(Credit: AP/Reuters/J Pat Carter/Brian Snyder/Chuck Burton/James Lawler Duggan)
They don’t believe in science, and pander to evangelicals — as a result, the Republicans remain a party of stupid
“You say man evolved from an ape . . . but if we evolved from an ape, why is an ape still an ape and a person still a person?”
It’s a question often asked by religious critics of the theory of evolution. To answer it Brown University Professor Kenneth Miller reached back to expert-witness testimony he delivered in a Harrisburg courtroom a decade earlier. Miller was speaking at a three-day symposium celebrating the 10th anniversary of the December 2005Kitzmiller decision, which dashed evangelicals’ hopes that “intelligent design” could be taught in public schools as a counter-theory to evolution.
First, he said, man didn’t evolve from an ape, but man and the other great apes share a common ancestor.
The proof? The great apes most closely related to humans have two pairs of 24 chromosomes while humans have two pairs of 23, so if Darwin was right about common ancestry, where did the 24th chromosome go? The answer, the biology professor said, is found in the head-to-head fusion of two chromosomes, unique to human lineage and evidence that our predecessors had two pairs of 24 chromosomes.
It’s one of those findings that leaves you bedazzled with the beauty and elegance of science, if you go in for that sort of thing.
Not everyone in the standing-room-only crowd in the York College auditorium was buying it.
A man in his sixties sitting at the end of the third row stood up, asked a question, then turned to face the audience. Waving a Bible held high above his head he shouted, “All the answers you need are right here in this book! All the answers!”
The crowd began to jeer as Miller leaned toward the microphone and said the man with the Bible was doing a perfect impersonation of Captain Robert FitzRoy, the British vice-admiral who sailed Charles Darwin halfway around the world on the HMS Beagle, only to regret it. After Darwin published The Origin of Species, FitzRoy confronted him at an Oxford debate, “raising a heavy Bible above his head and imploring the audience to believe in God rather than man.”
This latter-day Admiral FitzRoy was Larry Reeser. I first encountered him (and Miller) 10 years ago in pre-trial depositions filed in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Districtcase. When Reeser was working at Dover High School during summer break, he had ripped a student’s “ascent of man” mural from a biology classroom wall and burned it. His act of pious vandalism got him name-checked in a 139-page legal opinion that prohibits the teaching of any form of biblical creationism in public school science classrooms.
“In the midst of this panoply, there arose the astonishing story of an evolution mural that was taken from a classroom and destroyed in 2002 by Larry Reeser, the head of buildings and grounds for the DASD,” Judge John E. Jones III wrote.
I covered the six-week trial in Harrisburg in 2005. It’s worth returning to because Judge Jones (a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench) wrote a magisterial opinion, which, while binding only in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, serves as a deterrent to any public school official who would introduce biblical creationism into a science curriculum anywhere in the country.
More important, as the Republican presidential campaign caravan turns toward Iowa, and shortly thereafter South Carolina, the lawsuit is a window into the world of fundamentalist Christians, who dominate the primaries in both states and without whom Republicans cannot win a presidential election.
SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL REDUX
In brief, a fundamentalist majority of the Dover (population 1,999) School Board threatened to block the adoption of a biology textbook that one board member described as “laced with Darwinism”––unless the district purchased a companion set of Christian biology texts (Of Pandas and People). The board majority also required teachers to read an evolution disclaimer to all students enrolled in ninth-grade biology. School board members secretly solicited donations to purchase the Christian biology textbooks, required teachers and students to watch a video produced by a religious advocacy group opposed to Darwin’s version of evolution (there is no other), and ignored the chairwoman of the science department who warned that what teachers were required to do was illegal. It was; and the board’s conduct made them ideal defendants in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Americans for Separation of Church and State, the National Center for Science Education, and a half dozen courageous parents and teachers in Dover.
The board had retained the Roman Catholic Thomas More Law Center to advise them at no cost in textbook selection and to defend them if they were sued. The quality of the pro bono defense provided by Thomas More attorneys suggests that board members got what they paid for. The fundamentalist majority was voted out of office after Judge Jones handed down his December 2005 decision, but not before saddling the small, rural school district with $1 million in court costs and attorneys’ fees.
The judge could have enjoined the teaching of intelligent design in Dover’s schools, assigned responsibility for legal fees, and headed for the golf course. Instead, he wrote an opinion that defined intelligent design as creationism masquerading as science, and upheld the teaching of evolution in public schools. He criticized the “breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision” and observed that it was “ironic that several of these individuals who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”
He referred his findings to the U.S. attorney, because it was evident that some members of the board had committed perjury.
Here’s the thing: every decision the fundamentalist Christians on the Dover School Board made, in public or behind closed doors, was rational. To adopt a biology textbook “laced with Darwinism” was to expose children to a “theory” that contradicted biblical teaching that God created man in his image at exactly the same time he created “fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings”––all beings exactly as they exist today.
For a biblical literalist, allowing a teacher to expose a child to Darwin’s scientific findings is to risk consigning that child to hell. Exploring the diverse speciation of finches on the Galapagos Islands might be acceptable; teaching that man shares a common ancestor with chimps, orangutans, and bonobos is a threat to a belief system grounded in a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.
Underlying the venality, thuggishness, and dishonesty of the fundamentalist majority on Dover’s school board and the constituents who supported them was a genuine fear that science education would undermine the faith of their children. Like the janitor who burned the mural, they cannot change. And they are 36 percent of the Republican Party nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals will account for 60 percent of Republican voters in the Iowa Caucuses, says Pew. They will make up from 50 to 70 percent of South Carolina’s Republican primary voters, according to political scientist and pollster Larry Sabato.