In the wake of Charles Darwin's 198th birthday last week, it's worth noting that, even after so many years, as many as two-thirds of Americans doubt or reject outright his "dangerous idea" - the theory of evolution - notwithstanding its embrace by an overwhelming majority of scientists.
If you're wondering why there is such a disconnect between scientists and the rest of us, the reason was laid bare in an epic trial in Pennsylvania just over a year ago, the greatest legal battle over human origins since Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan faced off in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. But despite sensational media coverage of the case, one of its most fascinating revelations has remained largely unknown, even as the evolution wars continue to escalate:
There are actually two theories of evolution. And therein lies America's enduring problem with Darwin.
Call one of these theories - the one most Americans would recognize - the Talk Radio Theory of Evolution. In this version, "Darwinists" believe that the universe, life and humanity all originated from a cosmic accident - chemicals assembling themselves into the wondrous order and complexity of nature through sheer random chance, "from goo to you," as some have derided it. This is about as likely as a tornado in a junkyard blowing a 747 into existence. (The Talk Radio Theory of Evolution employs the term "Darwinists" because it carries a negative connotation for many, and suggests a creaky and outdated theory frozen in time since the 19th Century, when it has in fact been updated top to bottom through the post-Darwin discoveries of genetics, developmental biology, paleontology and the human genome project.)
Talk Radio Evolution also tells us that man evolved from monkeys (which supposedly makes no sense because, if true, why are there still monkeys?); that evolution has never been observed; that scientists are covering up the flaws in evolutionary theory in order to disprove God; and that belief in godless evolution engenders immorality, a survival of the fittest, anything-goes mentality that, among other things, inspired Adolf Hitler to launch the Holocaust.
Who wouldn't reject such dangerous and silly nonsense? Americans are right to just say no to the Talk Radio Theory of Evolution, a veritable scientific bogeyman. Hardly the stuff you'd want your children taught - which is why a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, attempted to jumpstart a national trend by teaching criticism of evolution through an updated version of non-biblical creationism called intelligent design. "ID" is the new kid on the origins theory block; its proponents assert they can discern evidence of a designing intelligence inside living creatures' cells and DNA, and that this "design" cannot be explained by the natural process of evolution. They don't identify who or what this designer is, only that evidence of its work can be detected - a distinction, ID proponents argue, that should allow the idea to be taught in public schools without running afoul of the Constitution's church-state separation. A group of 11 outraged Dover parents begged to differ, and the aforementioned epic lawsuit and federal trial followed.
With a lifelong Republican judge appointed by President Bush assigned to the case, the critics of evolution could barely contain their glee. Dating all the way back to Darwin's initial publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, they have always had the larger megaphone, and have succeeded in "branding" the Talk Radio version as the dominant theory of evolution in the minds of many, perhaps most, Americans. But the courts in the last half century have consistently ruled against teaching religious, creationist alternatives in public schools, frustrating those who would unseat Darwin by pointing out, quite sensibly, that the Constitution forbids state-sponsored religious instruction. The Pennsylvania case had the potential of finally turning that tide, too.
Instead, US District Judge John E. Jones III ruled unequivocally that, despite its claims of scientific evidence of design in nature, Intelligent Design is an idea that rests on supernatural intervention in the natural world - perfectly acceptable as a matter of faith, but never science. And the Talk Radio Theory of Evolution? To Jones, it was nothing more than the fevered dreams of critics, a cartoon version of real science.
Which brings us to the second theory of evolution, the one that emerged in riveting, frequently beautiful detail in Jones' courtroom. Call it the Real Theory of Evolution, the one Darwin developed and his successors have researched, expanded and sought to perfect for more than a century - the one that is pretty much the opposite, in every meaningful way, of the Talk Radio version:
- Contrary to critics' claims, the Real Theory of Evolution is NOT about the creation of the universe or the mystery of the origins of life. Evolution is simply an explanation of how various forms of life change over time. That's it. And that's why Darwin himself, trained as a clergyman, wrote that evolution posed no threat to belief in a creator.
Predictably, Judge Jones' opinion that the teaching of intelligent design in public schools breaches church-state separation has not helped ease the culture wars. Just the opposite.
The usual suspects among our most reactionary pundits did their favorite war dance of deception on blogs, TV and in columns, stirring more hatred with phony complaints about activist judges, God-hating liberals, and a mythical war on Christians. Judge Jones soon received death threats and a 24-hour body guard. A premier museum interested in my new book on the controversy, Monkey Girl, said they'd like to host an event, but that the subject of evolution was just too politically volatile. The National Park Service has weighed in, if obliquely, by continuing to offer for sale a creationist history of the Grand Canyon (short version: mainstream geologists are wrong; the canyon was carved by Noah's Flood six thousand years ago). Several presidential candidates, including Senator John McCain and Senator Sam Brownback, have at times advocated teaching intelligent design in public schools, as has President Bush. Kirk Cameron, the former Growing Pains TV-sitcom teen idol, more recently known for his leading role in the apocalyptic Left Behind Christian film series, is now a vocal, if clueless, critic of evolution (the Talk Radio version, of course). He is promoting an unintentionally hilarious Darwin-bashing board game that rewards players for agreeing that evolution is disproved by the absence on earth of animals that are half frogs and half bulls, or half dogs and half sheep. And then there's the recent "preacher teacher" case in Kearny, New Jersey, where a public high school teacher was secretly taped by a student as he pronounced evolution a lie and told his young charges they'd go to hell if they didn't come to Jesus. You can't get much more unconstitutional than that. Yet, after the student complained and handed over his recording, can you guess whom the community rallied around, and whom was harassed?
Here's the problem, which was made so clear throughout the trial in Pennsylvania, though he point has received scant attention: Policy makers, politicians, presidents and even school board members in charge of science curriculums have been duped into believing the Talk Radio Theory of Evolution. And the subject is so controversial that science teachers, who know the truth, often downplay evolution or skip it altogether, for fear of angering parents or being accused of atheism. This perpetuates the dominance of the Talk Radio version.
Why does this matter? It feeds an ominously growing distrust and disinterest in science - not just evolution, but all fields -- by today's students, as evidenced by declining percentages of young people pursuing advanced science degrees, compared to other major countries. In today's global marketplace, where invention and innovation are the coin of the realm, that does not bode well for America's future prosperity, security and competitiveness.
There will undoubtedly always be cultural conflicts between the differing perspectives of religion and science on where we come from and where we're going - and how we should teach our children about these ideas. Informed debate about the evolution wars, such as occurred in the Dover trial, is a very healthy turn of events. But there is no greater waste or tragedy than a war based on falsehoods. Sadly, that is exactly what the Talk Radio Theory of Evolution has brought us.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes' latest books is Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America's Soul (Feb. 2007, ecco/HarperCollins). More information at www.EdwardHumes.com