainstream scientists they pretend to imitate. Creation scientists, however, do not publish in mainstream journals. They want to, they say, but complain that mainstream prejudice shuts them out. But, in fact, in a 1981 ruling against an equal-time law in Arkansas, a federal judge dismissed creationist claims that the scientific community was “closeminded” by reminding them “no witness produced a scientific article for which publication had been refused.”

In Richardson, Texas the Foundation for Thought and Ethics has sponsored a glossy supplementary text for high school biology classes, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. The book, which contains no overtly religious language, makes the seemingly nonreligious argument that life on earth was “intelligently designed.” The book asserts that, statistically speaking, life could not possibly have resulted from natural selection and genetic mutation over millions of years. Of Pandas points instead to a nameless creative “agent” in the development of life. Unfortunately, the book contains a number of serious errors, including confusion about the relationship between the extinct Tasmanian “wolf” and the modern North American wolf, serious misrepresentations of evolution and so many other errors that the biologist Kenneth Miller couldn’t list them all in an hour-long lecture.

Jon Buell, the foundation’s director and a developer of Pandas, says anti-evolutionary theories are on the rise because famous, but unnamed, scientists have been asking pointed questions about evolution and abandoning its premises. Meanwhile, almost 20,000 copies of Pandas have been sold in the U.S.–in many cases with a teacher’s guide. And Buell is just getting started.

Creationists have simultaneously opened other fronts to disguise their dogmatic messages. On college campuses, for example, they sometimes endorse the kind of cultural diversity that asserts all beliefs are equally authentic. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade journal for educators, increasing numbers of devout students and professors “want to know why, in this era of pluralism and identity politics, academics feel free to label themselves as feminists or Marxists or gay scholars or minority-group members–but not as religious people.”

“It’s not because it’s stealth religion that I object to it,” says Miller, the Brown University professor of biology. “It’s because it’s really bad science.” Miller is a practicing Catholic, and he considers it a slur against religion and science to contend that belief in evolution is incompatible with belief in God. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I believe in a designer of the universe.’ lt’s quite another to believe in a lot of bad science. I believe in God, and 1 think the good Lord gave us these big brains to figure out the world. And evolution is a part of that.”

Miller and others concerned about creationism’s threat to education haven’t been idle. Teachers, scientists and members of the clergy–along with many parents-have begun to fight back. In 1981 an informal network of local and state anticreationist groups formed the National Center for Science Education, which has worked with the ACLU, People for the American Way and teachers’ organizations. Over the years this loose alliance has won some important battles.

In 1987, for example, the Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law ordering equal time for creationism. It ruled in Edwards vs. Aguillard that creation science is inherently religious and that teaching it in public schools violates the First Amendment.

In 1989 the Texas Board of Education required publishers who wanted a piece of the state’s mammoth textbook market to provide books that included “reliable scientific theories” contradicting evolution. But evolutionists convinced Texas to add the words, “if any.” And because there aren’t any “reliable scientific theories” contradicting evolution, the textbooks haven’t changed much yet.

In 1993 an ICR staffer and other fundamentalists on the Vista, California school board demanded that evolution’s weaknesses be spelled out in the classroom. Parents rebelled, throwing the creationists out of office. And in 1994 a clique of Florida state representatives introduced a resolution asserting “that the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled against the teaching of creationism in public schools.” The resolution died in committee.

But America’s small towns and suburbs offer countless opportunities for political pressure against teachers and school board members. In a decentralized educational system such as ours, with no national curriculum and with even state curricula often voluntary, many communities already pressure teachers to make a case against evolution. Indeed, bad science is already the norm in many places, insists Eugenie Scott, director of the NCSE. “The notion that all teachers are teaching good science is wrong.”

While creationists make progress at the local level, federal judges have provided some encouragement. In 1987 Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the majority’s pro-evolution ruling in Edwards. Scalia’s opinion endorsed “whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution.” Rehnquist has also declared that he believes the Court’s traditional wall of separation between church and state should be “frankly and explicitly abandoned.”

The growing popularity of “school choice” could provide the creationists with another opening to the schools. Milwaukee, Cleveland and other cities have begun tinkering with publicly funded vouchers to pay for private schooling. This past summer, the Wisconsin supreme court struck down a plan to allow parents in Milwaukee to use vouchers to send their children to religious schools. But supporters have raised money privately to keep 2300 students in those schools while the case is appealed in federal court. Of course, “school choice” is also one of the key educational goals of the Christian Coalition, according to spokesman Russell.

If politicians confronting Sputnik had feared the religious right as politicians do today, perhaps the Cold War would have ended differently. Americans rose to the occasion and reaffirmed this country’s respect for education, science and reason. Today, by contrast, plenty of politicians apparently feel free to expose other people’s children, if not their own, to superstition masquerading as science. Their laxity comes at a time when U.S. students–who already turn up close to last in many tests comparing them with science students in other industrialized countries–must compete directly in the global economy.

“If we start turning out kids who think the world was created in 6006 B.c. and who don’t know the first thing about modern genetics,” says Eve, “then we’re raising a generation of American kids who will be noncompetitive in the most lucrative sectors of the postindustrial economy.”

The stakes are even higher than that. Where the creationists win a battle, they warp students’ trust in the rational pursuit of knowledge. In free and open intellectual competition, the creationists have been losing for a long time. But now they’re calling on the government to force their views on the schools. If they succeed, as Isaac Asimov warned nearly 15 years ago, “We will have established the full groundwork for legally enforced ignorance and for totalitarian thought control.”

Maybe the hint of a resolution lies in Dayton. Refreshingly, Kurt Wise, the creationist with the Harvard Ph.D., doesn’t think Christianity should be legislated. Sitting in the living room of the modest house he shares with his wife and two daughters, Wise says people who are eager to teach creationism in the public schools have asked for his help, but he declined to get involved.

His own quest, he says–a quixotic one by secular standards but, decently, a private one–is to try to beat the evolutionists at their own game. Wise wants to devise, with other creationists, a scientific model so convincing that even evolutionists will accept it as scientific. And only then, he says, should creationism get equal time in science classes.

Meanwhile, he’s puzzling over how God’s first animals and humans were immune from death, as he believes they were until sin entered the world. “It’s very hard to conceive of,” the professor admits. “I see it as a situation of dynamic equilibrium, where individual cells are dying, but we’re replacing the cells as rapidly as they die.”

Wise is hunting for scientific evidence to support Genesis. Most creationists don’t care that real scientists reject their ideas. They want to take over the schools–now. It’s shocking to think our political leaders might let them succeed.