WASHINGTON — Christian fundamentalists often have been accused of wanting to alter the laws and institutions of the United States. Actually it is usually the other way around; most of the time they only try to prevent America's laws and institutions from being radically altered. One example is their battle to stem the banning of Christmas symbols and celebrations.
But there is one area where many Christian fundamentalists do indeed want to impose radical change: the teaching of Biblical creationism vs. evolution in public schools.
After losing favor since the Scopes trial 80 years ago, the creationist movement seems to be making inroads again. In Dover, Pa., school administrators recently ordered biology teachers to declare in class that "Darwin's theory... is a theory, not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence." In an Atlanta suburb in 2002, stickers were placed on textbooks stating that "evolution is a theory, not a fact ..." Then, last month, a judge ruled the stickers unconstitutional.
In 1999, the Kansas state board of education voted to remove most references to evolution from state education standards, a decision that was reversed two years later.
According to a CBS poll conducted last fall, two-thirds of Americans favor teaching creationism in public schools together with evolution, and 37 percent want to totally replace the teaching of evolution with creationism.
But saying evolution is a theory is like saying the earth revolving around the sun is a theory. Or that plate tectonics (continental drift) is a theory. Or that things are made of atoms is a theory. Just because such things are not apparent to the human eye doesn't mean they aren't factual.
Evolution is a fact. Because it involves time periods spanning hundreds or thousands of generations, evolutionary change happens much too slowly for humans to perceive.
And in some cases, natural selection happens plenty quickly enough for us to perceive. Through mutations, new strains of antidote-resistant viruses are always emerging. The same holds true for pesticide-resistant insects. There is also the famous example of the peppered moth near Manchester, England. Starting out with light-colored wings, they were camouflaged as they rested on tree trunks of the same color. But as industrial pollution made the trees dark, birds picked off the light-colored moths. Mutant moths born with black wings survived, reproduced, and multiplied.
Through observing a petri dish of bacteria, evolution can even be observed in a matter of hours. Adding a certain antibiotic kills the vast majority of the bacteria, but some of them are immune and go on to mass-reproduce.
To take a human example, it is revealing that Nepalese Sherpas are generally much better at climbing Mt. Everest than anyone else. It is not just because of skill, but because their bodies seem to have adapted genetically to the extreme environment, according to scientists. How did this adaptation take place? Not because God decided one day to give all Sherpas a better oxygen-processing capability than other populations, but because of natural selection: the people whose bodies could not process oxygen in a high-altitude environment failed to survive to reproduce.
So evolution is happening right before our very eyes. Evolution is as elementary as the earth as round; for someone to try to convince me otherwise is like someone trying to convince me that the earth is flat.
Suppressing the teaching of evolution or presenting it as a controversial "theory" would be a huge step backward in education. Save creationism for Sunday school.
That said, there may be room for a concept called intelligent design - as long as it is not hijacked and distorted by the Biblical creationists. Advancements in science have enabled the observation of tinier things and more complex phenomena. Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, points to the example of complex engines that power the motion of certain bacteria. Behe states that if one of the many dozens of parts that comprise the engine is taken away, the whole engine fails completely. He argues that it is difficult to imagine how something could have been constructed gradually through evolution, given that the engine does not work until all the parts have been assembled. One theory is that an intelligent designer played a role. To be sure, it in no way refutes evolution, which easily explains how most other biological phenomena were designed.
If science cannot explain how certain biological components were constructed - a big if - then that point could be made in class. It would be up to students to draw their own conclusions as to how such things came about, just as it is up to them to draw their own conclusions as to what causes gravity. (Science still doesn't have a good answer. Could it be God?) But teaching that everything was created some 6,000 years ago, in six days, would be foolhardy.