Science Test

Seventy-Five Years After The Scopes Trial, Religious Right Activists Are Trying New Tactics To Expel Evolution From The Public Schools

The events in Dayton, Tenn., were hot in July 1925, both inside and outside the local courthouse.

It wasn't just the 100-degree weather, and the lack of air conditioning, that was warming Dayton, but also the rhetorical and emotional heat being generated by the trial of a young science teacher.

In January of that year, State Rep. John W. Butler introduced legislation to make it illegal for a public school to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." After campaigning on the issue, Butler was proud to take a bold position.

"If we are to exist as a nation," said the legislator, "the principles upon which our government is founded must not be destroyed, which they surely would be if...we set the Bible aside as being untrue and put evolution in its place."

Six days after being introduced, the state House passed the "Butler Act" by a resounding 71-5 vote. Two months later, it became the first sweeping anti-evolution law in the country.

A 24-year-old teacher named John T. Scopes, who taught general science when he wasn't helping coach the Rhea County high school football team, was charged with violating the statute. He was convicted by a Dayton jury and fined $100.

Beyond Scopes' personal plight, the legal confrontation over his fate--featuring William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense--became legendary. The Tennessee v. Scopes trial, widely known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," was held between July 10 and 21, sparking an international firestorm over science, religion, law and education. Popularized by the 1955 play and 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, it is considered to this day the "Trial of the Century." (See "Inherit The Myth?")

As the U.S. marks the 75th anniversary of this legal milestone, many Americans see fights over evolution as relics from the past. When the Kansas Board of Education voted recently to remove evolution from the state's science standards, many thought it was an isolated incident. That perception is simply incorrect.

Seventy-five years after the Scopes trial, confrontations over religion, evolution and public policy are as common as ever. In the 1920s, 20 states legislatures considered measures to prohibit the teaching of evolution. Remarkably, in the 1990s, the number of states that have considered anti-evolution measures is identical 20 states. And that total does not begin to include the dozens of local controversies that occur on a regular basis.

Despite unanimity within the scientific community about the accuracy of evolution, Religious Right activists and their political allies are waging war on the teaching of evolution in public schools. And the conflict involves more than just science. Should Christian fundamentalists succeed, public school neutrality on religion will be lost and the separation of church and state will be effectively repealed.

With so much on the line, the struggle is intense.

Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, and one of evolution's most aggressive critics, spoke of a sweeping struggle at a Feb. 6 conference of religious broadcasters in California, one that goes far beyond biology lessons in public schools.

"Christians in the 20th century have been playing defense," Johnson explained, framing his concerns in a good-versus-evil context. "They've been fighting a defensive war to defend what they have, to defend as much of it as they can.... It never turns the tide. What we're trying to do is something entirely different. We're trying to go into enemy territory, their very center, and blow up the ammunition dump. What is their ammunition dump in this metaphor? It is their version of creation."

With the relentless efforts of activists such as Johnson, Molleen Matsumura, network project director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a group that works to defend evolution, expresses frustration with the current climate.

When asked if supporters of evolution are on the defensive, Matsumura told Church & State, "No and yes. Scientists aren't on the defensive the theory of evolution is much stronger than in 1925 because it more fully explains a lot more information. For example, it was in the 1950s and '60s that scientists figured out the structure of genes, and now we've got the human genome project. But in the realm of politics, it's a constant battle. And worst of all, many dedicated, professional teachers who are just trying to teach kids good science, and obey the First Amendment while they're at it, have to deal with a great deal of harassment."

A look at American history since 1925 shows that the nation has been building to this point slowly but deliberately. After Tennessee's law was passed, Mississippi followed suit in 1926 and so did Arkansas in 1928. Even after the notoriety of the Scopes trial faded from public attention, in the 30 years that followed, state laws and educational policies closely reflected the will of Bryan, not Darrow. (The Tennessee law under which Scopes was convicted was not repealed until 1967, almost a half-century after the trial.)

Science policy, and the general serenity hanging over the evolution-creation debate, changed dramatically, however, in the 1960s in the wake of the Soviet Union starting a "space race." With the launching of Sputnik, interest in improving the United States' strength in scientific fields increased in the Cold War context. As a result, curricula and textbooks were revised to reflect evolutionary biology.

The commitment to improve America's scientific achievement collided with existing laws censoring evolution. This conflict resulted in a 1968 landmark legal ruling delivered by a unanimous Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas. The justices said an Arkansas law that banned evolution from the state's public schools violated church-state separation, calling the measure "anachronistic" and a violation of "religious neutrality."

But rather than ending the religion-in-schools controversy, the decision forced opponents of evolution to adopt a new strategy: insisting that creationism be taught alongside science.

In the summer of 1987, justices again turned away the creationists' efforts. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the high court ruled 7-2 that a Louisiana statute mandating the teaching of "creation science" with evolutionary biology violated the Constitution. As Justice William J. Brennan explained, the Louisiana creationism statute "seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose."

After their judicial defeats, creationists simply adapted to the court's framework and redoubled their efforts.

"Creationism never goes away, it just evolves," said the NCSE's Matsumura. "For example, they keep offering slight variations on laws that the courts have struck down, hoping to come up with one that's technically okay. It's sort of like germs developing drug resistance, so you have to keep inventing new cures."

This evolution of the creationists' attack has required supporters of standard science and church-state separation to deal with a landscape that has changed dramatically since the Supreme Court's rulings.

Creationists, once easy to categorize, have splintered into a variety of divisions with different approaches. Two primary movements, however, do most of the work against evolution: "Young-Earth" creationists who promote a literal interpretation of the Bible's Book of Genesis and believe the Earth is no more than 10,000 year old, and "Intelligent Design" creationists who focus on the complexity of life on Earth and insist that it requires an intelligent designer i.e., God.

The young-Earth camp includes the Institute for Creation Research, a San Diego-based outfit that remains the biggest and most influential creationist group in the U.S. Aided by a hefty budget with income last year of nearly $6 million, ICR boasts a graduate school, a creationist museum and a vigorous outreach program.

The militantly fundamentalist group has a strong radio presence that includes a daily one-minute "Back to Genesis" commentary and a weekly 15-minute program, "Science, Scripture and Salvation," and it brags that its religious, anti-evolution message is now reaching more than 1,500 radio outlets. ICR staffers are even launching a national creationist radio program for children, intended to "edutain [sic] kids about science from a creation standpoint and teach them truths about God's word."

ICR's president, John Morris, makes his religious agenda clear.

"We like to grab their (children's) attention using these high-interest subjects such as fossils and dinosaurs and then teach them biblical truth," Morris told the National Religious Broadcasters magazine. "That's what we're trying to accomplish here."

Likewise, Answers in Genesis, a group based in Florence, Ky., proudly advocates a young-Earth creationist perspective. The organization's director, Australian-born Ken Ham, is in the process of building of a creationist museum on 47 acres near the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

"We're going to have the largest collection of life-sized dinosaur models in America," Ham told the Associated Press. "Dinosaurs are incredibly popular. Kids are fascinated by them. So are parents."

Ham isn't troubled by scientific evidence that points to dinosaurs existing millions years ago. When asked to reconcile the existence of dinosaurs on an earth that he insists is only 6,000 years old, Ham explains, "We certainly believe dinosaurs were on Noah's ark."

Despite his ideas about science, Ham has ample resources. Founded in Cincinnati in 1994, Answers in Genesis employs a staff of 55 people and touted an income in 1998 of just under $4 million.

Creationists such as these launch their attacks using a variety of tactics. One strategy involves simply removing evolution from state science curricula. In the most infamous example, the Religious Right-dominated Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 on Aug. 11 to approve a science curriculum with virtually no references to evolutionary biology or related concepts such as natural selection, species' common ancestry, geologic time and the Big Bang.

Members of Kansas Citizens for Science, a group formed to oppose the new standards, uncovered evidence that the anti-evolution policy was authored by Tom Willis, president of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America, a fundamentalist religious group.

Nevertheless, without clear evidence of government endorsement of religion, critics of the Kansas controversy were left with uncertain legal recourse. Courts have ruled that schools can't put creationism into the curriculum, but none have issued rulings about simply leaving evolution out.

Another recently developed creationist tactic is the use of "disclaimers." This plan allows for evolution to be taught in science classrooms, but it warns students about the subject matter before they learn it.

This ploy was first used successfully in 1995 when the Alabama State Board of Education established a policy requiring that an anti-evolution message be inserted in biology texts. This "warning label," adopted due to prodding from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, was filled with traditional (and long discredited) creationist arguments against evolution. It also advised students that "no one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

In March of this year, members of the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee tried to adopt the Alabama tactic. Their efforts were thwarted by the state attorney general, who ruled the committee lacked the authority to alter textbooks. However, Religious Right allies in the legislature adopted their cause. On April 5, the state House of Representatives passed a measure requiring science textbooks to acknowledge that there is "one God as the creator of human life in the universe." (This effort failed when the measure died in conference committee before the legislature adjourned.)

The disclaimer approach is legally dubious. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a local Louisiana school board's requirement that teachers read a disclaimer to students saying evolution is not intended to "dissuade the Biblical version of Creation."  In its Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler decision, the court ruled that the practice was aimed at the "protection and maintenance of a particular religious viewpoint" and was therefore unconstitutional.

(On June 19, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Tangipahoa case. However, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas issued a scathing dissent, suggesting that the disclaimer should be constitutionally permitted.)

A third creationist tactic has been utilized for decades. In one of countless examples, Rep. Ron Hood (R-Canfield) introduced a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives in May requiring that evolution be taught as theory, not fact.

The "just a theory" approach has been a staple of creationist arguments for the better part of the 20th century and remains one of the most frequently used arrows in the anti-evolutionists' rhetorical quiver. The tactic exploits misunderstanding of the scientific meaning of the word "theory" and shows how this confusion has served as the basis for many controversies surrounding evolutionary biology.

As part of an effort to educate teachers and parents, the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most respected institutions of scientific and engineering research, published "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science." Among the many topics discussed in the guide is a refutation of the common error associated with the word "theory."

"The theory of evolution explains how life on earth has changed," the book explains. "In scientific terms, 'theory' does not mean 'guess' or 'hunch' as it does in every day usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world.... Scientists can also use the word 'fact' to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong."

Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, coupled with persistent creationist criticisms, often translates into success for evolution's opponents in the arena of public opinion.

In 1982, Gallup released its most comprehensive national poll of Americans' beliefs about human origins. This study reported that 44 percent believed that ''God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.'' Meanwhile, 38 percent said that humans evolved over millions of years but that the process was guided by God, and nine percent believed that humans evolved from less advanced forms of life but that God had no part in the process.

Very little has changed since then. In 1998, University of Cincinnati researcher George Bishop released similar data. In his poll, 45 percent agreed with the young-Earth approach, 40 percent believed in God guiding evolution and 10 percent accepted evolution without supernatural direction. (Bishop's study also noted that support for evolution in the U.S. is among the lowest of Western nations.)

This year, a poll conducted by DYG, Inc. for People for the American Way reported that 83 percent of Americans believe evolution should be taught in public schools. But 79 percent thought creationism should have some place in the classroom as well. Only 20 percent believed evolution should be taught with "no mention of creationism," as constitutional law and standard science dictate.

Creationists regularly take advantage of these divisions in public opinion by pitting religious belief against support for evolution, hoping that in a religious country such as the U.S., people will choose faith over science.

For creationists, the very foundations of their faith are at stake. Creationists "see themselves as participants in a holy war against forces that would undermine the foundations of true Christianity and they see 'evolutionism' as the godless philosophy that unites the enemy," observes Dr. Robert T. Pennock in his new book, Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism.

This perspective is particularly true for young-Earth creationists, who support a literal reading of the Bible's six-day account of creation, and who view evolution's accuracy as a threat to religious truths. For example, during a March presentation on "The Truth About Dinosaurs" by the Oklahoma-based Creation Truth Foundation, G. Thomas Sharp said that since biblical principles rule out dinosaurs going extinct before the existence of humans, the idea must be rejected.

According to the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, Sharp told his audience, "Either Adam sinned and death came into the world, or else death was in the world before Adam got here. If that is right, then the Bible is a fairy tale and the Gospel is a joke."

Sharp's position, however, does not represent the views of most Christian denominations, nor for that matter, most faith groups. For the overwhelming majority of religious traditions, science and faith are two separate realms that do not conflict. Accordingly, most accept the theory of evolution.

Religious leaders and groups ranging from Pope John Paul II to many mainline Protestant denominations, see no contradictions between a divine purpose for the universe and the scientific data for evolution. In 1995, the National Center for Science Education published "Voices for Evolution," a collection of statements in support of evolution from dozens of organizations, including 15 religious groups.

But none of this impresses the second major movement within the anti-evolution camp: "Intelligent Design" creationists. In sharp contrast to their young-Earth cohorts, Intelligent Design activists have revitalized creationist efforts with fresh arguments and a veneer of intellectual respectability. Pennock says the movement "may be the most significant recent development in the conceptual evolution of creationism."

Like their more fundamentalist colleagues, advocates of Intelligent Design are hostile to evolutionary biology, but their strategy focuses on the idea of life originating from an intelligent designer. Avoiding direct appeals to biblical literalism, the movement is not burdened by discredited arguments presented by those who believe that dinosaurs walked the Earth simultaneously with humans.

For the Religious Right, the ID movement has served as a catalyst towards renewed interest in attacking evolution. Since Intelligent Design's visibility began increasing in the late 1990s, its leaders and positions have become fodder for publications and materials of groups such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family. TV preacher Pat Robertson's legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice, defends teachers who present Intelligent Design ideas in science classes.

In May members of Congress hosted a briefing to promote Intelligent Design on Capitol Hill, featuring Johnson and other leading lights of the movement.

But proponents of evolution insist that Intelligent Design is an old argument dressed in new clothes.

"[Supports of ID] have dropped the more outlandish stuff, like saying the universe only looks old because the speed of light isn't really a constant," said the NCSE's Matsumura. "But the biology is pretty much the same old stuff in different words....What's different is that the ID movement does less at the grass roots; they take more of a 'top down' approach. You won't see the old-style creationists get op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. So it could be that if they win, they'll win big, and a lot more children will pay the price."

Intelligent Design's unofficial leader is Phillip Johnson. In 1993, he published Darwin on Trial, in which he argues that evolution is more "philosophy" than science. Since then, Johnson has gone on to become one of the nation's most aggressive critics of evolutionary biology. Evolution, he says, is "awful science" and "naturalistic mythology." In an August 1999 debate, he said, "Evolution is not just a scientific theory, but a culturally dominant and legally protected creation myth that puts God effectively out of reality."

As a rule, Johnson focuses attention on undermining evolution with scientific-sounding criticisms, despite not being a scientist himself. Rarely using religion to attack science, he generally says he merely wants academic discussion that presents a more complete scientific picture of life's origins. He told Church & State he believes science classes should "teach the controversy...teach what the mainstream scientists believe and also why their theory is so controversial."

Johnson has adopted a specific strategy known as "the wedge." As the law professor explains it, he intends to drive a wedge into the "philosophy" of evolution, which is "promulgated throughout the educational system and the mainstream media, and...backed by government."

Johnson added, "Our strategy is to drive the thin edge of our wedge into the cracks in the log of naturalism, by bringing long-neglected questions to the surface and introducing them into public debate."

Ultimately, however, he intends to shift the discussion from a scientific debate to one over the existence of God. At a February 1999 speech to followers of TV preacher D. James Kennedy, Johnson let his guard down long enough to elucidate a religious agenda. He said that through use of his "wedge," people will be introduced to the truth of the Bible, then "the question of sin" and ultimately "introduced to Jesus." (See "From Genesis To Dominion")

Johnson isn't the only prominent leader in the Intelligent Design movement to confess a religious agenda. William A. Dembski, another rising ID star, is a mathematician and senior fellow at the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, an anti-evolution project of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Like Johnson, Dembski frequently insists that his criticism is not about religion, but rather limited to concerns over quality science. But Dembski hinted to a mostly conservative, religious audience at the Feb. 6 National Religious Broadcasters meeting in Anaheim that his anti-evolution work is driven by a religious bias.

"Since Darwin, we can no longer believe that a benevolent God created us in His image," Dembski said at a "Defeating Darwinism in Our Culture" panel discussion. "Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God."

Dembski also framed the ID movement in the context of Christian apologetics, a theological defense of the authority of Christianity.

"The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ," Dembski said. "And if there's anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view....It's important that we understand the world. God has created it; Jesus is incarnate in the world."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, expressed disappointment with creationists using deception to further their goals.

"People who have a religious point of view but attempt to conceal it in order to trick their audience make a mockery of both their own faith and the science they purport to embrace," Lynn said.

The debate over this issue has produced rhetorical excess.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), for example, told his colleagues on the House floor on June 16, 1999 that tragedies like the Columbine murders in Littleton, Colo., happen "because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud."

Similarly, when Ham, of Answers in Genesis, was asked in an interview with CNN if children are being harmed by lessons on evolution, he said, "Oh, absolutely. I remember seeing Jeffrey Dahmer interviewed as to why he killed people, and one of the things he said was because he was told he came from slime. He was taught evolution; he believed he was accountable to no one but himself."

John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research, seems to want to pin virtually all of the world's problems on evolutionary biology.

"The failed concepts of racism, fascism, Marxism, imperialism, etc., are founded on evolutionary principles," Morris told the National Religious Broadcasters' magazine. "The failing practices of homosexuality, abortion and promiscuity, are the consequences of wrong worldviews and rebellion against parents."

For Matsumura, wild accusations such as these are a "disaster."

"People are short-changed in two ways," Matsumura told Church & State. "First, this approach discourages finding real solutions to the problems that teaching evolution supposedly causes. Second, when you've got parents telling kids to literally put their hands over their ears when they hear the 'e-word,' those kids aren't going to learn how to use evolutionary science to solve problems in medical research, agriculture, conservation, and so on. And it's not only science, but all public discourse that's harmed. Demonizing the opposition is never healthy for democracy."

The creationists' new approaches, in tandem with a wave of legislation and aggressive rhetoric, has focused the attention of evolution's supporters as never before.

"A lot of scientists took Kansas as a wake-up call, and a lot of science organizations are getting involved," said Matsumura. "This is good news, and the creationists might have awakened a sleeping giant."

Where will the debate go from here? Seventy-five years after the Scopes trial, the landscape has changed so significantly that predicting the next fight becomes almost impossible. The only certainty is that there will be another fight.

"[Creationists] keep coming up with differently worded legislation, trying to get around court decisions," Matsumura said. "The next court decision will determine the next creationist counter-move. If they can't get one anti-evolution book into schools, they'll write another, and keep scientists busy showing what's wrong with that one.

"They're not going away, and there's no miracle cure for this problem," Matsumura concluded. "Eternal vigilance, it has been said, is the price of liberty."