Religious right fights science for the heart of America
Creationists take their challenge to evolution theory into the classroom
Suzanne Goldenberg in Kansas City
Monday February 7, 2005
Al Frisby has spent the better part of his life in rooms filled with rebellious teenagers, but the last years have been particularly trying for the high school biology teacher. He has met parents who want him to teach that God created Eve out of Adam's rib, and then then adjusted the chromosomes to make her a woman, and who insist that Noah invited dinosaurs aboard the ark. And it is getting more difficult to keep such talk out of the classroom.
"Somewhere along the line, the students have been told the theory of evolution is not valid," he said. "In the last few years, I've had students question my teaching about cell classification and genetics, and there have been a number of comments from students saying: 'Didn't God do that'?" In Kansas, the geographical centre of America, the heart of the American heartland, the state-approved answer might soon be Yes. In the coming weeks, state educators will decide on proposed curriculum changes for high school science put forward by subscribers to the notion of "intelligent design", a modern version of creationism. If the religious right has its way, and it is a powerful force in Kansas, high school science teachers could be teaching creationist material by next September, charting an important victory in America's modern-day revolt against evolutionary science.
Similar classroom confrontations between God and science are under way in 17 states, according to the National Centre for Science Education. In Missouri, state legislators are drafting a bill laying down that science texts contain a chapter on so-called alternative theories to evolution. Textbooks in Arkansas and Alabama contain disclaimers on evolution, and in a Wisconsin school district, teachers are required to instruct their students in the "scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory". Last month, a judge in Georgia ordered a school district to remove stickers on school textbooks that warned: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things."
For the conservative forces engaged in the struggle for America's soul, the true battleground is public education, the laboratory of the next generation, and an opportunity for the religious right to effect lasting change on popular culture. Officially, the teaching of creationism has been outlawed since 1987 when the supreme court ruled that the inclusion of religious material in science classes in public teaching was unconstitutional. In recent years, however, opponents of evolution have regrouped, challenging science education with the doctrine of "intelligent design" which has been carefully stripped of all references to God and religion. Unlike traditional creationism, which posits that God created the earth in six days, proponents of intelligent design assert that the workings of this planet are too complex to be ascribed to evolution. There must have been a designer working to a plan - that is, a creator.
In their campaign to persuade parents in Kansas to welcome the new version of creationism into the classroom, subscribers to intelligent design have appealed to a sense of fair play, arguing that it would be in their children's interest to be exposed to all schools of thought on the earth's origins. "We are looking for science standards that would be more informative, that would open the discussion about origins, rather than close it," said John Calvert, founder of the Intelligent Design network, the prime mover in the campaign to discredit the teaching of evolution in Kansas.
Other supporters of intelligent design go further, saying evolution is as much an article of faith as creationism. "Certainly there are clear religious implications," said William Harris, a research biochemist and co-founder of the design network in Kansas. "There are creation myths on both sides. Which one do you teach?" For Mr. Harris, an expert on fish oils and prevention of heart disease at the premier teaching hospital in Kansas City, the very premise of evolution was intolerable. He describes his conversion as a graduate student many years ago almost as an epiphany. "It hit me that if monkeys are supposed to be so close to us as relatives then what explains the incredible gap between monkeys and humans. I had a realisation that there was a vast chasm between the two types of animals, and the standard explanation just didn't fit."
Other scientists on the school board's advisory committee see no clash in values between religion and science. "Prominent conservative Christians, evangelical Christians, have found no inherent conflict between an evolutionary understanding of the history of life, and an orthodox understanding of the theology of creation," said Keith Miller, a geologist at Kansas State University, who describes himself as a practising Christian.
But in Kansas, as in the rest of America, it would seem a slim majority continue to believe God created the heaven and the earth. During the past five years, subscribers to intelligent design have assembled a roster of influential supporters in the state, including a smattering of people with PhDs, such as Mr Harris, to lend their cause a veneer of scientific credibility. When conservative Republicans took control of the Kansas state school board last November, the creationists seized their chance, installing supporters on the committee reviewing the high school science curriculum.
The suggested changes under consideration seem innocuous at first. "A minor addition makes it clear that evolution is a theory and not a fact," says the proposed revision to the 8th grade science standard. However, Jack Krebs, a high school maths teacher on the committee drafting the new standards, argues that the campaign against evolution amounts to a stealth assault on the entire body of scientific thought. "There are two planes where they are attacking. One is evolution, and one is science itself," he said.
"They believe that the naturalistic bias of science is in fact atheistic, and that if we don't change science, we can't believe in God. And so this is really an attack on all of science. Evolution is just the weak link."
It would certainly seem so in Kansas. At the first of a series of public hearings on the new course material, the audience was equally split between the defenders of established science, and the anti-evolution rebels. The breakdown has educators worried. With the religious right now in control of the Kansas state school board, the circumstances favour the creationists.
In a crowded high school auditorium, biology teachers, mathematicians, a veterinarian, and a high school student made passionate speeches on the need for cold, scientific detachment, and the damage that would be done to the state's reputation and biotechnology industry if Kansas became known as a haven for creationists. They were countered by John James, who warned that the teaching of evolution led to nihilism, and to the gates of Auschwitz. "Are we producing little Kansas Nazis?" he asked. But the largest applause of the evening was reserved for a silver-haired gentleman in a navy blue blazer. "I have a question: if man comes from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? Why do you waste time teaching something in science class that is not scientific?" he thundered.
Science teachers believe that the genteel questioning of the intelligent design movements masks a larger project to discredit an entire body of rational thought. If the Kansas state school board allows science teachers to question evolution, where will it stop? Will religious teachers bring their beliefs into the classroom?
"They are trying to create a climate where anything an individual teacher wants to include in science class can be considered science," said Harry McDonald, a retired biology teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science Education. "They want to redefine science."
Young Earth creationism
God created the Earth, and all the species on it, in six days, 6,000 years ago
Old Earth creationism
The Earth is 4.5bn years old, but God created each living organism on the planet, although not necessarily in six days
Emerged as a theory in 1989. Maintains that evolution is a theory, not a fact, and that Earth's complexity can be explained only by the idea of an intelligent designer - or a creator
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