Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Scopes Legacy

Susan Jacoby op-eds in the New York Times:

Shortly after the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” the usually astute historian Frederick Lewis Allen concluded that fundamentalism had been permanently discredited by the prosecution in Dayton, Tenn., of John T. Scopes, who had taught his biology students about Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Legislators might go on passing anti-evolution laws,” Allen wrote, “and in the hinterlands the pious might still keep their religion locked in a science-proof compartment of their minds; but civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from fundamentalist certainty continued.”

This was a serious historical misjudgment, as most recently demonstrated by the renewed determination of anti-evolution crusaders – buoyed by conservative gains in state and local elections – to force public school science classes to give equal time to religiously based speculation about the origins of life. These challenges to evolution range from old-time biblical literalism, insisting that the universe and man were created in seven days, to the newer “intelligent design,” which maintains that if evolution occurred at all it could never be explained by Darwinian natural selection and could only have been directed at every stage by an omniscient creator.


More sophisticated proponents of intelligent design, those who are religiously conservative but not insistent on literal adherence to the biblical creation story, use anti-Darwinist arguments from a tiny minority of scientists to bolster their case for a creator. Last month, a group of parents in Dover, Penn., filed the first lawsuit to address the issue, challenging the local school board’s contention that “intelligent design” is a scientific rather than a religious theory and, therefore, does not violate the separation of church and state.


Perhaps the most insidious effect of the campaign against evolution has been avoidance of the subject by teachers, who, whatever their convictions, want to forestall trouble with fundamentalist parents. Recent surveys of high school biology teachers have found that avoidance of evolution is common among instructors throughout the nation.

The singular achievement of the fundamentalist minority has been to render evolution controversial enough to silence many teachers who know better. Only now, when the religious right is no longer satisfied with avoidance but is demanding that schools add anti-Darwinist intelligent design to the curriculum, are defenders of evolution fighting back against the intimidation that has worked so well since the premature declaration of the death of fundamentalism in the 1920’s.

Why don’t we also include The Silmarillion along with “intelligent design” and Genesis? It’s certainly good writing, and it’s as plausible a tale as that of the Pentateuch.

Not that I have anything against the Bible – after all, any book that starts off with two naked people and a talking snake makes for a good read – but to hold that up as the basis for the creation of the universe and to require it be taught on the same level as researched and proven science makes monkeys of us all. If we allow this kind of religious intimidation on the part of a noisy and rabid cult of superstitious bumpkins to overtake the serious issues of school funding and the desperate need to give our children the best education possible, then we will have failed the basic mission of civilization: to become better, smarter, and wiser than our ancestors.