Louisiana vs. Darwin


Published February 16, 2009, issue of February 27, 2009.
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Three years ago, when U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled that a Pennsylvania school board’s mandate to present “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional, there was good reason to believe that the latest attempt to pass off creationism as science was decisively defeated. Not so. It just relocated.

Now it’s the state of Louisiana’s turn to plant the seeds of doubt about the theory of evolution in the classroom, and to reap the poisonous fruits of such labor. In response to a new law allowing teachers to “use supplemental textbooks” in the classroom to “help students critique and review scientific theories,” a national scientific organization just announced that it will no longer hold its conventions in New Orleans. The scientists say the law is simply a way to sneak creationism into the classroom.

The scientists are right, of course. Those who agitate for “intelligent design” to be taught to public school students as a competing theory drape their argument in the rhetoric of free speech and scholarly inquiry. They used the occasion of Charles Darwin’s birthday — he would have been 200 years old on February 12 — to promote Academic Freedom Day, implying that even the far-sighted biologist would somehow approve of camouflaging religious doctrine as a branch of science.

The religious agenda here is impossible to hide (especially since the champion of the Louisiana law is a leading Christian conservative group). As Judge Jones ruled — and he was appointed by President George W. Bush, by the way — the secular argument for “intelligent design” is but a pretext “to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.” Not only must this be resisted at every turn, it also must be countered by those who know that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, science can complement, challenge and strengthen religious belief.

A century and a half after the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin’s 19th-century insights still astound scientists, and his principal ideas have proved remarkably resilient over time. Where his conclusions have been distorted, it usually hasn’t been in the realm of science, but in the way his understanding of the biological world has been hijacked to explain social and economic phenomena.

Louisiana has done a disservice to its students by casting doubt upon the scientific discoveries that have contributed greatly to the extraordinary technological and medical advances we enjoy today. Writing a decade ago in the Journal of Jewish Education, Joel Wolowelsky of the Yeshiva of Flatbush observed that “lurking behind the would-be debate between Torah and evolution is either a shallow understanding of Torah or an unsophisticated appreciation of science — or both. Our children certainly deserve better.”

The children of Louisiana also deserve better.

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