net.wars: The new Scopes Monkey trials

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 September 2005

It so happens that my closest friends live in a suburb of Harrisburg, PA, which means they almost have front row seats for the latest episode of "As the Monkey Turns". Er, I mean the battle between the Forces of Science and the Forces of Creationism. I know we've played out this fight before in places like Tennessee and Kansas, but somehow it's far more disturbing to watch it happen in Pennsylvania. I mean, that's a northeastern state. It's next to New York, a place so notoriously Godless it's even chosen as the unbeliever's birthplace in a 1920s anti-evolution song by Walter Smith called "My Evolution Girl":

Wendy M Grossman

"Don't believe in evolution

Or the Devil will get your soul."

Given that I founded Britain's Skeptic magazine, no one's going to be surprised to hear that I am not a fan of teaching either creationism or Intelligent Design in the schools, at least not as part of science education. Though you can't always assume that: at a London conference a couple of years ago one of the other skeptics argued that teaching creationism in school would be a good thing as part of teaching kids how to evaluate scientific controversies. I disagree with that plan, largely because it suggests there's a controversy where none exists: the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming.

It's also part of a kind of political correctness that's blown up in the last couple of decades whose basic tenet seems to be that you shouldn't offend people by rejecting their point of view. But I'm sorry: all points of view are not created equal, and not all subjects are appropriate for debate. (I say this, and yet I go on TV and argue about them anyway.) If something comes down to a question of fact, how can you have a meaningful debate about it? Do we pretend that there is more than one valid view about whether the earth is flat? Should we require that all classroom references to the space program include a mention of the "alternative theory" that the universe is a pile of turtles? Of course, this point has been made better by the Flying Spaghetti Monster crowd and The Onion with Intelligent Falling.

In the UK, of course, everyone thinks that creationism is an American problem (with the consonants in "American" punched to make it sound ever so slightly snobbish and contemptuous). I've heard that kind of claim before about alien abductions, belief in angels, and obesity, and those all are now British phenomena, too. As a thoroughly unbalanced sample, I asked one the most regular English churchgoer I know whether he'd support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom. "I'd have to think about it," he alarmed me by saying, though he did add that there must be some clever way of reconciling Genesis with science. That's true, of course, if you think of the Bible as metaphor rather than literal, word-for-word truth.

What's intriguing in Britain is that most people you talk to say that oh, yes, there were some creationists active in the 1980s, but no one took them seriously and they faded away. In fact, of course, they didn't go quietly; instead they were mercilessly hounded by a few motivated individuals calling themselves the Association for the Protection of Evolution, or APEmen. Mike Howgate, the zoologist who founded APE, can still tell you in detail how they planned the campaign they mounted, deliberately trying to short-circuit the creationists ability to recruit additional followers. But those creationists are still around, even if their public profile is low, and if they want their numbers to grow (and from my reading, I'd say it's clear they do), just as in the US they will see the schools as the key to that drive. It can happen here.

The big mistake is to think that court cases like the one in Harrisburg are isolated examples of (American) wackiness. For one thing, they are clearly part of an increasingly wide rift throughout American society. For another, no matter how much creationists may say that evolution is "only" a theory and that the rest of science teaching can proceed unaffected, it's simply not true. You cannot reject evolution without rejecting observable biological phenomena: drug resistance, gene-swapping, mutation. You cannot reject the evidence of the earth's age and history contained in our geology and the fossil record without rejecting large parts of chemistry and biology. And at that point we're into the world of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, where every episode turns up a new paranormal phenomenon. The good news there, however, is that now you know why your computer doesn't work: an evil spirit has turned its daemons into demons..

The key characteristic of science is this: replication of results. If you are doing science, you can form a hypothesis and test it. You can predict the outcome of the test and see whether you're right. You can look for additional evidence in adjoining fields. Others can confirm or refute your hypothesis by doing the same test and seeing whether they get the same results. Science, therefore, is a process for establishing the truth. It is slow, painstaking, and proceeds with many backward (as well as forward) steps. It is always, by definition, imperfect and incomplete. Creationism fails this test, and so does Intelligent Design.


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