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Saturday Feature
Science under attack from the Right
SF Alim

          Is the theory of evolution perfect? The Darwinian Theory of evolution, which provided an explanation for the origin of the different species in the animal kingdom, had an obvious bearing on the origin of man himself. But such explanation was instantly at odds with the traditional beliefs and the religious interpretation of life and its origin. The opposition of the clergy to the theory of evolution was more intense than what it was to the Copernican heliocentric model of the movement of the Earth and other heavenly bodies in the firmament that destroyed the geocentric Ptolemaic concept of the universe. Needless to say, the geocentric concept of the universe was more at home with the Biblical interpretation of the origin of the universe and that of man. The traditionalists and the clergy were, therefore, happy with the Ptolemaic view of the world. In a similar vein, the heavenly origin of man came under serious scrutiny with the appearance of the Darwinian concept of evolution. Unsurprisingly, after the Copernican model of the universe had pulled down man's heavenly abode, the Darwin's theory of evolution proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the scriptural worldview that man had no connection with stream of life on earth. Naturally, the reaction from the Right became more vigorous after this new theory about the origin of man again dispossessed him of all his divine inheritance.
It was about a century and half ago that the Darwinian theory of evolution was propounded. It was a time when the age of reason was at its pinnacle and hence science then dominated human thought, though technology, the daughter of science, was still in its early childhood. But after all these years when the scientific world is in the midst of a technological revolution, science has been growingly coming under fire from the Right. The new reaction against science is again being played out against the Darwinian theory of evolution. However, the anti-evolutionary discourse of the nineteenth century has also undergone a sweeping change in line with the revolution in technology. The fruits of scientific research is now being used to spread the negative propaganda against one of the keystones of modern scientific thought-the theory of evolution. And that is happening, of all places on earth, in America-the heartland of modern science and technology.
Unlike in the early stage of the evolution theory when the argument against the new concept appealed more to emotion born of faith than to scientific reasoning, the current trend is to question the validity of the evolutionary concept itself by demanding infallible evidences in support of the theory. If no such foolproof argument or evidence is available then the theory itself should be suspect. True, there are many ifs in the theory of evolution which have no immediate answer. But then what theory in any branch of knowledge is infallible? In fact, science itself is based on some basic assumptions which are accepted universally by all rational minds. Still the proof of the scientific theories' relative superiority over the alternative propositions available in the traditional beliefs is that they (the scientific theories) work and that the modern technological marvels have largely been due to those scientific theories, though they are not absolutely perfect as demanded by the their detractors on the Right. Now let us have a look at what is happening in the foremost country of the world where science has so far enjoyed its greatest patronage and witnessed its most phenomenal achievements. Peter Selvin, staff writer of the Washington Post, reported some six months back how the political Right has been organising a well-orchestrated campaign to replace the theory of evolution with the idea of intelligent design of life and the universe:
"Propelled by a polished strategy crafted by activists on America's political right, a battle is intensifying across the nation over how students are taught about the origins of life. Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution
The proposals typically stop short of overturning evolution or introducing biblical accounts. Instead, they are calculated pleas to teach what advocates consider gaps in long-accepted Darwinian Theory, with many relying on the idea of intelligent design, which posits the central role of a creator.
The growing trend has alarmed scientists and educators who consider it a masked effort to replace science with theology. But 80 years after the Scopes "monkey" trial-in which a Tennessee man was prosecuted for violating state law by teaching evolution-it is the anti-evolutionary scientists and Christian activists who say they are the ones being persecuted, by a liberal establishment.
They are acting now because they feel emboldened by the country's conservative currents and by President Bush, who angered many scientists and teachers by declaring that the jury is still out on evolution. Sharing strong convictions, deep pockets and impressive political credentials-if not always the same goals-the activists are building a sizable network.
In Seattle, the nonprofit Discovery Institute spends more than $1 million a year for research, polls and media pieces supporting intelligent design. In Fort Lauderdale, Christian evangelist James Kennedy established a Creation Studies Institute. In Virginia, Liberty University is sponsoring the Creation Mega Conference with a Kentucky group called Answers in Genesis, which raised $9 million in 2003.
At the state and local level, from South Carolina to California, these advocates are using lawsuits and school board debates to counter evolutionary theory. Alabama and Georgia legislators recently introduced bills to allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio have approved new rules allowing that. And a school board member in a Tennessee county wants stickers pasted on textbooks that say evolution remains unproven.
A prominent effort is underway in Kansas, where the state Board of Education intends to revise teaching standards. That would be progress, Southern Baptist minister Terry Fox said, because "most people in Kansas don't think we came from monkeys."
The movement is "steadily growing," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution. "The energy level is new. The religious right has had an effect nationally. Now, by golly, they want to call in the chits."
Not Science, Politics
Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe God alone created man or had a guiding hand. Advocates invoke the First Amendment and say the current campaigns are partly about respect for those beliefs.
"It's an academic freedom proposal. What we would like to foment is a civil discussion about science. That falls right down the middle of the fairway of American pluralism," said the Discovery Institute's Stephen C. Meyer, who believes evolution alone cannot explain life's unfurling. "We are interested in seeing that spread state by state across the country."
Some evolution opponents are trying to use Bush's No Child Left Behind law, saying it creates an opening for states to set new teaching standards. Sen. Rick Santorum (news, bio, voting record) (R-Pa.), a Christian who draws on Discovery Institute material, drafted language accompanying the law that said students should be exposed to "the full range of scientific views that exist."
"Anyone who expresses anything other than the dominant worldview is shunned and booted from the academy," Santorum said in an interview. "My reading of the science is there's a legitimate debate. My feeling is let the debate be had."
Although the new strategy speaks of "teaching the controversy" over evolution, opponents insist the controversy is not scientific, but political. They paint the approach as a disarming subterfuge designed to undermine solid evidence that all living things share a common ancestry.
"The movement is a veneer over a certain theological message. Every one of these groups is now actively engaged in trying to undercut sound science education by criticizing evolution," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It is all based on their religious ideology. Even the people who don't specifically mention religion are hard-pressed with a straight face to say who the intelligent designer is if it's not God."
Although many backers of intelligent design oppose the biblical account that God created the world in six days, the Christian right is increasingly mobilized, Baylor University scholar Barry G. Hankins said. He noted the recent hiring by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Discovery Institute scholar and prominent intelligent design proponent William A. Dembski.
The seminary said the move, along with the creation of a Center for Science and Theology, was central to developing a "comprehensive Christian worldview."
"As the Christian right has success on a variety of issues, it emboldens them to expand their agenda," Hankins said. "When they have losses . . . it gives them fuel for their fire."
Science had already faced its worst in the earlier centuries. But its onward march has never stopped. It is unfortunate that even in this twenty-first century science is again in the dock for the wrong reason. Though such attack on science will always remain a curiosity rather than a serious concern, the defenders of reason and knowledge will have to remain on guard all the same.


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