Sometime later this year, Kansas public school students will become subject to new science standards that have a distinctly creationist spin. And that’s fine with a majority of their parents, who, according to a recent poll, want creationist views taught in the state’s biology classes.
The gutting of Kansas’s evolution curriculum is inevitable, because the religious right controls a majority on the state Board of Education. But the Board is prolonging the agony with an extended process of "study" and "public comment".
A key event was a three-day hearing in Topeka in early May that showcased theories promoted by the Intelligent Design Network of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. ("Intelligent design" is a mutant form of creationism that attempts to mimic biological research.)
The enemies of evolution are on the march. They may not have any decent science to back them up, but, sadly, it’s not good science that settles an issue like this. The decisive battlegrounds are religion, politics, and economics, and there, the creationists have a big edge in firepower.
Kansas’ scientific community boycotted the Topeka hearings, but a hardy group of its representatives, led by Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS), was present outside the hearing room to rebut the weird science being presented inside. Several of the scientists were outraged at the claim by the hearing’s organizers that to teach evolutionary theory is to teach atheism.
A significant portion of the KCFS membership is made up of theistic evolutionists. Their position is compatible with that of the almost 5500 signers of the Clergy Letter Project, who "believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist."
But what theistic evolutionists don’t say, and what the creationists fear, is this: Once you realize that the bewildering diversity of life on this planet has evolved through natural processes, it’s much, much easier to discard religious belief altogether.
If intelligent design is responsible for life on earth, then belief in a Supreme Being is mandatory. If life evolved through natural selection acting on naturally occurring variation, such a belief is entirely optional. That is why big slabs of the religious right are so obsessed with attacking evolutionary theory.
In his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris notes that humans’ unceasing desire for knowledge has always presented religions with a problem: "Every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap’ in Kierkrgaard’s leap of faith."
And there’s nothing like a good miracle to put some spring into that leap. In the struggle among religions to claim hearts and minds, those with the most and the best miracles have a big leg up.
Creationism is particularly effective, instantly providing the believer with at least 13 million miracles (a conservative estimate of the number of species on earth, each of which, according to most versions of intelligent design, was specially created).
The creationists know that the more complex our knowledge of the universe becomes, the easier it is to keep the scientific waters muddied. Doing so allows them to "see" physical evidence of God’s handiwork — the so-called "irreducible complexity" of, say, the cell or the bacterial flagellum — and that makes it impossible not to believe.
In contrast, even if the theistic evolutionists’ God has the power to perform crowd-pleasing miracles such as pulling bunny rabbits or butterflies out of thin air, He doesn’t indulge in them. His miracles lie in the distant past, sometime between the origin of the universe and the origin of life on Earth.
He’s had to make do with less flamboyant miracles, building into the initial conditions of the universe such marvels as the half-life of ytterbium, the freezing point of water, and the possibility of transposable genetic elements. Not the sort of stuff people come to hear about on Sunday morning.
And if the God of evolution has indulged in any macro- or micro-management of the tree of life since that time, then He’s not really that easy to distinguish from the God of intelligent design.
(Suppose, say, that He effected a change in George W. Bush’s heart so dramatic that Bush halted logging in Northwestern forests, which, in turn, saved a certain species of bird from extinction, and that species went on a few hundred millenia from now to found a whole new branch of the avian evolutionary tree. Wouldn’t that count as a supernatural influence on the origin of species?)
Whether it’s associated with theistic evolution or intelligent design, a miracle’s a miracle. Having accepted supernatural intervention in earthly events, a true believer can’t be blamed for thinking, "Well, in for a penny, in for a pound" – or maybe "In for a nucleotide, in for a redwood tree."
Since William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial of 80 years ago, creationism has shone with a populist aura, and that was never so true as it is today.
The creationist lobby in Kansas, as everywhere, marches under the banner of classroom democracy. Its troops want, they say, to free students to explore all theories of life. That sticks scientists with what looks like the elitist position: "We’re the experts, and we say you shouldn’t discuss intelligent design."
In an era in which we all can’t be experts on everything, people are rightly wary of a scientific priesthood being empowered to dictate school curricula. The trouble is that very few of the parents of Kansas schoolkids are equipped to weigh the claims being made by the Intelligent Design Network or other creationist outfits.
Few parents had the chance to learn much about evolution (or biology in general) when they were in school, while all their lives, most of them have been learning more than there is to know about the Creator. And no tweed-wearing, ivory-tower egghead scientist is going to tell their kids they can’t discuss "alternatives" to evolution.
Now, let’s pause to note that what’s the matter with Kansas is what’s the matter with the country, including both blue coasts. In June, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. hosted a screening of a creationist documentary entitled The Privileged Planet. The film was a product of an intelligent design think-thimble called the Discovery Institute, located in so-sophisticated Seattle.
And creationists are currently marching through the blue states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California as well.
At the Topeka hearings, a parade of witnesses testified that if Darwin or evolutionary theory had never existed, they, as good scientists, would still be more than capable of operating their own research labs exactly as they do today. Their counterparts in KCFS tried to fight back, arguing that scientific and economic progress rely heavily on evolutionary theory.
Here again, the creationists come out ahead, at least if we go by the definition of "progress" that both sides appeared to employ. A scientist need not know the first thing about sympatric speciation in order to develop the next generation of antidepressants or more flexible plastics or retina-scanning technology.
For turning out products to brighten people’s lives as we hurtle down the high-consumption road to ruin, the study of evolutionary biology probably is a luxury we can do without. Go-for-broke capitalism rests easily alongside most of this country’s religious sects, and in such an economic system, evolution just doesn’t matter much.
In an attempt to beef up their claim of economic relevance, pro-evolution scientists at the hearing also asserted that companies involved in the so-called "life sciences industry" will probably be reluctant to locate in Kansas if they think it’s populated by a bunch of fundamentalist yahoos who can’t understand simple science.
Well, as a reason for keeping religion out of the public schools, the prospect of bringing biotech and ag chemical factories to town doesn’t seem all that enticing.
If we want Homo sapiens to have a chance at another 10,000 years or so of civilization, we can no longer afford a global economy that’s dependent on heavy resource extraction and trashing of ecosystems. In that world, an appreciation of evolution will be essential.
As fossil fuels and other industrial inputs become more and more scarce, we earthlings will rely more and more on the ecosphere for sustenance, as we did (if not all that well) for most of the 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture. To do better the next time around, we will have to depend increasingly on knowledge of ecology and evolution.
I have argued before that it’s not backward religious beliefs but all-too-ambitious economic doctrines that have brought a proliferation of global ecological crises. But causation can run the other way: As we figure out how to survive as a species — as we start confining human activity within the planet’s ecological limits — we’ll learn that we can no longer afford to substitute ancient superstition for knowledge of how the planet really works.
If we succeed, we will have created a society in which know-nothing religion and intelligent design’s supernatural biology have withered away on their own.
STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. He can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org