Monday, January 10, 2005

Democracy and Science Teaching in America

We've come around a full circle, back to the America of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee:

At the time, the battle over evolution had been raging throughout the country. It came to a head when 24-year-old teacher John Scopes challenged Tennessee's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools and universities. His persecution set the stage for a legendary courtroom showdown that pit celebrated Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow against Williams Jennings Bryan, the crusading populist, fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate.

Bryan, the nation's leading anti-evolutionist, made his case in populist terms. In his 1993 book "The Creationists," historian Ronald Numbers wrote, "Throughout his political career, Bryan had placed his faith in the common people, and he resented the attempt of a few thousand elitist scientists 'to establish an oligarchy over the forty million American Christians' to dictate what should be taught in the schools."

Bryan and his fellow Scopes prosecutors won their trial, but the national mockery that followed it did much to alienate conservative Christians from secular society, setting the stage for the culture wars of later decades. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Scopes trial, "Summer for the Gods," Edward Larson wrote about the birth of the right-wing religious counterculture in the wake of the Pyrrhic victory in Tennessee:

"Indeed, fundamentalism became a byword in American culture as a result of the Scopes trial, and fundamentalists responded by withdrawing. They did not abandon their faith, however, but set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational and social institutions."

Eventually, of course, the religious right emerged from its subculture to renew its attack on secularism. Today, cultural conservatives are mustering almost exactly the same arguments that Bryan made in Dayton 80 years ago.

Today's Monkey Trial has to do with the teaching of creationism in Dover, Pennsylvania. Though creationism now goes under the name of "intelligent design", the same basic principles apply: fundamentalists want the whole society, including the teaching of sciences, to comply with their religious worldview. If scientific findings fail to lend support to this worldview, then it is the scientific findings which must go. The justification fundamentalists present is twofold: first, they believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, and second, they argue that as the majority of Americans believe in creationism, democracy requires that creationism be taught in American schools.

Some fundamentalists are a little bit rougher around the edges about these arguments. Bill Buckingham, a new board member in the Dover school that is the center of the most recent courtcase, is one of them:

"Biology," he said, was "laced with Darwinism." He wanted a book that balanced theories of evolution with Christian creationism, and he was willing to turn his town into a cultural battlefield to get it.

"This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution," Buckingham, a stocky, gray-haired man who wears a red, white and blue crucifix pin on his lapel, said at the meeting. "This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such."

Funny that Buckingham singled out the idea of Muslim beliefs as inappropriate for America. Very similar arguments to his are used in some Muslim countries to determine what can be taught in schools: only what doesn't contradict the Koran may be freely taught.

Most proponents of "intelligent design" are more diplomatic in their speech. The time is not yet right to make the teaching of creationism obligatory in U.S. schools; for that a new Supreme Court is needed, and then a court case which can be taken to it for verification. But the fundamentalists are very optimistic about their chances, and hope that schools in the future will be required to tell the students about "intelligent design".

The impact of all this would be fascinating to watch. Any lead the United States currently has in scientific research would go down the drain, and it would be more and more common to see the U.S. take its rightful place among the other fundamentalist countries in international venues. This is already happening in the fields of family planning and AIDS prevention, of course.

The underlying dilemma in court cases like the Scopes trial and the Dover one has to with the proper range of religion in the society. The fundamentalists argue that religion should permeate everything, including sciences, and the majority of Americans appear not to mind this, given that most believe human beings were created in their current form by a god. This shows a lack of sophistication about both science and religion. After all, there is nothing to stop a religious person from thinking that evolution was the technique god used in creating the ultimate human beings. But such talk is elitist, and indeed it seems to be an elitist position to accept evolution as the most likely rough explanation of how species, including Homo Sapiens, developed.

I have nothing new and enlightening to say about all this. We are going to hell in a hand-basket, and most Americans want the road to be faster and the basket to be fuller. And don't expect the politicians to help slow down this slide: one of the most prominent supporters of "intelligent design" is Rick Santorum.