Darwin in high school

Thursday, December 23rd, 2004

OK, teach creationism then, for God’s sake, but do it honestly.

This oddly persistent debate, which popped up recently in the Federal District Court in Harrisburg, Pa., is not about competing “theories” of our origins (apes or angels?), but about attitudes toward the future. That is, does the future loom as unshaped possibility or was it set inexorably into motion, oh, 6,000 years ago, and is now simply playing itself out according to Divine Plan?

Here’s an experiment: Google the words “ongoing research” and “evolution,” then do it again, substituting “intelligent design,” the secular term for creationism being peddled these days as religion-free and classroom-suitable, for “evolution.” Count the hits. When I did it, I got 151,000 for the first set of words, 447 for the second. That begins to get at the scam.

Proponents of creationism or intelligent design have no interest in expanding our knowledge of the universe or conducting further inquiry into anything. They want to shut the door on all that and live in a world that is as known and predictable as a ticking clock, which — here’s the rub — means everyone else has to live in that world, too.

I sympathize with their dilemma, sort of. That is, I don’t think there’s any long-term compromise possible, so they’ve got to fight, and on science’s own turf. Science purports to define, or address the nature of, physical reality. So does fundamentalist religion. If you’re a Biblical literalist, Creation Week — when God made everything from light to woman — isn’t a myth. It happened on the same linear timeline that, approximately 312,000 weeks later, brought us the latest episode of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

That makes the struggle taking place in America’s classrooms, or more accurately, the school boards that govern curricula, essentially (and ironically) Darwinian. So we watch as an increasingly vestigial concept, which was no match for Galileo 371 years ago, maneuvers to avoid extinction.

I don’t know if it came a step closer to extinction the other day or gained new life. On Dec. 14, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed federal suit against the school board of Dover, Pa., which in October became the first district in the country to require high school biology teachers to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. The lawsuit guarantees publicity for both sides. God vs. Darwin! Wanna arm-wrestle?


Forcing biology teachers to present intelligent design within a scientific context may do more to hasten the concept’s demise than banning it. I don’t think it’s any match for the spirit of human inquiry, which, rather than any particular scientific hypothesis, is its true enemy. This spirit presses against every orthodoxy — including scientific orthodoxy — until that orthodoxy cries “Uncle!”

What is lost in the debate, as it plays itself out in the media, is that there is a tentative, subject-to-revision quality to even the most solid of “facts” grounding any scientific hypothesis. That’s the whole point. Science is continually pushing the envelope of what it knows, then creating new theories to encompass the expanded data.

In contrast, Bible-based “science” has one aim only: to find bits of data proving, suggesting or giving hope that the timeline of Genesis is factually accurate. It doesn’t want to open up any faith-shaking cans of worms. Its research serves only to confirm the beliefs the researcher had starting out.

Here, for instance, is a report from the Creation Research Society on the rate of helium diffusion in zircon crystals: “The initial results were very encouraging. . . . These data strongly support our hypothesis of episodes of highly accelerated nuclear decay occurring within thousands of years ago. Such accelerations shrink the radioisotopic ‘billions of years’ down to the 6,000-year timescale of the Bible.”

Well, OK. But why bother? Obviously, they bother because this is the age of science, and even Biblical literalists have to talk the talk. Gone are the days when free-thinking heretics could simply be broken on the rack.

The incursion of intelligent design into public classrooms offends me not because I like Darwin better than God or worry that mandatory religious instruction will dumb down the science curriculum. It’s deeper than that. I am offended by the closed inquiry of intelligent design, appalled that its raison d’etre is to reduce the size of my universe from infinite space and time to a doddering, 6,000-year-old patriarchy.

I consider the determination to wall us off from the unknown a sin against possibility and the human imagination. To put it in slightly archaic language, I’d call it blasphemy.