The so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, concerning enforcement of a Tennessee statute that prohibited teaching the theory of evolution in public school classrooms, was a fascinating courtroom drama featuring Clarence Darrow dueling with three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. However entertaining the trial in Dayton, Tennessee was, it did not resolve the question of whether the First Amendment permitted states to ban teaching of a theory that contradicted religious beliefs.
Not until 1968 did the Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious. The Court used the same rationale in 1987 in Edwards vs Aguillard to strike down a Louisiana law that required biology teachers who taught the theory of evolution to also discuss evidence supporting the theory called "creation science."
The controversy continues in new forms today. In 1999, for example, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects tested on state standardized tests, in effect encouraging local school boards to consider dropping or de-emphasizing evolution. In 2000, Kansas voters responded to the proposed change by throwing out enough anti-evolution Board members to restore the old science standards, but by 2004 a new conservative school board majority was proposing that intelligent design be discussed in science classes. (In 2006, the Kansas tug-of-war continued, with pro-evolution moderates again retaking control of the Board.)
In 2005, attention shifted to Dover, Pennsylvania, where the local school board voted to require teachers to read a statement about intelligent design prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes. Eleven parents of Dover students challenged the school board decision, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause. After a six-week trial, U. S. District Judge John E. Jones issued a 139-page findings of fact and decision in which he ruled that the Dover mandate was unconstitutional. Judge Jones's decision was surprisingly broad. He concluded that "ID is not science," but rather is a religious theory that had no place in the science classroom. Jones found three reasons for his conclusion that intelligent design was a religious, and not a scientific, theory. First, he found ID violated "the self-imposed convention" of the scientific method by relying upon a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon, rather that the approach favored in science: testability. Second, ID is based on the same "contrived dualism" as creation science, namely its suggestion that every piece of evidence tending to discredit evolution confirms intelligent design. Jones found ID's "irreducible complexity" argument to be "a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design." Finally, Jones concluded that the expert testimony offered by the defendants in support of ID (generally relating to "irreducible complexity") had been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers. The decision of Judge Jones in Kitzmiller v Dover (2005) is available online:
2. Although fossil evidence sufficiently demonstrates the fact of evolution, even more compelling evidence today comes today from DNA testing of species. In the future, most of our additional knowledge of evolution will come from what we can learn from DNA.
3. To call evolution a "theory" says nothing about its ability to accurately explain facts observed in the world. The sun-centered solar system of Copernicus and Galileo is a theory.
4. Evolution is the central theory of biology. It is a powerful tool for explaining the presence of millions of fossils and other evidence (such as the fact that over 98% of the DNA of chimpanzees and humans is identical) about the origin of life forms.
5. Evolution is not considered to be inconsistent with the religious beliefs of most Christians or Jews. Most mainline Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, and many other religious faiths accept the teaching of evolution. (See, e.g., essay below describing the Pope's accepting view of evolution.)
6. There is not a single first-rate biologist* in the United States who does not believe that life on earth has developed through the process of evolution, starting with single-cell organisms.
(*This seems to be a controversial assertion. As one objective measure, consider the group of tenured members of the biology departments in the nation's fifty top-rated universities. I do not mean, of course, to suggest that all people who reject evolution are second-rate thinkers.)
7. There are disputes about evolution as there are about almost any theory. For example, most--but not all--biologists believe that evolution has not worked evenly throughout history: they believe that there have been periods of rapid evolutionary change followed by long periods of relatively little evolutionary change.
8. It took over 200 years, but eventually the Catholic Church accepted the scientific evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. Eventually, most Fundamentalists will come to accept the theory of evolution as well--whether in 20 years or in 200 is hard to say. But it will happen. Facts are stubborn things.
Source: Gallup sample of 1,001 adults (Mar. 21-23, 2005)
Source: PFAW 2000 in Science & Spirit Sept-Oct. 2005
Epperson vs. Arkansas (1968)
Edwards vs Aguillard (1987)
"Justice Fortas and the Overturning of the Anti-Evolution Law"
"Justices Brennan and Scalia Debate "Creation-Science" in Edwards v Aguillard"
"Putting Evolution on the Defensive: John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody,
William B. Riley and the Rise of Fundamentalism in America"
Biographies of Key Figures in the Controversy (2004)
2. Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a biology teacher to discuss with her students the reasons that she believes in "intelligent design theory" (the theory that holds the universe was the product of the conscious design of a Creator)?
3. Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a biology teacher to tell his students "the story of creation in Genesis is hogwash and here's why"?
4. If a State Education Board decides to drop evolution from the list of courses it requires to be taught in public schools, does that decision violate the Establishment Clause?
5. May a biology teacher be fired, on competence grounds, either for teaching creation science or for not teaching evolution?
6. Is the desire of state or school board officials to avoid entanglement in a primarily religious controversy a "secular purpose"?
7. May a school system allow Fundamentalists to opt out of classes in which evolution is discussed? Would that be a good solution to the controversy?
Why does this debate go on and on?
not force exposure to the theory of evolution to those students who
the theory as too threatening. Perhaps. But at the same time, the
majority of students who do not subscribe to a literalist
of the Bible need to be prepared for advanced study in biology, should
they choose to undertake it. They need to know about
Teachers should follow the facts wherever they go.
The Onion's Take on the Intelligent Design Controversy
in Dover , Pennsylvania (10-5-2005)