Last week, almost exactly 80 years after John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee for teaching Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a schoolroom, a federal court in central Pennsylvania convened to revisit the same question: whether America wants its schoolchildren to learn modern science.
The terms of the dispute have changed remarkably little in 80 years, despite differences in detail. Scopes was tried for violating a state law that banned Darwin’s ideas from Tennessee classrooms. The Pennsylvania case was brought by a group of parents challenging a local school board rule, under which children must be told that Darwin’s theory is still an unsettled matter, open to legitimate scientific debate. But the underlying force driving the dispute across the decades is the same: religious parents in the American heartland who don’t want their children to be taught that they are descended from monkeys.
As it was in Scopes’s day, America is currently in the midst of a great religious revival, with the forces of Christian evangelism and fundamentalism on the political ascendant across the country. Ideas of tolerance, social and economic equality, and the rule of law are everywhere in retreat. But the larger target, then and now, is the Enlightenment. Nothing less than reason and human progress are on the firing line.
In their defense, proponents of the anti-evolution doctrine now on trial in Pennsylvania protest that they are being tarred unfairly with the medievalist brush of John Scopes’s tormentors. They do not advocate the teaching of divine creation in place of evolution, recognizing that it was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1987 as an impermissible intrusion of religion in the public square. Instead they advocate a doctrine known as Intelligent Design, which argues that life is too complex to have evolved by chance, as Darwin postulated.
Advocates of Intelligent Design argue, with considerable justification, that their doctrine need not be at odds with science. It need not violate scientific inquiry to believe that the processes observed in the laboratory or the field were set in motion by some Intelligent Hand. But they go on to argue, quite implausibly, that their effort to teach Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion. The question of whether or not our lives are guided by a Supreme Being is precisely what religion is about. And it is exactly what the framers of our Republic had in mind when they set about separating religion from government.
For all the similarities between Scopes’s time and ours, it’s essential to point out the differences. The biggest is the scientific and technological revolution, built on the insights of Darwin, Einstein and a few others, that has transformed human life in ways scarcely imaginable those four-score years ago. We have learned to cure pneumonia, prevent polio and fly to the moon. We can replace genes, transplant hearts, even heal madness with chemicals. All this was done by scientists, working with the knowledge bequeathed them by other scientists who came before. Few such bequests were greater than Darwin’s.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this progress may continue. Darwin is not the only or even the greatest casus belli, and the Harrisburg federal courthouse is not the only battleground. All around the globe, ordinary people see the certainties of the world they thought they knew challenged by the advance of free, unfettered inquiry, and they respond with fear and anger. They want their old truths back. Parents from Pennsylvania to Peshawar want to stop the clock and wrap themselves and their children in the old verities.
Here in the United States, no less than 42% of the public — more than two Americans in five — believes that life has existed in its present form since the dawn of time, according to a July survey by the impeccably nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Nearly two-thirds believe that creation should get at least equal time with evolution in the classroom; 38% don’t want Darwin taught at all.
It is important that the federal court in Pennsylvania recognize what’s at issue in the current case and uphold the integrity of science. But that’s only the beginning. This civil war cannot be won by guns or court orders. Those who value reason and free inquiry must find a way to win back the hearts of the heartland.