The re-creation of creationists

August 23, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- What a shame that we can't recruit more creationists to the ranks of Darwin. They are, after all, such perfect examples of the very thing they oppose: evolution.

What does this extremely fit group of survivors do when they encounter an obstacle? They simply evolve into another, more complex, form of political life.

Consider the latest shape they have taken in Kansas. Last week, the majority of religious conservatives on the Board of Education decided to delete nearly every reference to evolution from the science curriculum.

Removing evolution from a required science curriculum is a bit like removing verbs from the English curriculum. Evolution can still be taught, but it's no longer required, it won't be tested, and it will be discouraged. The board just plain dropped the central theory about the origin of the species and -- what the heck -- while they were at it, deleted any references to the big-bang theory of the universe.

The whole flap is enough to impress anyone with the adaptive ability of folks who prefer theology to biology.

Let's go back to the origin of this species. In the beginning, people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible wanted to bar the teaching of evolution in the public schools altogether. The only science book they found acceptable was Genesis.

In 1925, creationists dragged a young biology teacher, John Scopes, to the courtroom for the infamous "Monkey Trial." It wasn't until 1968 that the Supreme Court finally ruled that states couldn't ban the teaching of evolution.

What did the creationists do then? They evolved.

In their second form, fundamentalists legislated equal time for religion and science, the Bible and evolution. The courts, however, took an equally dim view of teaching religion in public school.

So the creationists evolved again.

This time they invented "scientific creationism," which paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once called "the old wolf of Genesis literalism, lightly clothed in a woolly patina of supposed empirical verification."

Two states -- Arkansas and Louisiana -- actually mandated equal time for "creation science" and "evolution science." That's like mandating equal time for the differing mathematics of Pope Urban and Galileo. In 1987, the Supreme Court saw through that .

Most of us thought that creationists would become extinct. But lo and behold -- we have yet another, ever more complicated evolved form.

The same religious conservatives talking nationally about giving up politics are talking locally about taking over school boards. If they can't dump Darwin, they'll downgrade him.

Now Kansas, along with dozens of other school boards, labels evolution as "just a theory." In Alabama, biology textbooks even come with a little warning label: "No one was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." That's like debunking the atom because you can't see it.

There is no serious scientific dispute about the fact of evolution. It's supported by anatomy, fossils, carbon-dating, genetic evidence, the ages of rocks if not the rock of ages.

There is scientific dispute about the theory of evolution -- how and why and when life began and species evolved.

Theory is not a bad word nor a weak one. It pretty much defines the difference between science and creationism. Science begins with questions and seeks answers. It remains open-ended and open-minded. Creationism begins with religious answers and seeks only to allay doubts.

The ever-evolving creationists actually hold fast to the original idea of the Bible as text. Remarkably, they still have politicians spooked. In Iowa, when Elizabeth Dole was asked if she believed in evolution, she ducked the question: "I am a person of strong faith ... I'm going to leave that to the states." Somebody call the Red Cross. Fortunately, the rest of the world doesn't look like Kansas yet. Evolution belongs at the heart of any science curriculum. But there is still room for creationism in science.

Just call it political science.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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