Inherit the Wind

Published at Arkansas Democrat-Gazett

You know the story, the play, the movie–all based on a piece of American history. It starts when a high school biology teacher in a small, rural American community begins teaching his classes about a theory of man’s origins that defies conventional beliefs.

The teacher asks his students to examine the fossil record and draw their own conclusions. He traces the development of the human embryo, he lectures on the structure of bacteria and their flagella, he probes and questions–all to illustrate this shocking new theory.

The teacher presents ideas seldom heard in the confines of an ordinary classroom. Soon word gets out, and our teacher becomes a focus of controversy — even the target of a legal complaint that attracts national attention.

No, I’m not talking about the Scopes Trial in 1925, when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow faced off in Dayton, Tennessee. The issue: Could a state properly forbid the teaching of evolution?

That confrontation took place long before Darwin’s theory had become the established church of the biological sciences. But now any explanation of life’s origins other than Darwin’s is considered less than respectable — not science at all but religion. And there’s a law against pushing religion in the public schools, isn’t there?

Back in 1925, evolution was the heresy. It was the fighting faith striving to gain a foothold in American classrooms; now it is more like a divine revelation that may not be questioned.

And a high-school biology teacher who introduces his students to a different point of view may find himself in trouble. At least in Burlington, Washington.

That’s where Roger DeHart started asking his students to look at the evidence and consider whether life just happened or is the product of deliberate design. He should have known you can’t do that, not in America, or at least not in Burlington, Wash. Any more than John T. Scopes could discuss evolution in Dayton, Tenn., back in 1925.

I can still remember the definition of life in the back of my college biology textbook: ‘‘Life — a complex series of chemical reactions.’’ Somehow it seemed to miss the point. But that was the answer one was expected to give.

Mr. DeHart was asking his students to go beyond Darwinism (as Darwin himself had in his loftier moments) and wonder if there were a reason for it all, an intelligent design. That’s the new, more scientific, more subtle way of saying creation science–a term that’s passé–if it was ever in at all.

Naturally somebody complained. A student said Mr. DeHart was preaching religion. Well, it is an awe-inspiring theory he was presenting to his students. But then again, so is evolution.

And naturally enough the American Civil Liberties Union, guardian of the new orthodoxy, filed a complaint.

Soon the school told Mr. DeHart to drop any references to intelligent design and stick to the textbook. And respectable textbooks were cleansed long ago of any dangerous heresies like intelligent design. They stick to Darwinian orthodoxy.

I can remember being taught that Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny–which actually makes better poetry than science.

Nevertheless, some textbooks still use oversimplified drawings from the 19th Century to demonstrate that the development of the human embryo mirrors evolution as a whole. Take a look at a standard text like Molecular Biology of the Cell, and wince.

Even back in the ancient 1950s, at Centenary College of Louisiana, Dr. Mary Warters was planting seeds of doubt in young minds about this particular article of evolutionary faith. I can see her eyebrows go up even now at that theory. Dr. Warters had studied too many generations of fruit flies–she was an international expert on the genus drosophila–to swallow glib metaphors about evolution, even before DNA had come on the scene. She was a scientist, not an ideologue.

She was probably the finest teacher I ever had — and I had a number of fine teachers till I got to graduate school at an Ivy League university and found that ideology trumped scholarship.

It still does in Burlington, Washington, where Roger DeHart was told not to use any materials in his class that might cast doubt on Darwinian theory. Especially anything that indicated life was the product of an Intelligent Designer.

It figures. At least since Socrates was accused of corrupting the young, punishing teachers who dare to make students think has been one of the more honored traditions of Western civilization. If a gods-

fearing pagan like Plato were to come back, he doubtless wouldn’t be allowed to teach in Burlington, Wash.

The repression of academic freedom in our own time — aka political correctness — is alone enough to raise questions about the evolution of man. Where the spirit of intellectual inquiry is concerned, we seem to be regressing–not evolving.

Here in Arkansas, this session of the Legislature mercifully spared the state a law that would have censored arguments in favor of evolution.

It’s just as wrong, and just as embarrassing, to gag teachers who question the Darwinian line. And yet they’re treated as academic heretics. A professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago is quoted in the New York Times, our most orthodox journal, as describing the theory of intelligent design as “devilishly clever.” Just another satanic plot.

Why not just let teachers teach — without denouncing them as demonic and demanding that the state shut them up? What could be more educational than allowing different ideas to compete in a good teacher’s classroom?

Besides, there is something inherently suspect about a scientific theory no one is allowed to question. It asks us to take too much on faith.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.