Stealth Attack On Evolution
Stealth Attack On Evolution
Who is behind the movement to give equal time to Darwin's critics, and what do they really want?

, Time Magazine, Mon, 1/31/05
Ken Bingman has been teaching biology in the public schools in the Kansas City area for 42 years, and over the past decade he has seen a marked change in how students react when he brings up evolution. "I don't know if we're more religious today," he says, "but I see more and more students who want a link to God." Although he is a churchgoer, Bingman does not believe that link should be part of a science class. Neither does the Supreme Court, which declared such intermingling of church and state unconstitutional back in 1988.

But that decision does not sit well with a lot of Americans. So at a time when religious faith is increasingly worn on public sleeves--most prominently that of the President--a dispute that dates back to the celebrated 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" is being replayed around the country in legislatures, courts, school-board meetings and parent-teacher conferences. School administrators in rural Dover, Pa., visited biology classes last week to read a declaration proclaiming, among other things, that "Darwin's theory [of evolution] ... is a theory, not a fact." And in suburban Cobb County, Ga., officials pasted stickers on biology textbooks declaring the same thing and are now appealing a court order to remove them.

The intellectual underpinnings of the latest assault on Darwin's theory come not from Bible-wielding Fundamentalists but from well-funded think tanks promoting a theory they call intelligent design, or I.D. for short. Their basic argument is that the origin of life, the diversity of species and even the structure of organs like the eye are so bewilderingly complex that they can only be the handiwork of a higher intelligence (name and nature unspecified).

All the think tanks want to do, they insist, is make the teaching of evolution more honest by bringing up its drawbacks. Who could argue with that? But the mainstream scientific community contends that this seemingly innocuous agenda is actually a stealthy way of promoting religion. "Teaching evidence against evolution is a back-door way of teaching creationism," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

Kansas is a key flashpoint in this struggle. Back in 1999, a conservative state school board attempted to downplay the importance of Darwinism by removing from the required statewide science curriculum references to dinosaurs, the geological time line and other central tenets of the theory. Evolution, they argued, is "just a theory" and should not be favored over other theories, such as I.D. In the next election, Kansas voters gave moderates an edge on the school board, which promptly dropped the effort to revise the curriculum. In the 2004 election, however, conservatives retook the board, and while a curriculum advisory committee kept the science standards intact, a group of conservative educators is again trying to weaken evolution's place in the classroom. When public hearings begin in February, this group hopes to push through a more critical view of Darwin's theory, highlighting evolution's perceived flaws.

Mindful of the constitutional dangers, the Kansas dissidents have not called for bringing God explicitly into the classroom. Instead, anti-evolution activists and I.D. advocates are making what appears on its face to be a perfectly reasonable request. Evolution has not been proved with 100% certainty, they say. Some legitimate scientists think I.D. is more persuasive. So, in a frequently repeated I.D. catchphrase, "teach the controversy."

That's the position of John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. A nonpartisan but generally conservative think tank, the institute was founded in 1990 by George Gilder, a Nixon speechwriter turned technology evangelist (TIME in 1974 called him the U.S.'s "leading male-chauvinist-pig author"), and his Harvard roommate Bruce Chapman, director of the Census Bureau during the Reagan Administration.

Discovery has received funding from Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., an ultraconservative savings-and-loan heir. While it does a wide variety of public-policy research (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave Discovery $9.35 million, for example, to come up with new transportation ideas for the Pacific Northwest), it is best known as a major center of research and advocacy for I.D.

Putting God in the classroom is clearly illegal, but Discovery Institute strategists believe that even a push for I.D. might run afoul of zealous judges--as it has in Georgia. So the institute advocates that schools should continue teaching evolution but also present what West calls "some of the scientific criticism of major parts of the theory."

But many scientists--and science teachers--don't think there is any valid criticism. Sure, some 350 scientists have signed a declaration challenging evolution. But many tens of thousands of scientists reject I.D.'s core argument--that evolution can't produce complex structures. Take the eye. I.D. theorists say it could not have evolved bit by bit because a bit of an eye has no survival value; it would never have been passed on. Biologists see it differently. They say, for example, a primitive, light-sensing patch of skin--a forerunner of the retina--could help animals detect the shadows of predators.

Then there's the assertion that evolution is "just" a theory. "They are playing on the public's lack of understanding of what a scientific theory is," says Bingman. "It's more than a guess. It's a set of hypotheses that has been tested over time." Evolutionary theory does have gaps, but so do relativity, quantum theory and the theory of plate tectonics. West says those are different because scientists in these fields, unlike evolutionists, aren't afraid of intellectual debate. Evolutionists counter that they have welcomed challenges. They developed the theory of punctuated equilibriums, for example, to address the fact that species remain unchanged for long periods, then suddenly start evolving (note: this is a very poor description of punctuated equilibrium.)

A look at where the Discovery Institute gets much of its money and at the religious beliefs of many scientists who support I.D. makes it reasonable to suspect that Scott's assertion is correct: intelligent design is just a smoke screen for those who think evolution is somehow ungodly. And that appalls the many scientists and science teachers who believe in evolution and also believe in God. "I accept evolution as the best scientific explanation for life as we know it," says Jeremy Mohn, a self-described "very religious" Methodist who teaches biology at Blue Valley Northwest High School, just a few minutes' drive from Bingman's school. "I also believe that God is ultimately responsible for the process. But it's not our job to dust for fingerprints."