Scopes in Reverse

As Kansas wound down its week long observance of the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Trial, a striking irony largely escaped notice: Whereas in 1925 the teaching of evolution was banned from the classroom, in 2000 the teaching of anything but evolution is effectively banned from the classroom. Academic freedom is just as restricted as ever–only this time it’s the pro-evolution side doing the censoring.

One of the most popular events this past week was a dramatic presentation based on transcripts of the original Scopes Trial, sponsored by pro-evolution People for the American Way (PAW). The audience was prompted with cue cards saying, “hiss” and “hubbub,” but many went beyond the instructions, breaking in with eager cheers and applause.

The topic clearly generates a high level of interest. And that interest is not always what one would expect. One recent poll found that 79 percent of all Americans want creation taught in the school, which was almost as many people who support teaching evolution in school (83 percent)–these results greatly surprised PAW, who commissioned the poll. What is more, 30 percent do not want creation relegated to history or social studies courses; they want it taught as a scientific theory.

Critics charge this would inject religion into the science classroom. But the idea that life exhibits design is a timeless observation that has been held by religious and non-religious alike since the time of the ancient Stoics. Contemporary “design theory” relies on scientific evidence to determine whether an event is caused by natural or intelligent–just as a detective relies on evidence to decide whether a death was natural or murder, or an insurance company relies on evidence to decide whether a fire is an accident or arson.

In explaining, for example, the origin of life, an open-minded scientist would weigh evidence whether natural causes (chance and law) are capable of creating the vast stores of information in the DNA code. The answer scientists are finding is “no.” Chance produces randomness, while physical law produces simple, repetitive order (like using a macro on your computer to print a phrase over and over). The only thing that produces complex, non-repeating, specified order is an intelligent agent.

That is why today qualified scientists are reaching the conclusion that design theory makes better sense of the data. Influential new books are coming out by scientists like molecular biologist Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box, The Free Press) and mathematician William Dembski (The Design Inference, Cambridge University Press), which identify problems with Darwinian evolution and highlight evidence for intelligent design in the universe.

Of course, any theory of origins will have religious implications–but that doesn’t mean it should be barred from the classroom. Darwinism itself has religious implications (or rather, anti-religious ones), but the theory is still taught in public schools. Darwinism and design theory are not two different subjects; they are competing answers to the same question: How did life arise and diversify on Earth? If one viewpoint is taught, the other should be taught as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has strong-armed many school districts into banning anything but neo-Darwinian evolution, but their scare tactics represent a misunderstanding of what the Supreme Court actually said. Teaching a variety of scientific theories about origins “might be validly done with the clear secular purpose of enhancing the effectiveness of science education,” the court stated in Edwards vs. Aguillard.

The court even asserted that academic freedom requires alternative theories about origins to be permitted in public school science classrooms. And under its definition of academic freedom the court included a teacher’s right to teach scientific alternatives to the dominant Darwinian approach to biological origins. In other words, the court has explicitly stated it is constitutional for teachers and school boards to expose students to the scientific problems with current Darwinian theory, as well as to any scientific alternatives.

In fact, suppressing alternatives constitutes “viewpoint discrimination,” something the court has elsewhere pronounced unconstitutional.

Those celebrating the anniversary of the Scopes Trial ought to take a lesson from the Supreme Court and support the principle of openness in science education. How ironic that today it is the pro-evolution groups, like PAW, that are on the side of intolerance. The audience cheering the academic freedom won in 1925 ought to be calling for the same freedom in today’s classroom.

Nancy R. Pearcey is a senior fellow at the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute and is managing editor of the journal Origins and Design. She is coauthor of The Soul of Science and of How Now Shall We Live?