Scopes Monkey Trial

Originally posted Monday, October 25, 2004:As a youngster, I was impressed by the motion picture Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the 1925 “Monkey Trial” in which the state of Tennessee charged high school biology teacher John Scopes with illegally teaching the doctrine of evolution.

Later, when I was a high school teacher myself, I screened the stage play for possible production and saw another school’s production of the play. It’s a terrific story, which probably explains why it’s been remade for TV three times. For me, it’s always been a little more than just a story, perhaps because academic freedom and the intersection of faith and science are topics that mean a lot to me.

Although there have always been questions about the specific mechanisms of natural selection, I don’t remember ever hearing any serious question about the general validity of the theory of evolution: not in school, not in church, nowhere. From kindergarten through graduate school, I attended nothing but Catholic schools; but Catholicism isn’t a fundamentalist religion, and in 1998, even John Paul II–generally thought of as a fairly conservative Pope–made it clear to any who were still in doubt that the Catholic church does not oppose evolution as an explanation of God’s mechanism for creation.

And so for years, I thought of the play as a period piece, reflecting a quaint period in our history before society had reached a consensus about the theory of evolution.

Imagine my shock when, a few years back, and seventy years after the Scopes trial, some fundamentalist Christians began campaigning for the removal of evolution from science curriculum–not in some Bible Belt bastion of fundamentalist Christianity, but here in Ohio, which likes to think of itself as a diverse and progressive state. Their mechanism, here and in other places, is a theory called “intelligent design,” which argues that creation is so complex it must have required a Supreme Being to pull it off. Since they’ve been unsuccessful in getting evolution removed from science curriculum, the idea is to introduce intelligent design, or “creation science,” into the curriculum and to insist that it receive equal time.

As a religious doctrine, intelligent design isn’t a problem. Thomas Aquinas used a similar argument as one of his proofs for the existence of God; but he was a theologian, not a scientist. Creationists tout intelligent design as a scientific theory, which it clearly is not. And while the Biblical creation account is read in many public school literature classes, the creationists’ goal is to have it taught in science classes, where it clearly doesn’t belong.

Here in Ohio, creationists have tried to mask their specious theory as an academic-freedom issue. They argue that some people, including some teachers, believe the theory to be true; therefore, those teachers should be free to teach creationism. This is a distortion of the term “academic freedom.” There are relatively few things that we teach in schools on which there is absolute unanimity of thought; teachers can acknowledge the existence of minority theories, but they’re obligated to teach the best that our present state of knowledge says. Teaching every crackpot theory as if it were established fact isn’t academic freedom, it’s academic malpractice.

Even now, in 2004, there are people who argue that the holocaust didn’t happen; are we to teach in our history classes that there is serious doubt about the holocaust? A few people believe that Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar landing was a faked media event; are we to teach in our science classes that there is serious doubt about that landing? And of course, there are all sorts of people who believe that women are inferior to men or that blacks are inferior to whites; should we shoehorn their views into the curriculum as well? What’s next–flat Earth theory? Alchemy?

So, what’s the relevance of this question to the current Presidential campaign? First, according to an article on CNN’s Web site covering the Republican primary campaigns back in 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush believed that both evolution and creationism are valid educational subjects for science classes. “He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught,” a spokeswoman said.

The truly scary thing about President Bush’s belief on evolution is that it is just one example of his Presidency’s tenuous grasp on reality. We went to war in Iraq not because of what the intelligence actually said, but because of what the administration’s idealogues wanted the intelligence to say. We went to war prematurely because some of his advisors insisted on jumping in with a leaner force which proved inadequate to winning the peace (ignoring the Powell Doctrine, which calls for amassing overwhelming force). Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Vice President Cheney continues to profess belief in the presence of WMD in Iraq and a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

The administration’s denials of reality and scientific evidence don’t end with Iraq. The U.S. refuses to sign the Global Warming Treaty because the administration doubts the scientific evidence of global warming. Embryonic stem-cell research goes to other countries because the administration is convinced, against virtually all scientific testimony, that it’s not necessary. The administration pushes an education agenda based on statistics from the Houston School System, later found to have been distorted by then-Superintendent (now Secretary of Education) Rod Paige.

The President of the United States has access to more intelligence sources and more experts than any other person in the world. He has a responsibility to make sure that all that information is considered honestly. Congress can mitigate a President’s potential legislative mistakes; but no Congress can make a President evaluate evidence responsibly if he chooses not to.

The evidence is that the President believes whatever he wants and ignores evidence to the contrary. In a friend or family member, that would be eccentric and faintly amusing; in the President, it’s dangerous.

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