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October 6, 2005

Darrow v. Bryan Redo

Tony Soltero

Eighty years ago in Dayton, Tennessee, a local teacher named John Scopes broke his state's law by teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to a high school class. The trial that followed became nationally famous as the "Monkey Trial," in which evolution was pitted against the state-supported view of creationism.

While Scopes lost his case. The proceedings opened up a national discussion on evolution, and raised the theory's public awareness to a new level. The trial also shed light on the ultimate flimsiness of the arguments against evolution, and helped pave the way for broad-based acceptance of Darwin across the country.

The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and - as of now - it is universally part of our public school curriculum, with good reason.

But there's always been a small group of people who regard Darwin as some sort of threat to religion (despite the fact that most non-fundamentalist Christian faiths have no problem with Darwin), and have always been trying to roll back the clock on scientific progress by attempting to introduce obfuscatory pseudo-theories like "creation science" and their current favorite, "intelligent design," into the classroom.

Until relatively recently these radical clerics and their followers weren't much of a threat; their publicity stunts were easily dismissed by the majority of Americans who don't subscribe to Taliban-style religious extremism.

We had rational leadership at the national level, and with the exception of aberrations like Kansas and a couple of other places, cooler heads also prevailed at the state and local level. But the political landscape has recently turned more favorable to the anti-evolution crowd, as they enjoy the support of a White House and Congress hostile to science and reason; and many state legislatures and courts have now also become infested with these medievalists.

So now we find ourselves with front-row seats to the latest skirmish in this odd battle; a battle that most rational Americans thought had been put to rest decades ago; a battle that encourages just about every other Western country to point and laugh loudly at us. The city of Dover, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, is now the scene for what promises to be an eventful showdown between evolution and creationism.

The problems started when the Dover school board forced its high-school teachers to read a statement to their classes that casts doubts upon Darwin's theory, and makes a pitch for "intelligent design" - a faith-based approach to evolution, if you will. The allegation is that it would provide "balance" to the curriculum on life's origins.

If there were any strands of scientific credibility attached to intelligent design, the concept might have some merit. But there is about as much scientific basis for intelligent design as there is for alchemy, astrology, and phrenology, none of which seem to have too many passionate advocates lining up at the superintendent's office.

To introduce intelligent design into a biology class and imply equivalence with evolution is tantamount to letting astronomy students decide for themselves whether Ptolemy or Copernicus was right about our solar-system alignment.

Mindful of this thinly disguised political agenda disguised as "education," a group of 11 Dover parents have filed suit to stop the force-feeding of this kind of pseudo-science onto their children. They allege, probably correctly, that this is simply a back-door way to slip religious fundamentalism into our public schools, given the complete lack of scientific merit under girding "intelligent design."

The fundamentalists' arguments are disingenuous. They say evolution is a "theory," just like intelligent design, and, because of that, both "viewpoints" should be featured in our schools. This argument misleadingly takes the popular layman's usage of the word "theory" - a guess or conjecture - and attempts to project it into the formal scientific definition of the term, which is far more rigorous.

In scientific parlance, gravity is also a "theory," even though nobody's ever observed water falling up. Intelligent design does not even meet the most rudimentary requirements for the scientific definition of "theory." To call intelligent design a theory is to call a rickshaw a Sherman tank.

And there is no law preventing fundamentalists from teaching intelligent design in their own schools, unsubsidized by taxpayer dollars. This kind of thing probably won't bode well for their kids' prospects once they join the real world, but we don't get to make that call for them any more than they get to make that call for the rest of us.

The problem, as mentioned, is not the teaching of intelligent design per se; the problem lies in the attempt to package intelligent design as some sort of legitimate scientific theory when it is anything but.

Evolution has never been a threat to religion; the slow and gradual development of life on this planet does not disprove the existence of God in any way. It's too bad that certain reactionaries fail to see this, and instead use Darwin's theory to cultivate a victimization mentality and pick fights with "secularists," who seek nothing more than objective scientific knowledge.

These reactionaries employ a nice little PR tactic: any disagreement with them is quickly framed as an "attack on religion." If you don't think intelligent design stands up to scientific scrutiny, you must hate religion. How can they lose?

Luckily for the rest of us, the parents of Dover are standing up and saying that enough is enough. Intelligent design belongs in Sunday school.

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