When I was seventeen years old, I wrote for The Town Talk as a member of its Youth Council, a small group of would-be journalists and writers who were graciously given barrels of ink every Sunday. It gave me my training wheels and, for the first time in my life, an audience. Looking back, I’m not entirely proud of everything I wrote under their masthead (mainly my music reviews), but I’m still proud of a few things: I criticized one of my own teachers for publicly campaigning to ban the movie “Teaching Ms. Tingle” because she believed it promoted violence against teachers. Her argument was silly, and the movie was even sillier. Banning the movie from local theaters, I thought and continue to believe, was an insidious type of paternalistic censorship. I also wrote an epically long article about the politics of school uniforms, which were being touted, at the time, as a sure-fire way of reducing school violence and which also, in a way, represent an insidious type of paternalistic censorship. But one of my favorite articles that The Town Talk published was about the teaching of evolution in public schools. It ran on February 4, 2000, and it was largely written as a reaction to the decision by the Kansas State School Board, which had voted to effectively ban the teaching of evolution from public schools.
The battle in Kansas would take another seven years to resolve. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and today, evolution is still taught in Kansas public school science classrooms. But in many ways, the damage was already done. Kansas’s ill-fated effort to insert religious beliefs into the science curriculum became a punching bag for the international media; it undermined the integrity and the reputation of Kansas’s education system. But perhaps most interestingly, despite the international hoopla and all of the attention given to the State of Kansas, science teachers never really heeded the mandate proscribed to them by the radical religious right.
New earth creationism is a religious belief. Evolution is a scientific theory. For decades, the radical religious right has attempted to equivocate their faith-based beliefs with science. That is, they have tried to convince legislators and school board members all over the country that their religious faith- the notion that the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old- should be taught in public schools as holding equal merit as science. Science, they contend, is controversial.
As a seventeen-year-old, I wrestled with this issue. I was reared in the Methodist church and brought up to respect the integrity of faith and science. Our universe, I was taught, is a complex and brilliant creation, and the more one understands that complexity and brilliance, the more one understands meaning and purpose. Surely, science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Surely, God did not want to trick His entire creation by planting evidence of fossils and dinosaurs and far-away galaxies, evidence that can be verified through rigorous testing. To me- and I mean this will all due respect to those who may believe otherwise- the notion that God created science in order to fool human beings into sin borders on nihilism, that human existence, despite all of its amazing complexities, is nothing more than a joke. Here’s what I wrote as a teenager:
In my opinion, the view that evolution and religion cannot simultaneously exist is disrespectful. There are many religious scholars who vehemently believe in the theory of evolution. The story of Genesis can also be viewed as a metaphorical tale of creation. Before the world was created, time had no meaning. After all, the sun was not even created until ‘day’ four. Therefore, a ‘day,’ as referred to in Genesis, might very well be millions of years. Genesis also clearly states that Adam, the first human being, ‘was created out of the dirt of the earth.’ This is, in a sense, a very evolutionary concept. Hopefully, the incident in Kansas will prove to be isolated. As our knowledge of our history increases, one can only wish that respect for other beliefs will also increase.
I could have never predicted or imagined that a decade later the debate would continue to rage on, or that it would infect my own homestate. The new earth creationists, which have attempted to rebrand themselves under the guise of “intelligent design,” would have us believe that God is incapable of creating metaphors, yet more than willing to create an entire universe filled with complexities that are purposely intended to fool us. Either we accept a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis or we believe that we are living in a universe filled with props and decoys, like an elaborate reality TV show. Or as Shakespeare wrote:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Either the world is a mere stage, or it is a brilliant and meaningful creation. And if it’s nothing more than a stage, then Shakespeare’s right: It signifies nothing; we’re all just walking shadows. Science does not threaten our humanity; evolution does not diminish the divine. Science provides us with the tools we need to understand the nature of our existence; it empowers humanity. That’s why Pope John Paul II embraced evolution. It’s why the Dalai Lama has spent much of his life talking about the intersection of faith and science.
So, we should all be honest with one another about this: Evolution and science are only controversial to people who believe in an incredible ruse. Some of them may be smart. Some may even spend their entire lives nit-picking at science or at critiquing the nuances of the fossil record, hoping to advance the belief that any flaw is a fatal one which should destroy the entire discourse. But as smart as some of these people may seem, they are still peddling ignorance; they’re distorting science and the scientific method; they’re attempting to collapse the word “theory” into some sort of catch-all, refusing to acknowledge that, in science, the word “theory” is only reserved for the concepts that have been consistently and repeatedly verified. They read Genesis literally, and they, therefore, reflexively assume that those who recognize the validity of evolution must read Darwin’s original text literally as well, as if science supports the same sort of textual fundamentalism.
Scientists know Darwin didn’t get everything right, and in the last 153 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has, well, evolved. That’s the nature of science; it’s not inflexibly rigid in its orthodoxy. Unlike those who espouse new earth creationism or intelligent design, science adapts to discoveries and advances; science embraces and seeks out knowledge.
Incidentally, it should be noted: “Intelligent design” is a misnomer; it is nothing more than new earth creationism repurposed and repackaged as a result of the Supreme Court ruling that creationism education was unconstitutional. The same exact people who peddled the unconstitutional creationism laws in the 1980s are now those advancing intelligent design. Indeed, in the case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Dr. Barbara Forrest proved that creationists had sloppily scrubbed the word “creationism” from a so-called “science” textbook they were attempting to promote, hastily replacing the word with the term “intelligent design” throughout the book; their “Replace All” trick did not succeed, and the federal court held that intelligent design violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “Intelligent design” does not imply that God guided the evolutionary process; that concept is articulated in the anthropic principle. “Intelligent design” is merely a marketing tool, brought to you and paid for by creationists.
One year after Kansas finally decided to move beyond the manufactured controversy of evolution education, Louisiana became the first state in the country to adopt a law, the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), that implicitly provides for the teaching of creationism in the public school classroom. It was not the first time Louisiana entertained such a law. In the 1980s, the legislature passed a creationism education law that was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard. The law, while never enforced, remains on the books, despite the ruling by the Supreme Court.
Last week, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee considered a bill, authored by Senator Karen Carter-Peterson, that would have repealed the LSEA. I’ve written about the LSEA more than a dozen times during the last year, inspired, in large part, by my friend Zack Kopplin, who, as a senior in high school and now as a freshman in college, has championed its repeal. When I was a teenager, I took a public stance against creationists who sought to upend science, but Zack has done much more than I ever did. Almost single-handedly, he made the LSEA a topic for national, if not international, discussion (somehow, the story was picked up by the Italian Vogue). He authored a petition and received over 70,000 signatures. He enlisted the support of the nation’s largest and most influential science education groups. And he has received endorsements from 78 Nobel laureates. (To put that into context, when the Kansas law was being debated, 38 Nobel laureates spoke out in opposition, and it was, at the time, huge news. Zack has collected more than double; it’s the largest number of Nobel laureates that have ever spoken out against any bill adopted by a state legislature).
The LSEA was not an organic or home-grown piece of legislation. It was created by the Discovery Institute, a national “think tank” that has worked since 1994 to advance creationism laws all over the country. The Discovery Institute was behind the failed efforts in Kansas, and once that well dried up, they turned their focus to the fertile pastures of Louisiana, enlisting the support of the Louisiana Family Forum and Senator Ben Nevers. Louisiana, they all hoped, would become the experimental testing grounds for a new law, a law that could couch itself in language about “academic freedom” in order to surreptitiously provide for the teaching of creationism. And they pulled it off. The bill swept through the legislature and was quickly signed by Governor Bobby Jindal. It may have gone unnoticed, but the Discovery Institute and the Louisiana Family Forum couldn’t help themselves from gloating publicly. They declared victory; they boasted about the law, and, in doing so, they exposed the law for what it truly was: a cleverly-worded attempt at injecting radical right religious beliefs into the science classroom. This was not about “academic freedom;” it was about undermining science, manufacturing a fake controversy about “Darwinism,” and advancing their own narrow ideological beliefs.
It is an enormous embarrassment to the State of Louisiana, and more than any other piece of legislation, it ensures that Bobby Jindal will never be on the Republican ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate. There is no way to defend this law. It’s intended to undermine the fundamentals of science education; it’s intended as a way of using taxpayer dollars for public education in order to advance religion. If you have any question or doubt, then you need to only watch and listen to the debate last week at the Senate Education Committee.
Here’s Senator Mike Walsworth, who voted in support of the creationism law, attempting to debunk the merits of evolution:
Senator Walsworth was attempting to lecture a science teacher about science, yet, apparently, he’d never even encountered the word “molecular” in his life. To many, Mr. Walsworth’s ignorance may seem funny; to me, it’s exasperating. He’s not trying to be funny; he’s dead serious. It was not an isolated incident.
Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum, whose organization spearheaded and helped to author this bill, testified that he would like the Supreme Court to allow for the teaching of creationism in science classrooms.
Mr. Mills was perhaps unwittingly forced to admit his ultimate goal; his only defense in support of the LSEA is that it would not be the “vehicle” that would allow a challenge. It is a ridiculous argument. He pushed through the LSEA precisely because he hopes that it advances his agenda.
Also, there was this overly-caffeinated lady, a home school teacher, who apparently “proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt” that evolution is not a fact. Her testimony is just bizarre and at times offensively stupid, and she was their expert in “science” (and hot dogs).
The meeting also featured a representative from the Governor’s Office, Russell Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong is obviously a bright young man, an Ivy League graduate who taught in the public school system and then ran, unsuccessfully, for the BESE Board. But everything about his testimony seemed inauthentic, forced, and disingenuous, much like it did when he testified on behalf of Governor Jindal in this meeting, during which he shamefully opposed a bill that would have created protections for students bullied because of their sexual orientation or disability:
But perhaps the most offensive testimony came from Southern University Law professor Michelle Ghetti, a graduate of Southern Methodist University, where I am currently a law student. Ms. Ghetti, who admitted to helping write the bill, stridently argued that the LSEA was legal because no one has ever challenged it in court (Still waiting on the video, but you can find her testimony here). With all due respect, Ms. Ghetti should consider re-enrolling in law school. There are three branches of government in these United States; one of them is the legislature. Regardless of her pride of ownership over the LSEA, the legislature is perfectly capable and, indeed, duty-bound to make law and to consider the validity of laws. You don’t need to sue the State of Louisiana in court in order to overturn a law. In my opinion, Ms. Ghetti failed the State Senate Education Committee and the people of Louisiana, and she fundamentally misrepresented the role of the legislature. She acted under the pretense of a law professor and legal expert, when she was, in fact, actually serving as a hired hand (or willing volunteer) of those supporting the bill she helped author. (Incidentally, in her testimony, Ms. Ghetti distorted the ruling of the Seventh Circuit, misquoting it entirely. If I were a student in her class, I would probably be asking for my money back or, at the very least, asking her how much money she was paid to write this legislation).
We are a better State than this. Those who have endorsed and supported the LSEA are doing Louisiana a great disservice; they are exposing us to ridicule, and they are brandishing their own ignorance as if it is something worthy of acclaim. They are ceding to the culture warriors who seek to refashion the world according to their own narrowly-held religious beliefs; they are attempting to reappropriate science. They are destroying the integrity of the Louisiana public school system.
But they won’t get away with it. As a teenager, writing about this issue, I referenced Thomas Jefferson. “Only the educated are free,” he said. Amen.
Zack gets the final word: