Trial Exposes America's Division Over Evolution

Paul Nussbaum
Philadelphia Inquirer
October 2, 2005
DOVER, Pa. -- Outside the Dover fire hall last week, taking a break from a video lecture on "Why Evolution is Stupid," Judy Grim blamed Darwin's theory for America's moral woes.

"If I'm taught there is a God I'm responsible to, I know I have to treat people right," said Grim, 63. "But if there's no creator to answer to, it changes your whole lifestyle. Then it's just survival of the fittest. That's where our society is headed. That's why we have so many of the problems we do."

The nation's latest battle over evolution, spawned in this rural York County town, exposes a deep and persistent cultural division that is uniquely American.

Despite a century of effort by science teachers, half of Americans reject evolution because they see it as a challenge to their religious beliefs. The fight over evolution, combining the combustible issues of religion, schools, courts and politics, has become the nation's ultimate "values" contest.

Coupled with questions on such things as school prayer, public display of the Ten Commandments, and homosexual marriage, the teaching of evolution is a powerful political issue for conservatives, going to the core of their dispute with "activist judges." With an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, they have renewed hope that long-standing decisions on separation of church and state will be reversed.

Science has won most of the court battles. But it is making little headway in the wider culture, and now faces a new offensive from advocates of "intelligent design."

"Regardless of what happens in Dover, this will continue to be a problem until, as a society, we come to grips with it," said Connie Bertka, director of the Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

With more than 17,000 school boards and 50 state legislatures as potential battlegrounds, those who support teaching evolution say they are too busy battling immediate challenges to take on the broader schism in the country.

"It's something we agonize about ... How are we really going to solve the problem, rather than just keep handing out fire extinguishers?" said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

The Dover trial, which began Monday in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., is the first to spotlight intelligent design. Intelligent design holds that natural selection cannot explain all the complex developments observed in nature and that an unspecified intelligent designer must be involved. Eleven parents sued the Dover school board in December after the board required that a statement introducing intelligent design as an alternative to evolution be read to biology classes.

The parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, contend that the statement promotes a particular religious viewpoint and violates constitutional freedom-of-religion protections. The school board, defended by the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal center, says intelligent design is not religious and the school board merely wanted to inform students of alternatives to evolution.

Nationwide, surveys show Americans' attitudes virtually unchanged on the issue of evolution in the last 23 years. In 1982, 44 percent of those surveyed said they believed God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, according to a Gallup poll. In 2004, the number was 45 percent.

Only 9 percent in 1982 said they believed in evolution unaided by God, and 13 percent held that belief in 2004.

"When public policy goes one way and the premises of the culture go the other, you've got a formula for an unsustainable system of education," said John Angus Campbell, who specializes in the rhetoric of science and is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the leading proponent of intelligent design.

The situation is much different in Europe. More than 75 percent of Danish and French citizens and more than 60 percent of adults in Germany, Austria, Britain, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands said they believed evolution was "definitely" or "probably" true, according to a study by Jon D. Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communication at Northwestern University's medical school.

The theory of evolution, which is accepted by the vast majority of scientists and all the nation's major scientific institutions, holds that life, including humans, evolved from a common ancestor over billions of years. The question of a creator, supporters say, is a religious one, unanswerable by science.

While many conservative Christians see evolution as a rejection of God, many Christian leaders and other theologians see no conflict between evolution and religion. More than 4,000 Christian clergy, including evangelicals, have signed a letter supporting evolution as "a foundational scientific truth" and urging that "science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."

Scientists such as Scott and Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of a science advancement association, wish religious leaders would get more involved for evolution.

"Science can't sell it alone," Leshner said. "Religious leaders need to do more. They don't discuss it."

But Leshner and other scientists acknowledge scientists may often be their own worst enemies in the debate.

"We suck," said Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University biology professor who is the author of high school biology textbooks, including the one used at the Dover high school. Miller, a devout Roman Catholic and author of "Finding Darwin's God," was the opening witness for the Dover parents in the trial. "We suck at communicating information about evolution and many other aspects of science."

Leshner said scientists who are atheists often encourage the impression that evolution is anti-God.

"Zealotry of any kind runs counter to productive coexistence. Evolutionary fundamentalists are hard to deal with, but so are evolutionary atheists.

"Science can't answer the question" of the existence of God, Leshner said. "And that's very uncomfortable for a lot of scientists, who think science can answer everything."

Scientists tend to be much less religious than other Americans. About 40 percent of scientists, and only 7 percent of members of the National Academy of Sciences, said they believed in God, according to surveys published in the journal Nature in 1997 and 1998. Among the general public, polls show, more than 90 percent believe in God.

"The message from some scientists is antireligious, and religious people reject that," said Edward B. Davis, a professor of the history of science at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and director of the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science. "There are some scientists who really believe one of the benefits of science is helping rid the world of religion."

Intelligent-design advocates have made their attack on evolution part of a broader push to give Christianity a more prominent role in public life.

"Naturalism is the disease. Intelligent design is the cure," William Dembski, director of the Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in his book "Intelligent Design. "... Darwin gave us a creation story in which God was absent, and undirected natural processes did all the work. That creation story ... is now on the way out. When it goes, so will all the edifices that have been built on its foundation."

Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a pioneer on intelligent design and the author of "Darwin on Trial," wrote in his book that "important questions of religion, philosophy and cultural power are at stake" in the evolution debate.

In the Dover trial last week, witnesses for the parents testified that school board members advocating intelligent design rejected church-state separation as "myth." That connection between science teaching and religious motivation is key, both to the trial in Harrisburg and in the wider debate.

One of the Dover plaintiffs, Frederick Callahan, made the link between belief in evolution and support for separation of church and state on the witness stand.

"I've come to accept that we (believers in evolution) are in the minority. I've seen the polls," he said. "And we've been called intolerant.

"What am I supposed to tolerate? A small encroachment of my First Amendment rights? I will not."