Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In a New York Times op-ed, Susan Jacoby says she knows how American got into this evolution mess:

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, America was well on its way to an accommodation between science and mainstream religion....

The [1925] Scopes trial changed all that....

When the 24-year-old Scopes was charged with violating a state law forbidding the teaching of evolution, his conviction by a jury (later overturned on a technicality) was a foregone conclusion. Clarence Darrow, the nation's most famous lawyer and most famous agnostic, turned a jury defeat into a public relations victory (at least among scientists and intellectuals) by goading William Jennings Bryan, who was assisting the prosecution, into taking the stand as an expert witness on the Bible.

Bryan, in the view of the Northern press, made a fool of himself. Opponents of evolution, however, lauded Bryan, and the press's ridicule of their hero helped to create the enduring fundamentalist resentment of secular science and secular government that has become such a conspicuous feature of our culture.

Between the Scopes trial and the early 1930's, "science-proof" fundamentalists pressured publishers into excising discussions of evolution - and often the word itself - from biology textbooks....

The caution inspired by such pressure extended beyond the Bible Belt and persisted for decades....

It's not clear, of course, how the Scopes trial could have happened in the first place if Americans were well on their way to a happy embrace of evolution. It's also not clear why the angry reaction to the trial became a permanent fixture of American society -- Jim Crow laws and lynching were also prominent parts of American life in 1925, and we were able to get rid of them.

Of course, we got rid of lynching and Jim Crow because brave people set out to get rid of lynching and Jim Crow. It wouldn't take nearly as much bravery to alter the way America thinks about evolution -- yet it's not being done.

Scientists and science writers need to reach out to the general public. What I keep imagining is a book, aimed at the widest possible audience and written as lucidly as humanly possible (hello, Malcolm Gladwell? Jared Diamond?), that explains precisely why the scientific community regards evolution as established fact. Don't call it Evolution for Dummies, but that's what it should be -- tell us what scientists know, how they know it, and how they see evolution validated and replicated in modern life. It should be a major publishing event -- hell, it should be a major event, period. It should lead to appearances on Good Morning America and Oprah and all the rest.

And I'd hope some of the scientists involved in this effort would be believers in God. I was a Catholic kid in the '60s and '70s and I saw no resistance to evolution in my church. That's still the case, and the same is true for Judaism and the mainline Protestant denominations. Evolution isn't compatible with fundamentalism, but it is compatible with belief. In a country full of believers, we'd benefit from a public effort to get that point across.

In the meantime, I'd like to see the more highly educated representatives of the Right -- from Instapundit to David Brooks to the Secretary of Education -- challenged on their alliance with people who don't believe in evolution. Hey, David, you sneer at coastal elites and praise red-state, small-town values -- does it bother you that the people you praise think Darwinism is the work of the Devil? Educated conservatives all know the truth about evolution -- it's time to ask them whether, on this subject, they stand with their ideological soul mates.

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