By William Fisher
In the early 1920s, with many in the United States worried about losing traditional values to the secular modernism of ‘the jazz age’, the silver-tongued William Jennings Bryan -- three-time Democratic candidate for President -- led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution from American classrooms.
Bryan’s movement was flush with success when, in 1925, a Tennessee court found John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, guilty of breaking a new law that made it illegal "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals."
The case, publicized throughout the world, came to be known as ‘The Monkey Trial’. Scopes volunteered to be a test-case defendant after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute.
Famed attorney Clarence Darrow led the Scopes’ defense team. A carnival atmosphere permeated the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee, as the trial proceeded.
And many in Dayton were angered and disappointed when the US Supreme Court overturned – on a technicality – the Scopes conviction, and the teaching of evolution was restored.
This week, however, it will be déjà vu all over again when the State of Kansas holds its own hearings on what school children should be taught about how life on Earth began.
The Kansas Board of Education originally set aside "six days of courtroom-style hearings” in the state capitol Topeka." The re-run of the Scopes trial was triggered by recent school board elections that gave religious conservatives majority control of the board.
Dozens of witnesses were called to testify and were to be "subject to cross-examination," The majority was "expected to argue against teaching evolution." The committee's minority bloc presented a list of 23 anti-evolution witnesses for the hearing, including a handful of scientists closely associated with the ‘intelligent design’ movement.
Attorney John Calvert, managing director of Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network – a group that supports the theory that "living creatures are too intricately designed to have come about randomly" – will push for a new school curriculum that would "encourage teachers to discuss various viewpoints and eliminate core evolution claims as required curriculum."
His opponent will be Pedro Irigonegaray, the Topeka attorney who will be making the argument that evolution is a valid science. Irigonegaray says he is in a state of shock. "I feel like I'm in a time warp here. To debate evolution is similar to debating whether the Earth is round. It is an absurd proposition," he told Reuters news service.
But attorney Calvert may welcome up empty: He may have no witnesses to cross examine –many prominent US scientific groups have denounced the debate as founded on fallacy and have promised to boycott the hearings.
Irigonegaray predicts the State Board of Education will face a lawsuit if it revises the state's science testing standards to include elements of ‘intelligent design’.
One of the key pro-Darwin witness groups, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has declined to send representatives. The organization believes the event is likely to sow confusion rather than understanding among the public.
In a letter to George Griffith, science consultant to the Kansas State
Department of Education, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner sided with the leaders
of the Kansas science community who have described the hearings as an effort by faith-based proponents of "intelligent design" theory to attack and undermine Science.”
The format and agenda of the hearing before the board's education subcommittee "suggests that the theory of evolution may be debated," wrote Leshner. "It implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data."
In an interview, Leshner told IPS, “These hearings create a false impression that science and religion are in opposition; they are not. Moreoer, they will confuse the question of whether evolution is widely accepted within the scientific community. There is no science base to the so-called theory of intelligent design, and it would not withstand any scientific criteria for even being called a theory. In science, a theory is not a "belief" — we don't believe or disbelieve a theory. We accept or reject theories based on scientific tests of them. Intelligent design is not a scientifically testable concept and therefore should not be taught in science classes.”
AAAS is the world's largest general science organization and the publisher of
the journal Science; Leshner also serves as the journal's executive publisher.
Leaders of the Kansas science community have also called for a boycott of the
hearing, and thus far, representatives of state and national science groups have
refused to testify. A group called Kansas Citizens for Science has called for the boycott, objecting to a "rigged hearing" in which anti-evolution Board of Education members "will appear to sit in judgment and find science lacking."
As a result, the hearings have now been reduced to a single day.
Kansas has been a focal point of efforts to restrict the teaching of evolution
in public schools. Proponents of ‘intelligent design’ theory hold that the
physical universe is so elaborate and complicated that its creation required a
sophisticated architect, and they are working to impose that theory in science
Debates over evolution are currently being waged in more than a dozen states, including Texas where one bill would allowing for creationism to be taught alongside evolution.
Critics, including virtually all of the science community, say the theory lacks any hard evidence and is a matter of faith. Evidence and proven facts are central to the scientific method, they say, and for that reason, faith has no place in a science classroom.
The Intelligent Design Network is a Kansas organization that argues the Earth was created through intentional design rather than random organism evolution.
The group is one of many that have been formed over the last several years to challenge the validity of evolutionary concepts and seek to open the schoolroom door to ideas that humans and other living creatures are too intricately designed to have come about randomly.
At the same time, adherents of the Christian fundamentalist right-wing, strengthened by the political muscle they flexed in the 2004 presidential election – and their growing power within the Republican Party – continue their attempts to make Bible study part of the curriculum in taxpayer-supported public schools.