In God they trust
But Darwin? They're not so sure. Americans struggle with their beliefs as the evolution-versus-creationism debate intensifies south of the border. Science, say many educators, could be the big loser.
An Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker can confer instant success on a novel, but the sticker placed in Thomas Miller's biology textbook gave it a different kind of prominence. The textbook, titled Biology, co-written by Dr. Miller and colleague Joseph Levine, is a top-selling text in the U.S. and Canada for teaching high school biology. However, it proved too much for some parents in Cobb County, Georgia, who objected to its content on evolution.
The local school board, in a bid to placate the anti-evolutionists, mandated that a warning sticker be placed in the books. The sticker read, in part, that evolution "is a theory, not a fact," and that the material "should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
Dr. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, admits he felt a "perverse sort of pride" in having his book singled out, but he took very seriously the implications behind the sticker. While the wording may seem innocuous enough, he and other science educators contend that it is in fact part of an insidious attempt by religious fundamentalists to discredit evolution in favour of creationism.
Welcome to the evolving evolution-versus-creation debate in the United States. While the debate may have ended long ago among most scientists, it rages on with renewed vigour among the American public.
Since 2001, the National Center for Science Education, which was formed in the late 1980s to defend the teaching of evolution in U.S. public schools, has tracked battles over evolution in 43 states - and their frequency seems to be growing. Fundamentalist Christian groups, having helped U.S. President George Bush to win a second term, are feeling emboldened.
"The religious right has been energized by the election," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the centre. Since November, her organization has counted at least seven bills filed or pending that challenge the teaching of evolution, in the states of Missouri, Montana, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. Anti-evolutionists also won control of the Kansas State Board of Education and a court battle is looming in Pennsylvania.
The controversy is symptomatic of a deeply divided U.S. and is very much an aspect of the "culture wars" south of the border. "I think an enormous number of Americans have bought into the idea - and it has been sold to them very effectively - that evolution is a liberal, elitist, leftist idea," says Dr. Miller. This polarization of science teaching, he warns, portends a much greater threat: to science itself.
"The entire strategy of the anti-evolution movement is to denigrate the scientific establishment and the process of science, and I think there are great dangers here," he says. If academics fail to appreciate how energetic and how sophisticated these groups are, "they're doomed to suffer for it."
Creationist groups such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Science have budgets in the millions of dollars and large grassroots organizations. They publish newsletters and magazines, sponsor conferences and public lectures, and have radio ministries that broadcast on hundreds of radio stations weekly across the U.S. Both groups even have their own creation-themed museums.
Brian Alters, an education professor at McGill University and director of its Evolution Education Research Centre, has experienced the creation-evolution controversy from both sides of the border. An American, he came to McGill from Harvard University. He says Canadian colleagues are often surprised to hear that the debate is still raging and assume it is only a U.S. phenomenon. It's true that anti-evolution groups in Canada lack the militancy, the organization and the money of their American counterparts. However, polls suggest that nearly half of Canadians - the same percentage as Americans - have serious doubts about evolutionary theory. Dr. Alter's home province has its own creationist organization, the Association de science créationniste du Québec, whose founder participates in many debates on university and college campuses.
Henry Brouwer, head of biology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, says the creation-evolution debate is much different in Canada than in the U.S. Redeemer is a non-denominational institution that teaches from a Christian perspective and teaches evolution in its biology courses. "In the U.S., you tend to have more extremists who are really pushing their agendas, more so than here in Canada," he says.
That view is shared by Guy Saffold, executive vice-president of Trinity Western University, another Christian liberal-arts institution in Langley, B.C. where evolution theory is also taught in science programs. "It just isn't the same issue up here, fortunately," he says.
Asked how his institution approaches the controversy, Dr. Saffold says, "We want to be very transparent about our own convictions, but at the same time we have a strong commitment to intellectual and scientific integrity." The university "asserts very strongly [that] God is the creator . . . and that we believe in the truth of the Scriptures when they're understood properly." When it comes to creation, he compares the Scriptures to a poetic treatment of a very complex issue.
In the U.S., the main fault line in the creation-evolution debate is the local school board. Unlike in Canada, school boards in the U.S. enjoy considerable autonomy to set their own curricula and policies. So the strategy of anti-evolutionists has been to get a majority of like-minded individuals elected to the board in order to remove evolution from the curriculum or to promote creationism. A parent or teacher cries foul, citing the constitutional separation of church and state, and the whole thing ends up in court.
Anti-evolutionists, however, have had little luck in the courts, notes Dr. Alters. Judges over the years have consistently ruled that creationism and later "creation science" have no place in the public school curriculum alongside the theory of evolution. "The courts saw through it and said this is all religiously motivated," he says.
Hence the efforts by some groups to sow doubt about evolution in the public's mind without directly mentioning creationism, with such tactics as the textbook warning stickers in Georgia (similar stickers are used in Alabama). The stickers give the impression that evolution as "just a theory" that does not enjoy widespread support within the scientific community.
The Georgia sticker case did end up in the courts last November, with Brown University's Dr. Miller testifying for the plaintiffs. In mid-January, the judge ruled against the school board and ordered the stickers removed immediately. "An informed, reasonable observer," the judge wrote, "would understand the school board to be endorsing the viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists and creationists that evolution is a problematic theory lacking an adequate foundation." The school board is appealing.
The decision may have heartened science educators, but many feel a far greater challenge looms on the horizon. In Seattle, in the land of Starbucks and Democrats, sits the Discovery Institute, the main promoter of a new theory: intelligent design.
Intelligent design, according to the Discovery Institute Web site, posits that only the existence of a supernatural intelligence - rather than the undirected process of natural selection - can adequately explain the origins and complexity of life on Earth. Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, is considered the spiritual founder of the ID movement.
Intelligent-design adherents are not necessarily biblical literalists. They downplay religion and say they don't know who the designer might be. They argue that intelligent design is based on scientific concepts and should get equal billing with evolution in science classes.
Dr. Miller can understand the apparent popularity of intelligent design. Any-one of religious faith, almost by definition, believes there is a "design" or a "purpose" to the world. But that, he insists, is not what intelligent design means.
Intelligent design is a very specific, two-part proposition, argues Dr. Miller. The first is that natural forces, as described by Darwinian evolution, are unable to account for the origin, evolution and diversity of life (false, say biologists). And second, because we have diversity of life and evidence of change, there has to be another force outside nature that has intervened repeatedly over natural history to design and create new species. That force is the intelligent designer.
"That makes so-called ID a very specific theory of repeated supernatural intervention to account for natural history," says Dr. Miller. As such, "it is a negation of everything that science stands for, because it says the best way to explain natural events and natural processes is to look outside of nature. It is akin to looking at the sun move across the sky and saying, 'We have no explanation for why it moves. It must be Apollo pulling it with his chariot'."
Dr. Alters at McGill has a similar take. "When a car mechanic repairs a car, he doesn't go back to the owner and say 'God broke it.' He looks for natural causes. It's the same for science. . . . We don't look for a supernatural cause, because we don't even know how to investigate that."
The scientific process is based on individuals or groups presenting hypotheses that can be tested, critiqued and replicated by their peers. Intelligent design, notes Dr. Alters, has no testable hypothesis. "Where's the science? They have nothing, nothing, published in the scientific journals."
Many educators have wondered about the motivations of the intelligent design movement's leaders, but there is no need for speculation, says Dr. Scott of the National Center for Science Education. "They're very upfront about their motivations, [which is] to combat what they consider an excessive secularization and material philosophy in modern society, and replace this with a proper Christian theism - scary as hell, frankly."
The first potential court case involving intelligent design is brewing in Pennsylvania. The Dover Area School Board has mandated that science teachers read in class a verbal disclaimer on evolution that suggests intelligent design as an alternative explanation. In January, school board administrators had to step in to read the disclaimer after several teachers refused to do so.
While some academics advocate intelligent design, the theory doesn't seem to have gained much purchase within science faculties. According to a recent article in the U.S. journal Academe, intelligent design is not taught in any mainstream university science course, although it does sometimes appear in such venues as honours seminars, independent study options and interdisciplinary courses.
Students who voice skepticism towards evolution are far more common. Mark Farmer, a professor of cellular biology at the University of Georgia, teaches a non-majors seminar course entitled "Origins of Life" and says "typically a number of the students take the course almost as a challenge." Dr. Farmer stresses to the students that he is not out to question anyone's personal beliefs, but rather to explain why scientists feel Darwinian theory offers the best explanation for biological diversity. By the end of the semester, most of the students "no longer feel that their faith in God is challenged by evolution."
Science and faith
The irony in this debate, say many observers, is that the major Christian denominations have no problem with evolution. Yet the belief persists among many evangelical Christians that evolution equals atheism. "They have been told that evolution means God had nothing to do with it, and that scares the hell out of folks. And it doesn't mean God had nothing to do with it, that's the really sad thing," says Dr. Scott.
However, there are several prominent scientists - most notably professed atheist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University - who do claim there is a contradiction between evolution and religion. These individuals "are bringing their philosophical views into science," says McGill's Dr. Alters. "This doesn't help."
The solution, says Dr. Scott, is to keep the science classroom religiously neutral. After all, she points out, when a biology teacher explains the mechanics of cell division or a physics teacher explains the laws of gravity, they don't immediately follow it up with: "Oh, and by the way, God had nothing to do with it." Neither should that happen when evolution is being taught. That's not to say philosophical or theological notions shouldn't be discussed or debated in public schools, just not in science class, she says.
One thing most science educators agree on is that the debate is not going away anytime soon. Even if legal judgments continue to go against creationist teaching, the anti-evolutionist groups are well organized and will continue with their grassroots efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public. And there is always the possibility that a court ruling may one day go the other way.
Regardless, scientists simply can not afford to shy away from the debate, stresses Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. "I think it is a duty - as a scientist, an academic, an educator and an intellectual - to come out publicly and confront these people."
Brown's Dr. Miller concurs that scientists must continually make their case to the public. "If we lose the support, respect and even the affection of the American people in general," he warns, "then science in this country is headed for a fall."
Creationism generally refers to the belief that God created human beings and all other life forms essentially in their present form over a six-day period sometime in the past 10,000 years, as recounted in the Bible in Genesis I. However, there are also "progressive" creationists who accept some form of the creation account and God's intervention, but interpret the "days" to be periods of indeterminate time, perhaps millions of years.
Evolution, specifically biological evolution, refers to the theory that all life forms on Earth are descended, with modifications, from common ancestors. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations).
The evangelical evolutionary
"There is no Adam, there is no Eve, and it's time you all get over this." That, following a requisite opening prayer, is how Denis Lamoureux usually begins his lectures when invited to speak about evolution and the origins of life at evangelical Christian colleges in the U.S. and Canada.
Dr. Lamoureux, a professor of science and religion at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta, gets invited a lot, with the invitation usually coming from a school's biology department. "I go down there to say the things they can't say openly lest they lose their jobs."
He's well placed to address the issue: he holds an astonishing three earned doctoral degrees - in dentistry, theology and biology - and he's an evangelical Christian.
"I don't know of many who are as utterly committed to evolutionary theory as I am, but talk the Jesus talk, so to speak," says Dr. Lamoureux. "I am an evangelical. I'm a born-again Christian. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour. . . . But I make the dissection between the theory and the process. Who cares how God created it, per se? That's the fun of science. Science, by God's grace, has given us the tools to discover that."
Dr. Lamoureux is not unsympathetic to the struggles of faith that many fundamentalist Christians face, because it mirrors his own personal experience. The origins debate, for Christians, is their world view, "and your world view is your psychological stability. So if someone comes in and messes with that . . . you're going to get a reaction. It's uncomfortable."
Dr. Lamoureux starts by pointing Christians to their Bible. He emphasizes that the Scriptures, and in particular Genesis 1-11, were aimed at a pre-literate society and require interpretation to be fully appreciated and understood in all their beauty.
He also believes that we need to get beyond an either-or, black-and-white debate. "This approach blocks us from seeing the colourful spectrum of possibilities on the origin of the universe and life."