Monday, January 10, 2005

Monkey’s Uncle

Check out Michelle Goldberg’s piece in Salon.com (subscription/Day pass required) about the new battle over the teaching of evolution in Dover, Pennsylvania.

It was an ordinary springtime school board meeting in the bedroom community of Dover, Pa. The high school needed new biology textbooks, and the science department had recommended Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine’s “Biology.” “It was a fantastic text,” said Carol “Casey” Brown, 57, a self-described Goldwater Republican and the board’s senior member. “It just followed our curriculum so beautifully.”

But Bill Buckingham, a new board member who’d recently become chair of the curriculum committee, had an objection. “Biology,” he said, was “laced with Darwinism.” He wanted a book that balanced theories of evolution with Christian creationism, and he was willing to turn his town into a cultural battlefield to get it.

“This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution,” Buckingham, a stocky, gray-haired man who wears a red, white and blue crucifix pin on his lapel, said at the meeting. “This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.”

Casey Brown and her husband, fellow board member Jeff Brown, were stunned. “I was picturing the headlines,” Jeff said months later.

“And we got them,” Casey added.

Indeed, by the end of 2004, journalists from across the country and from overseas had come to Dover to report on the latest outbreak of America’s perennial war over evolution. By then, Buckingham had succeeded in making Dover the first school district in the country to mandate the teaching of “intelligent design” — an updated version of creationism couched in modern biological terms. In doing so, he ushered in a legal challenge from outraged parents and the ACLU that could turn into a 21st century version of the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.”

The Dover case is part of a renewed revolt against evolutionary science that’s been gathering force in America for the past four years, a symptom of the same renascent fundamentalism that helped propel George Bush to victory. Since 2001, the National Center for Science Education, a group formed to defend the teaching of evolution, has tallied battles over evolution in 43 states, noting they’re growing more frequent.

After 1987, when the Supreme Court declared the teaching of creationism in public school unconstitutional in Edwards vs. Aguillard, the doctrine seemed to be shut out of public schools once and for all. In the last few years, though, intelligent design has given evolution’s opponents new hope. Now, emboldened by their growing political power, religious conservatives are once again storming the barricades of science education.

Next, they’re going after Newton. After all, gravity is only a theory.

In a way, I feel sorry for these people who are so frightened by the possibility that their precious belief in the pleasant poetry of Genesis might be threatened by cold scientific reality. They must have so little in their own lives that they feel they must assault others in order to protect themselves. It isn’t their faith they are defending, it’s their grasp on anything that provides them with some sense of stability. This is why lonely widows give millions to televangelists or religious fanatics blow up buildings; it’s their way of ensuring that their small piece of ground is stable and will provide them with a sense of comfort. I understand it, but I also know that it’s desperate, and desperate people do dangerous things.

What I despise even more are those who would exploit them for political gain. And if you don’t think someone like Karl Rove or Rick Santorum hasn’t or won’t take advantage of this, then you haven’t been paying attention.