Friday, November 25, 2005

Maybe there is hope for the Republic yet

To me, the most heartening election result this November took place in Dover, Penn.

There, citizens in a Republican town in a traditionally Republican congressional district voted to replace virtually the entire local school board with moderates running as Democrats. Although the tally was close, with fewer than two percentage points separating some contestants, it was also decisive. Every incumbent Republican lost ; every Democratic challenger won. Partisanship, however, had little to do with it. Essentially, the election served as a referendum on “intelligent design,” a religious idea disguised as a scientific theorem and foisted upon schoolchildren in biology classes. In October 2004, the old school board voted to require district science teachers to make their students “aware of gaps / problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of [biological ] evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

In consequence, the district found itself caught up in a costly, embarrassing and at times deeply farcical civil trial in a U. S. District Court in Harrisburg. Brought by eight families who objected to having their children inculcated with fundamentalist religious dogma in a public school, the lawsuit won’t be decided formally until January 2006, when the judge, a GOP appointee, has promised his ruling.

Based upon the evidence, however, there’s little doubt it’ll reprise the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling forbidding what was then called “creation science” from being taught in Louisiana schools as an unconstitutional establishment of sectarian religion. Flogged in the newspapers and on TV (as opposed to refereed scientific journals ) by an outfit calling itself the Discovery Institute, intelligent design—ID for short—supposedly represented a new frontier in scientific thinking.

Instead, judging by excellent coverage given the trial in Pennsylvania’s York Daily Record and elsewhere, ID got exposed as biblical fundamentalism in a badly fitting lab coat.

Lest you suspect exaggeration, ponder this sentence from a creationist textbook called “Of Pandas and People,” cited in the Louisiana case : “Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent creator, with their distinctive features already intact—fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.”

Here it is again from a post-1987 edition of the same book, purchased by the Dover School Board : “Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact—fish with fins and scales, etc.”

Not much additional research appears to have been done.

Professor Barbara Forrest, whose book, “Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” is crucial to understanding this latest effort to confuse the realms of faith and reason, provided the court with an excerpt from the manuscript of a forthcoming textbook re-titled “The Design of Life.” It states that “sudden appearance means that various forms of life began abruptly....” Well, I’ll spare you from reading the identical sentence three times.

See, you can call a zebra a hippopotamus if you like, but that doesn’t make it striped. Speaking of which, from a purely scientific standpoint, the trial’s high point may have come when Cal-Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian gave the court a compelling seminar in the extensive fossil record linking hippos and whales. Contrary to “Of Pandas and People’s” standard “missing link” argument that denies the existence of such “transitional species,” there’s an ever more abundant record demonstrating how land-dwelling and sea-going mammals evolved from common ancestors over eons of time in response to environmental change.

Did God put it there to confuse us ? Or maybe Satan’s responsible. But enough sophomoric humor. The scientist who fared worst on the witness stand was Michael J. Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University and author of the best-selling book, “Darwin’s Black Box.” Surrounded by stacks of books and journal articles dealing with the evolution of the human immune system, a mystery for which, his book argued, “scientific literature has no answer,” Behe was reduced to rhetorically dismissing works he obviously knew nothing about.

Even journalists are expected to read books before reviewing them. Attorneys for the complaining parents also appear to have had a grand time taking Behe systematically through “Of Pandas and People,” repudiating one creationist nostrum after another. Indeed, his version of ID seems to boil down to the idea that God created the first living cell several billion years ago, placed it on the primordial earth, fixed himself a bowl of popcorn and sat back to enjoy the show. Maybe he did. Asked what “mechanism” the designer used, Behe offered none. In short, ID not only fails to qualify as a scientific theorem, it’s not even a hypothesis. It’s the equivalent of a 3 a. m. dormitory bull session about The Meaning of Life. The good news is that whatever Americans may tell pollsters about evolution when it’s falsely equated with atheism, when circumstances force them to think seriously, the majority reaches the right conclusion.

—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

 
Not without one helluva a fight, Gene. The Fundys won't stop until everyone is as ignorant and intolerant as they are.

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