Ken Bingman has beern teaching biology in the public schools in the Kansas City area for 42 years, and over the past decade he has seen a marked change in how students react when he brings up evolution. "I don't know if we're more religious today," he says, "but I see more and more students who want a link to God." Although he is a churchgoer, Bingman does not believe that link should be part of a science class. Neither does the Supreme Court, which declared such intermingling of church and state unconstitutional back in 1988.
But that decision does not sit well with a lot of Americans. So at a time when religious faith is increasingly worn on public sleeves--most prominently that of the President--a dispute that dates back to the celebrated 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" is being replayed around the country in legislatures, courts, school-board meetings and parent-teacher conferences. School administrators in rural Dover, Pa., visited biology classes last week to read a declaration proclaiming, among other things, that "Darwin's theory [of evolution] ... is a theory, not a fact." And in suburban Cobb County, Ga., officials pasted stickers on biology textbooks declaring the same thing and are now appealing a court order to remove them.
The intellectual underpinnings of the latest assault on Darwin's theory come not from Bible-wielding Fundamentalists but from well-funded think tanks promoting a theory they call intelligent design, or I.D. for short. Their basic argument is that the origin of life, the diversity of species and even the structure of organs like the eye are so bewilderingly complex that they can only be the handiwork of a higher intelligence (name and nature unspecified).
All the think tanks want to do, they insist, is make the teaching of evolution more honest by bringing up its drawbacks. Who could argue with that? But the mainstream scientific community contends that this seemingly innocuous agenda is actually a stealthy way of promoting religion. "Teaching evidence against evolution is a back-door way of teaching creationism," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Kansas is a key flashpoint in this struggle. Back in 1999, a conservative state school board attempted to downplay the importance of Darwinism by removing from the required statewide science curriculum references to dinosaurs, the geological time line and other central tenets of the theory. Evolution, they argued, is "just a theory" and should not be favored over other theories, such as I.D. In the next election, Kansas voters gave moderates an edge on the school board, which promptly dropped the effort to revise the curriculum. In the 2004 election, however, conservatives retook the board, and while a curriculum advisory committee kept the science standards intact, a group of conservative educators is again trying to weaken evolution's place in the classroom. When public hearings begin in February, this group hopes to push through a more critical view of Darwin's theory, highlighting evolution's perceived flaws.