U.S.A.

Darwin vs. the creationists

William Lowther December 21 1981
U.S.A.

Darwin vs. the creationists

William Lowther December 21 1981

Darwin vs. the creationists

U.S.A.

William Lowther

Free Will Baptist Deacon Jim DeFir rose at 3 a.m. every morning last week to drive 160 km to Little Rock, Ark., to catch the opening of the day’s court proceedings. Outside the chamber he repeated to anyone who would listen: “If we don’t stand up for creation against evolution we soon will not have any opportunity to worship. It will be like Russia. Just paganism.” DeFir’s passion —and his prejudice— was a fair barometer of feelings across the United States last week about the nation’s latest cause célèbre: the

teaching of religion in the country’s

schools. Not since the Scopes monkey trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn., has there been so much controversy over the conflict between Darwinian theory and biblical rectitude. On that occasion, John T. Scopes, a high-school biology teacher, was convicted by a country jury of violating a law barring the teaching of evolution in state schools. His conviction and a $100 fine were later overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Last week, the roles were reversed. In an action due to end soon, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was seeking the annulment of a new lawwritten by fundamentalist Christians. Passed by the Arkansas legislature in March, it demands that wherever evolution is taught in public schools, socalled “creation science” must also be taught. The law defines “creation sci-

ence” as the “scientific” evidence that the universe, the earth and all living things came into existence as an act of creation in the space of a week about 6,000 years ago. Creationists assign the act of creation to God. But, because American law clearly prohibits the use of religious writings in public schools, they are arguing that the concept of a creator is not inherently religious. An identical law has been passed in Louisiana, and others are being considered in 18 more states.

To a large extent, the future of the creationist movement rests on the Little Rock decision. If the law is allowed to go into effect next September, it will

likely spread rapidly to other areas. If the law is struck down as unconstitutional, the movement seems likely to lose its momentum, despite the backing it is getting from the powerful Moral Majority.

In either case, the debate may soon cross the border to Canada. Said Dr. Michael Ruse, a philosopher from Guelph University who gave evidence in Little Rock last week: “From what I understand, in parts of Alberta they teach nothing but so-called creation science. Even in Ontario, parents who don’t like the theory of evolution can withdraw their kids from school. Professional scientists and educators in Canada are waiting to see how things go in the United States. But we’re beginning to gear up. We’re realizing that it’s time we cleaned up our own house.”

Last week, as the evolutionist arguments were deployed, more than 200 reporters, 60-strong teams of “experts” for each side, dozens of lawyers and hundreds of spectators jammed the courthouse. They heard a geneticist and member of the National Academy of Science, Dr. Francisco Ayala, dismiss creation science as unscientific. “It does not provide any explanations by referring to natural law. It invokes miracles,” he said. Recent scientific evidence proved the evolutionists’ case: that more closely related species have fewer chemical differences than species that diverged much earlier in the evolutionary line.

Other witnesses called by the ACLU stressed the religious basis for creationism. Francis Bruce Vawter, professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, said the new law’s definition of creation science “has, as its unmentioned reference book, the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis.”

Arkansas state Senator James Hoisted, who introduced the creationist law initially, acknowledged that he had done so because of his religious beliefs. But this week the creationists have their day on the stand. And, like Deacon DeFir, they are not about to give up on what they regard as a choice between religion and “paganism.” The court’s decision on the issue is one that many Americans believe could lead to a fundamental shift in the traditional contours of education.