November 9, 2005

An Evolving Storm

n a dramatic lead to her well-crafted cover story in Time magazine, Claudia Wallis tells what will happen late fall in a high school in Pennsylvania, unless the courts rule otherwise. The superintendent of schools, she said, "will enter the classroom [at the public high school in rural Dover] to read a three-paragraph statement mandated by the local school board." The statement, a cautionary preamble to the study of evolution, will seek to cast doubt on the authenticity of the theory and alert students to the existence of other options. "After that one-minute reading, the superintendent will probably depart without any discussion, and a lesson in evolutionary biology will begin."1

It's a sign of an ideological storm brewing all over the United States. "New laws that in some sense challenge the teaching of evolution are pending or have been considered in 20 states, including such traditionally liberal bastions as Michigan and New York."2

A few observations on the controversy:

1544 page51. All people, including scientists, behave the same under pressure. Evolutionary scientists in the U.S., who've had a field day since the Scopes "monkey trial" fiasco 80 years ago, now face a turning of the tide, a swinging of the pendulum, and they don't like it. As a consequence, some rather mean-spirited stuff has begun emerging from within their erstwhile unflappable ranks. David Thomas, for example--president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, refers to the creationist idea of "intelligent design" in terms we cannot print in the Adventist Review.3

It's as if a certain group of evolutionary scientists, lulled by some 80 years of uncontested privilege, with the undistracted ears of both public and media on their side, had come to think of themselves as beyond challenge.

2. A poll conducted July 7-17 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that "nearly two thirds of Americans say creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools." And it surprised John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, "to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats, and those who accept the theory of natural selection."4 And why? Says E. C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education and a strong defender of evolution, it's a matter of "fairness," of "equal time."5

3. It would be easy to see this debate as a religious liberty issue, but it's not that simple. And it would be tempting for Adventists to distance themselves from the conflict, given the identity of the antievolution crowd--"activists on America's political right," as the Washington Post described them.6 But on this question, such considerations would be inappropriate. These committed people are showing the courage of their conviction, and much to the consternation of their opponents, they've now learned how to do it with political and legal savvy. Staying clear of church/state complications, their message is simple and straightforward: "Teach the controversy." "All we're advocating for," says John West of the (Seattle-based) creationist Discovery Institute, "is that if a teacher wants to bring up the scientific debate over design, they should be allowed to do that."7 In opposing such proposals, evolution defenders come across as intolerant, especially given the fact that a growing number of scientists have become convinced, on the basis of the complexity of the universe, that Darwin's theory wouldn't cut it. At least their views should be heard in the classrooms.

4. Pure science does not "meddle." Evolution does. It presents a position on origins that flies in the face of biblical faith; and as a purely "political" matter, it would be naive to think that Bible believers would simply put their tails between their legs forever and have their children subjected to its unchallenged advocacy.

1 "The Evolution Wars," Time, Aug. 15, 2005, p. 27.
2 Ibid., p. 28.
3 Ibid., p. 34.
4 The New York Times, Aug. 31, 2005 [].
5 Ibid.
6 Washington Post, "Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens," Mar. 14, 2005,
p. A1.
7 Time, Aug. 15, 2005, pp. 29, 30.