The New Monkey Trial By Michelle Goldberg Salon.com
Monday 10 January 2005
By persuading the Dover, Pa., school board to teach creationism, Christian zealots have provoked a showdown over the status of not just evolutionary theory, but science itself.
Dover, Pa. - It was an ordinary springtime school board meeting in the bedroom community of Dover, Pa. The high school needed new biology textbooks, and the science department had recommended Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine's "Biology." "It was a fantastic text," said Carol "Casey" Brown, 57, a self-described Goldwater Republican and the board's senior member. "It just followed our curriculum so beautifully."
But Bill Buckingham, a new board member who'd recently become chair of the curriculum committee, had an objection. "Biology," he said, was "laced with Darwinism." He wanted a book that balanced theories of evolution with Christian creationism, and he was willing to turn his town into a cultural battlefield to get it.
"This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution," Buckingham, a stocky, gray-haired man who wears a red, white and blue crucifix pin on his lapel, said at the meeting. "This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such."
Casey Brown and her husband, fellow board member Jeff Brown, were stunned. "I was picturing the headlines," Jeff said months later.
"And we got them," Casey added.
Indeed, by the end of 2004, journalists from across the country and from overseas had come to Dover to report on the latest outbreak of America's perennial war over evolution. By then, Buckingham had succeeded in making Dover the first school district in the country to mandate the teaching of "intelligent design" - an updated version of creationism couched in modern biological terms. In doing so, he ushered in a legal challenge from outraged parents and the ACLU that could turn into a 21st century version of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial."
The Dover case is part of a renewed revolt against evolutionary science that's been gathering force in America for the past four years, a symptom of the same renascent fundamentalism that helped propel George Bush to victory. Since 2001, the National Center for Science Education, a group formed to defend the teaching of evolution, has tallied battles over evolution in 43 states, noting they're growing more frequent.
After 1987, when the Supreme Court declared the teaching of creationism in public school unconstitutional in Edwards vs. Aguillard, the doctrine seemed to be shut out of public schools once and for all. In the last few years, though, intelligent design has given evolution's opponents new hope. Now, emboldened by their growing political power, religious conservatives are once again storming the barricades of science education.
The same month Bush was reelected, the rural Grantsburg, Wis., school district revised its curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism and intelligent design. After a community outcry - including a letter of protest from 200 Wisconsin clergy - the district revised the policy but continued to mandate that students be taught "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory," a common creationist tactic that fosters the illusion that evolution is a controversial theory among scientists.
Other anti-evolution initiatives have affected entire states. In the November election, creationists took over the Kansas Board of Education. The last time the board had a majority, in 1999, it voted to erase any mention of evolution from the state curriculum. Kansas became a laughingstock and the anti-evolutionists were defeated in the next Republican primary, leading to the policy's reversal. Now, newly victorious, the anti-evolutionists plan to introduce the teaching of intelligent design next year.
Similarly, this past December, the New York Times reported that Missouri legislators plan to introduce a bill that would require state biology textbooks to include at least one chapter dealing with "alternative theories to evolution." Speaking to the Times, state Rep. Cynthia Davis seemed to compare opponents of intelligent design to al-Qaida. "It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she said. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."
Right-wingers in Congress, on talk radio and on cable TV, are stoking the anti-evolution rebellion, insisting that academic freedom means the freedom to teach creationism. Having shown their strength in the election, cultural conservatives aren't in the mood to compromise. America is a democracy and they have the numbers. They see no reason why the principles of science shouldn't be up for popular vote.
On Dec. 14, the ACLU announced that it was representing 11 Dover parents in a lawsuit against the town. The school board's intelligent-design policy, their complaint said, had violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, "which prohibits the teaching or presentation of religious ideas in public school science classes."
That day, a few of the parents joined their attorneys for a press conference in the rotunda of Pennsylvania's capitol in Harrisburg. Reporters and cameramen crowded around the microphone as a succession of lawyers, liberal clergymen and scientists spoke. The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, came from D.C. for the event. "We've been battling this from Hawaii to California to New Hampshire to Cobb County," he said, referring to the suburban Atlanta school district that had recently put warning stickers on its biology textbooks calling evolution "a theory, not a fact."
As the cameras rolled, a few protesters tried to edge their way into the frame. A man named Carl Jarboe, in a purple sport coat and a fur hat, stood near the parents holding a fluorescent green sign saying, "ACLU Censors Truth." His wife, wearing a kerchief on her head and small round glasses, held a similar sign saying "Evolution: Unscientific and Untrue. Why Does the ACLU Oppose Schools Giving All the Evidence?"
The parents ignored them. Most were hesitant in front of all the cameras. They weren't culture warriors and they didn't speak in ideological terms. Instead, they talked about what Buckingham and the other creationists were doing to their school and their community.
"We don't believe that intelligent design is science, and we have faith in ourselves as parents that we can do a good job teaching our children about religion," Christy Rehm, a 31-year-old mother of four, said after the conference. "We have faith in our pastor, we have faith in our community that our children are going to be raised to be decent people. So we don't feel that it's the school board's job to make that decision for our children."
Jarboe, who introduced himself as a former assistant professor of chemistry at Messiah College, a nearby Christian school, was convinced that the parents were being used by the ACLU to further its sinister agenda. Like a great many members of the Christian right, he sees the ACLU as a subversive, possibly demonic institution. Quoting James Kennedy, an influential Fort Lauderdale televangelist, he called the ACLU the "American Communist United League." "I maintain it's a communist front," he said.
He then pressed a flier into my hand from a two-day creation seminar he'd attended at the Faith Baptist Church in Lebanon, Pa. It was run by Dr. Kent Hovind, a young-Earth creationist who argues that, as the flier said, "it has been proven that man lived at the same time as dinosaurs." To underline this point, Hovind runs Dinosaur Adventure Land, a theme park in Pensacola, Fla., with rides and exhibits about the not-so-long-ago days when humans and dinosaurs roamed the planet together.
A few feet from Jarboe stood Robert Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Penn State. Eckhardt had spoken at the press conference about the central role of evolution in biology. "The idea that intelligent design is a powerful upwelling of controversy within the scientific community is absolute nonsense," he said. Jarboe was unfazed by Eckhardt's expertise; he called him a "screaming leftist unbiblical liberal."
A wry man with a lined face, tweed jacket and owlish glasses, Eckhardt, like most other experts in his field, has been dealing with creationists throughout his career and finds it tiresome to try to reason with them. He divided his opponents into several categories. "There are people who just feel that the world is changing very rapidly around them. Their children are coming home from school with ideas that are taught to them in biology class, the parents find this to be challenging and upsetting, and by God they're going to do something about it," he said. "They don't understand the world and they're trying to get the world to slow down and accommodate their thinking."
The second group, he said, are people "who are formerly associated with the creationist movement, who purposely misrepresent issues of science when in fact they are issues of religion." He didn't want to name names but it seemed he was speaking of the fellows at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, headquarters of the intelligent-design movement. The third, he said, rolling his eyes a tiny bit toward Jarboe, who was listening to our conversation, "are people who are mentally unbalanced and who are so threatened by this that they perceive things going on around them that never happened."
As Eckhardt spoke, Jim Grove, the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, a small congregation near Dover, stepped forward to challenge him to a debate. Eckhardt refused with a derisive laugh, saying, "I value my time." Grove interpreted this as a sign of evolution's weakness. "If he has facts, what about a forum to present them in public?" he asked. "It would be a perfect opportunity. If he has the facts."
Of Eckhardt's three categories of anti-evolutionists, the second - the proponents of intelligent design - are currently the most influential. They've created the terms that now dominate the debate from the halls of Congress to local school boards like Dover. They're the reason that, after a decade when the consensus on evolution in education seemed secure, Darwin's enemies are on the move.
Although Buckingham first argued for teaching creationism in Dover biology classes, he soon started using the phrase "intelligent design" instead. The change in language was significant because intelligent design was created in part to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling that made it illegal for public schools to teach creationism. Masquerading as a science, it aims to convince the public that evolution is a theory under fire within the scientific community and doesn't deserve its preeminent place in the biology curriculum.
At Dover's June 14 school board meeting, Buckingham said he wanted the board to consider the intelligent-design textbook, "Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origin." According to Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, the original version of "Of Pandas and People," published in 1989, contained one of the first uses of the phrase "intelligent design." Later, in the 1990s, the intelligent-design cause was taken up by the Center for Science and Culture.
Yet "Of Pandas and People" was never meant to be scientific. It was a strategic response to the Supreme Court's 1987 ruling in Edwards vs. Aguillard, which overturned a Louisiana law mandating that "creation science" be taught alongside evolution. Because the court ruled that "creation science" is a religious doctrine, savvy opponents of evolution sought to recast the central tenets of creationism in a way that hid their religious inspiration. Thus intelligent design was born.
Percival Davis, one of the coauthors of "Of Pandas and People," also co-wrote the old-school creationist text, "A Case for Creation." An online ad for "Pandas" on the Web site of the creationist group Answers in Genesis describes the text as a "superbly written" book for public schools that "has no Biblical content, yet contains creationists' interpretations and refutations for evidences [sic] usually found in standard textbooks supporting evolution!"
The core idea in "Pandas" - and in the intelligent-design movement generally - is that of "irreducible complexity," the theory that the structure of proteins and amino acids in cells - the building blocks of life - is so complex that only a supernatural force could have choreographed it. "Because of the high level of improbability that cells could be generated by the random mixing of chemicals, some scientists believe that the first cells were created from the design of some outside, intelligent force," the book says.
Indeed, some "scientists" do believe this - the ones who work at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Outside the precincts of the religious right, though, the scientific consensus about evolution is very close to unanimous. For decades, biologists at the world's major universities, and in esteemed peer-reviewed journals, have proven that cellular processes have indeed evolved in sync with Darwin's theories. In November 2004, National Geographic ran a cover story asking, "Was Darwin Wrong?" Its subhead provided the answer: "No. The Evidence for Evolution Is Overwhelming."
"Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life's work of Charles Darwin, is a theory," wrote award-winning science author David Quammen in National Geographic. "It's a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth's living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it's 'just' a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is 'just' a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory ... Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact."
A statuesque woman with a strawberry blond bob and crisply proper diction, Casey Brown isn't a scientist, but she prides herself on being well read, and after 10 years on the school board, she knows what a good biology textbook looks like. When she saw "Of Pandas and People," she was appalled. "It's poor science and worse theology," she said.
Brown said that by the school board's August meeting, Buckingham had given up on the idea of using "Pandas" as the main text, but he insisted that the board buy it as a supplement. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn't approve the purchase of "Biology."
One of Buckingham's supporters on the board was out sick that night, and without her, the vote deadlocked, 4-4. Finally, worried that the school would have to start the year without textbooks, one member switched her vote and "Biology" was approved. The town's little drama seemed to be at an end.
In fact, it was just beginning.
Shortly after the motion to have the school board buy "Of Pandas and People" was defeated, the Dover School District received an anonymous donation of 50 copies of the book, and Buckingham and his allies set about figuring out how to integrate them into the curriculum.
On Oct. 18, the board voted on a resolution written by Buckingham and his supporters on the board. It said, "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught." The "Pandas" books were to be kept in the science classroom, and teachers were instructed to read a statement referring students to them.
Casey and Jeff Brown argued against it. "We kept maintaining this is going to get us into legal trouble," Casey said. "It was a clear violation." As an alternative, she proposed offering a comparative world religions elective, which would teach the creation myths of various faiths.
But Buckingham was determined. "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross," he said at the meeting. "Can't someone take a stand for him?"
Jeff Brown spoke up in response, saying it was the wrong time and the wrong place for a religious debate. Buckingham called him a coward and said it was a good thing that he wasn't fighting the revolutionary war "because we would still have a queen."
Finally, they voted. The mandate to teach intelligent design passed 6-3. Casey and Jeff Brown quit the board in protest. The other dissenter, Noel Wenrich, turned to Buckingham and said, "We lost two good people because of you."
"And Mr. Buckingham said, with profanity, 'Good riddance to bad rubbish,'" Casey recalled. "And he called Mr. Wenrich every name in the book."
Buckingham may have started the Dover crusade himself, but the Center for Science and Culture laid the groundwork years before. The group provides the "scientific" and philosophical arguments to bolster the opponents of evolution in local political struggles.
CSC operates out of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that's funded in part by savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson. As Max Blumenthal reported in a 2004 Salon article, Ahmanson spent 20 years on the board of R.J. Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation, a theocratic outfit that advocates the replacement of American civil law with biblical law.
The Center for Science and Culture also aims, in a far more elliptical way, to put God at the center of civic life. Originally called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, CSC usually purports to be motivated by science, not religion. At times, though, it's refreshingly candid about its true goal - a grandiose scheme to undermine the secular legacy of the Enlightenment and rebuild society on religious foundations. As it said in a 1999 fundraising proposal that was later leaked online, "Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."
The proposal was titled "The Wedge Strategy." It began: "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built ... Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art."
As "The Wedge Strategy" suggests, many CSC fellows are troubled more by the philosophical consequences of evolutionary theory than by the fact that it contradicts a literal reading of the Bible's book of Genesis. Most of them - though not all - are too scientifically sophisticated to hew to a young-Earth creationist line like Hovind's. In mainstream forums, they eschew sectarian religious language. As seekers of mainstream credibility, they don't want to be associated with the medieval persecutors of Copernicus and Galileo. Instead, they try to present themselves as heirs to those very visionaries, insisting that dogmatic secularists desperate to deny God are thwarting their open-minded quest for truth.
Most CSC fellows even accept that evolution occurs within individual species. What they dispute is the idea that random mutation and natural selection led to the evolution of higher species from lower ones - of man from apelike ancestors. Such a process seems to them incompatible with the belief that man was created in the image of God and that God takes a special interest in him.
Several CSC fellows come with impressive credentials from prestigious universities, and they know how to argue in mainstream forums. Philip Johnson, one of the fathers of the movement, is a law professor at UC-Berkeley. Jonathan Wells, author of the influential intelligent-design book, "Icons of Evolution," has a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Berkeley and another in religious studies from Yale. A member of the Unification Church whose education was bankrolled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, he's written that he sought his degrees specifically to fight the teaching of evolution. As he put it in an article on the Moonie Web site True Parents, "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. When Father [Sun Myung Moon] chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle."
Armed with advanced degrees, CSC fellows have secured invitations to testify before state boards of education. They've published opinion pieces in mainstream newspapers and are regularly consulted for "balance" in stories about evolution controversies.
They've also found important allies within the Republican Party, especially Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum tried to attach an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that would encourage the teaching of intelligent design. It said, "[W]here topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society." The statement was eventually adopted as part of a Conference Report on the law, which means it has advisory power only.
The language sounds innocuous, but Santorum's intent was clear. In 2002, Ohio debated adding intelligent design to its statewide science standards. In a Washington Times Op-Ed supporting the change, Santorum quoted his amendment and then wrote, "If the Education Board of Ohio does not include intelligent design in the new teaching standards, many students will be denied a first-rate science education. Many will be left behind."
Santorum has also come out in favor of Dover's policy. The school board, in turn, distributed copies of one of Santorum's pro-intelligent design Op-Eds along with the agenda at its Jan. 3 meeting.
Oddly enough, although Santorum is supporting the Dover school board's policy, the Center for Science and Culture isn't. On Dec. 14, CSC put out a statement calling Dover's policy "misguided" and saying it should be "withdrawn and rewritten." The statement quoted CSC's associate director John West as saying that discussion of intelligent design shouldn't be prohibited but it also shouldn't be required. "What should be required is full disclosure of the scientific evidence for and against Darwin's theory," said West, "which is the approach supported by the overwhelming majority of the public."
This, of course, is a departure from the position laid out in "The Wedge Strategy," which specifically calls for the integration of intelligent design into school curriculum.
Why the change? Matzke, from the National Center for Science Education, is convinced that the CSC wanted to wait for a better test case and a friendly Supreme Court, which they'll get if Bush is able to nominate a few new justices. The Dover policy, Matzke said, probably won't survive a court challenge right now, and if it's overturned, the precedent will be a setback for the missionaries of intelligent design.
"Their current strategy is not to have an intelligent-design policy passed," Matzke said. "They just want a policy that says students should analyze the strengths and weakness of evolution." CSC did not return calls for comment.
It's not hard for creationists to convince the public that the evidence for evolution is weak. Scientists accept evolution as something very close to fact, but Americans never have. In a November 2004 CBS News/New York Times poll, about evolution, 55 percent of the respondents said that God created humans in their present form. Twenty-seven percent believed in the evolution of man guided by God, and 13 percent believed in evolution without God.
So it should come as no surprise that the majority of Americans - 65 percent, according to the poll cited above - favor teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Creationism is the perfect culture-war issue because it inevitably pits majorities in local communities against interloping lawyers and scientists. In a country gripped by right-wing populism, it's not hard to stoke resentment against scientists who have the gall to think that they know more than everybody else.
In fact, some historians date the start of our culture wars to 1925, the year of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn.
At the time, the battle over evolution had been raging throughout the country. It came to a head when 24-year-old teacher John Scopes challenged Tennessee's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools and universities. His persecution set the stage for a legendary courtroom showdown that pit celebrated Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow against Williams Jennings Bryan, the crusading populist, fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate.
Bryan, the nation's leading anti-evolutionist, made his case in populist terms. In his 1993 book "The Creationists," historian Ronald Numbers wrote, "Throughout his political career, Bryan had placed his faith in the common people, and he resented the attempt of a few thousand elitist scientists 'to establish an oligarchy over the forty million American Christians' to dictate what should be taught in the schools."
Bryan and his fellow Scopes prosecutors won their trial, but the national mockery that followed it did much to alienate conservative Christians from secular society, setting the stage for the culture wars of later decades. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Scopes trial, "Summer for the Gods," Edward Larson wrote about the birth of the right-wing religious counterculture in the wake of the Pyrrhic victory in Tennessee:
"Indeed, fundamentalism became a byword in American culture as a result of the Scopes trial, and fundamentalists responded by withdrawing. They did not abandon their faith, however, but set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational and social institutions."
Eventually, of course, the religious right emerged from its subculture to renew its attack on secularism. Today, cultural conservatives are mustering almost exactly the same arguments that Bryan made in Dayton 80 years ago.
This past December, Republican strategist Jack Burkman appeared on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" to back creationism in terms of populist democracy. "Why should the state and the federal government have a monopoly on defining what constitutes science?" he asked. "I see no problem with presenting a creationist view in the schools, given that 70 percent of Americans want that. The law should reflect democratic desires. It should reflect public desires."
Of course, public desires don't determine the physical facts of the world. "The best argument that the creationists have got is that it's only fair to teach both sides," Matzke said. "The problem with that argument is that science is not a democracy and a lot of times there aren't two correct sides. There are people who believe that the sun goes around the earth. They're called geocentrists. That doesn't mean we should teach that."
In Dover, though, people tend to interpret positions like Matzke's as elitism. Much of the public seems to desire schools that teach creationism, although many balk at the cost of a lawsuit. For defenders of Darwin, the most troubling thing isn't that the Dover school board is dominated by extremists - it's that the board is, in a local context, fairly mainstream. Supporters of evolution are the ones who stand out. Resentment of the ACLU runs high even among some who opposed the school board's intelligent-design policy. Most opposition to the policy comes from worry over the cost of the lawsuit.
Most people in Dover say that the town is split fairly evenly over the school board's intelligent-design policy. The division isn't one of principle, though. People know that the ACLU's lawsuit is going to be expensive and are worried that defending the policy in court will drain the school budget and force a tax increase.
"I would say that people who are against what the school board is doing in principle are a minority, a great minority," former school board member Noel Wenrich told me. "However, when it comes to spending money on it, it's a whole other issue. When you ask people, Do you support the board's decision on this? they say yes." Ask them if they're willing to pay more taxes to finance a court case, though, and they'll give you a resounding no, he said. "It's a money issue."
The school board doesn't need to worry about most of its legal fees, however. It's being represented pro bono by the Thomas More Law Center, a right-wing Catholic firm that describes itself as "the sword and shield for people of faith." Wenrich told me that Thomas More lawyers had been advising Buckingham for months.
Despite the law firm's help, though, the lawsuit will likely be financially devastating to the district, the second poorest in the county. Dover would have to pay for lost wages of people called to testify, and it would have to provide outside counsel for some witnesses, like the Browns, who don't want Thomas More representing them. Jeff Brown guessed that depositions alone would cost the district $30,000. Then, if Dover loses, federal civil rights law would make it liable for the ACLU's legal fees. "It won't be cheap," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU's Pennsylvania legal director.
"It will kill us," said Casey Brown. In fact, Dover is already broke. The board had just been forced to cut its library budget almost in half, from $68,000 to $38,000, and to eliminate all field trips.
Wenrich himself, a 36-year-old Army veteran and father of two, doesn't believe in evolution. But he felt honor-bound to put his duty to the school above his personal politics. "If it were my money, I'd have no problem," he said. "I'd go out and fight it. But to use the public's money that's supposed to be educating our kids is absolutely irresponsible. They're already looking at putting off buying textbooks, not buying library books, not updating computer equipment. When we're looking at those budget cuts, it's irresponsible to go out and pick a fight with the Supreme Court."
If Wenrich is angry with Buckingham, though, he's even angrier at the outside forces that are challenging the school district. "It is going full circle now from the religious community ruling what can be thought - that's what they tried to do in the Middle Ages," he said. "We've come down to the scientific community trying to tell us what we can think. Basically what the scientific community currently is doing is saying, 'You'll have no god before mine. Mine happens to be Darwin.' Any other thought will not be tolerated."