Denying Darwin: Another Peculiar American Institution

I’m standing up here in front of everyone, feeling a bit like a small, slightly exotic furry animal. A meerkat perhaps—a subject of curiosity.

I am standing at a podium in England, invited to speak by the British Council, because I am American. To be even more specific, because I resided at Ground Zero of my country’s cultural battle over science and religion, in an event that took place four years ago in Dover, Pennsylvania, when the local school board tried to force religion into science class.

I have been aware of this British fascination with us ever since the BBC came to my town in the fall of 2004, right after the Dover Area School Board inserted, for the first time, the phrase “intelligent design” into a US public school biology curriculum.

Eventually, a federal judge would strike down the teaching of intelligent design as unconstitutional, noting that it was merely revamped creationism.

Intelligent design advocacy groups would retreat and lick their wounds only to reemerge, as they have done recently, pushing for new anti-evolution concepts in the public schools under the guise of “strengths and weakness” and “academic freedom” bills.

But that would be more than a year away. At the time, George W. Bush had just been reelected and the European media was suddenly taken with the behavior of the religious right, whose support was widely perceived as instrumental in Bush’s victory.

I remember that the BBC crew looked at me much the same way that these people are looking at me now. Trying to determine on which side of the cultural divide I stand. The British don’t understand, I’ve been told, why Americans are so divided.

They find this issue enthralling. And they watch me curiously. In a way, I suspect, they find our fundamentalism kind of cute. Just like the meerkats.

I know they’re thinking: What is it with you Americans? Why are you so hung up on this religion vs. science thing?

And I gotta tell you…that’s an excellent question. The past five years of my professional life have been occupied by that question and it still beats the heck out of me.

Opinion surveys consistently have shown that Americans are deeply divided over evolution. The most recent Gallup poll on the issue, in June 2007, found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they believed in evolution and 48 percent said they didn’t.

A Harris poll published last December found that more people believe in a devil, hell, and angels than in evolution.

On this 150th anniversary of Darwin’s most widely recognized work (On the Origin of Species) and his 200th birthday, we remain divided.

Interestingly enough, we are also celebrating the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who presided over an even more torn-apart nation, and who ended that other peculiar institution of ours, one even more divisive than our present battles over religion and science.

Fundamentalist Fervor

According to Ron Numbers, in his book The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America didn’t really start in earnest until the early 1900s. For the most part, Christians were not biblical literalists and accepted science—including the ideas that the earth was very old and that living creatures changed through time. A typical interpretation of the Genesis account viewed the six days not as literal 24-hour periods, but as separate, lengthy spans of time.

But in the early 1900s, a religious conference was held in reaction to the liberal theology of the time. From the conference, The Fundamentals was born—a series of pamphlets demanding a literal interpretation of the Bible, and opposed to evolutionary theory. The Fundamentals became wildly popular.

Then in 1925, a young football coach was recruited to challenge Tennessee’s newly passed Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution. Scopes lost, and the Butler Act stayed on the books.

Thanks to the dispatches of Baltimore Evening Sun columnist H.L. Mencken, much of the country viewed folks in Dayton, Tennessee, as backward hillbillies. However, even as many Americans were reveling in Mencken’s characterization of the “yokels,” religious fundamentalists gathered strength, fueled in part by the derision they felt the rest of the country was heaping on them.

But perhaps our roots are actually deeper.

Paleontologist Kevin Padian writing in this month’s C.R. Biologies explained the nation’s historical divide by noting that the United States is founded on two separate and philosophically irreconcilable traditions:

One is Jeffersonian democracy, crafted from ideas born of the Enlightenment, which held that reason and rationality provide the solutions to the problems of the empirical and political worlds. The other tradition is that of the Puritans, who came to America to escape religious persecution in their former land, but who, on arriving, began to persecute everyone else who did not agree with them.

Fair and Balanced

Even though it has a national church—the Church of England—and lacks the strict interpretation of separation of church and state, the British people remain much more secular.

It is a place, explains Birmingham University microbiologist Mark Pallen, where the church is a space for weddings and funerals, and only about seven percent of the population attend regularly. In other words, the church performs more of a cultural service than a religious one. People say an evangelical presence exists, but only in small, mostly rural, pockets. I saw a few train station billboards warning of the days of tribulation.

Still, the British centralized school system is less vulnerable to anti-evolutionist attacks. Here in the UK, the national government establishes the curriculum. By contrast, there are five hundred school districts in Pennsylvania alone, all with separate school boards who have autonomy to implement a curriculum. And in many cases, unless a resident objects, as parents and teachers did in the Dover school district, what goes on in the classroom remains out of sight of scrutiny.

After one of my talks, I joined a group of University College of London graduate students at a local pub. Gemma Gordon and Lindsay Hodgson, both products of England’s public schools, shared stories of being taught about the Bible in the classroom. But they also studied the Koran and the Torah. They learned about Hinduism and Buddhism.

All students must take a comparative religions class. The notion that this isn’t the case in the United States is surprising to the British. Unlike in the United States, where evangelicals preach that unless you are washed in the blood of Christ you will perish in hell, the British are less likely to be presented with such a strict religious dichotomy.

“To me, they always seemed more like stories,” said Hodgson, who, along with Gordon, is studying human evolutionary behavior. We as a nation believe everyone’s voice carries equal weight. It’s a beautiful notion. But the pro-intelligent design organizations like the Seattle-based Discovery Institute take that notion and distort it to bolster their perspective: “If you don’t treat what we’re saying as equally valid then you’re discriminating against us.” Basically saying that “You’re being intolerant of our intolerance.”

But in that deception they steal the best of who we are as Americans. They use their lies to exploit our open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance to the marketplace of ideas.

Michael Marcavage of Repent America once told me that the Anti-Defamation League discriminates against Christians. How? Because the Jews are resisting evangelical efforts to convert them.

After the Dover trial ended, but before US Judge John E. Jones III would issue his damning decision dismissing intelligent design as an utter fraud foisted on American taxpayers, I took a road trip to visit creationism museums. Along the way I visited a kitschy place in Kentucky called Dinosaur World, filled with towering fiberglass dinosaurs all posed naturally together in a deciduous woodland setting.

The entrance exhibit traced the dinosaurs from their rise in the Triassic period to their demise at the end of the Cretaceous era. For 40 million years, according to the sign, dinosaurs dominated this planet. I recall three little boys, about 10, darting like pecking birds from exhibit to exhibit. One stopped before a fossilized Utah raptor egg, pressed his hands to the glass. “Wow. Cooooool,” he gushed. His friends lined up next to him. “Cooool,” they echoed.

Apparently, some visitors don’t want to see exhibits depicting such a world. I asked the lady behind the ticket counter what concessions Dinosaur World makes for them and she handed me a flier:

Creationism and Dinosaurs. Man and dinosaurs lived together and men were masters over all God’s wonderful creatures. In the early days, all animals were friendly and under man’s control. None of the animals ate meat or killed. God provided for all. There was no sin, no death, no evil and no disease. It was after the flood that things changed.

I scanned the flier as the woman wore an expressionless face. So, I asked her, is this so creationists can ignore all those science exhibits on display? She told me the museum tries not to take a position, but follows “the generally accepted…” She didn’t finish her sentence. “Scientific principles?” I prompted her.

She held my stare for a moment. “I just work here,” she said, turning back to the cash register. At the time I was amazed, but I’m not anymore. Two different groups of people can walk through the same museum, look at the same information, but exist in two distinct realities.

Leaving the parking lot that day, I spied a junk shop for tourists across the road. When the traffic finally cleared, I noticed flying side by side were the American and the Confederate flags.

Greatest Idea Evah

Darwin revealed so much of who we are, even though about half of Americans refuse to accept those roots. He has been demonized by religious fundamentalists, who absurdly have attempted to link him to eugenics and Hitler. In addition to the damage they have inflicted on young minds, I find their notions doubly sad for the fact that in many ways, Darwin embraces such traits we Americans hold dear—that of curiosity, playfulness, and passion. In many ways, I think, he had the demeanor of the consummate modern-day American stoner/surfer dude.

There is a story of Darwin collecting beetles as a young man. Excitedly, he found a terrific rare specimen, likely a bombardier beetle, and grabbed it with his hand. But before he could put it away, he saw another one and grabbed that one with his other hand. But then, he saw another one. Not wanting to release the two he already held, he stuck one in his mouth and held it between his teeth. “Alas!” he later wrote. “It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”

I adore this image of Darwin, a man so excited by nature and so curious, so enraptured with the possibility of discovery, that he shoved a beetle into his mouth without weighing the consequences. One can imagine that with a few minor tweaks, Darwin could easily have been the Jeff Spicoli of his day—an ardent naturalist who thrived outside of the structured environment of the classroom. Yet he has been credited with coming up with the single greatest idea ever. After his five-year journey round the world on the HMS Beagle, Darwin returned home in 1836 with a collection of wildlife and the genesis of a truly revolutionary idea. A year after his return, he sketched the notion on which all of modern biology is based—a roughly drawn evolutionary tree, topped with the cautious caption, “I think.”

I visited Darwin’s grave yesterday in London. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, an honored member of his church.