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America debates evolution: Why now?

Americans are bone-deep into a fight over evolution thanks in large part to a new script that has defined the issue in a way not seen since the "monkey trial" in rural Tennessee 80 years ago, academic and other experts say.

"There are two factors in American society coming to a head right now. One is the long-running opposition to evolution in this culture," said Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"The second is a well-coordinated, well-crafted, slick campaign to repackage creationism. They've stripped it of its more outlandish claims ... their new package is significantly more attractive since it doesn't have all this pseudo-scientific baggage," he added.

Religious and societal changes may also be factors, others say.

The question being debated in more than two dozen states is whether schools should be required to teach some sort of creation concept alongside Charles Darwin's 146-year-old theory of natural selection -- or at the least provide lessons saying some doubt his theories.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, has reframed the issue as "intelligent design," the concept that evolution alone cannot explain nature's complexity, and it must be the work of a "designer" -- a higher being by implication.

Since 1982, Gallup research has indicated about 45 percent of Americans believe God created human beings "pretty much in their present form" within the last 10,000 years while 38 percent think mankind developed "over millions of years from less advanced" life forms "but God guided this process."

Only 15 percent think God had no part in it -- slightly more than the percentage of the populace that doesn't believe in God in the first place.

And a Pew Forum on Public Life and Religion poll earlier this year found that about two-thirds of Americans favored adding creationism to school curriculum.

Debate over evolution has been a constant thread in American society, before and since the 1925 Tennessee trial that found science teacher John Scopes guilty of violating a state law against teaching evolution. A higher court later overturned the verdict on a technicality without ruling on the merits of the law.

The fact that the debate has returned with such force in 2005 may reflect a time of frightening cultural change when people "look for something that is absolute and certain," said Mark Sisk, the Episcopal bishop of New York.

"I believe that a fair amount of this is an attempt to corner God. And when one does that it approaches idolatry," he added. The Biblical account of creation simply means that "God is the source of everything" and nothing in that conflicts with Darwin, he said.


The Discovery Institute is a central player in the current Pennsylvania trial where parents are suing a school board over a requirement that some students be given a brief statement suggesting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, and then told of a book elaborating on the design theory.

Redefining the debate along intelligent design lines is an attempt by those who want creation taught in schools to find a "silver bullet" that will get them past adverse court rulings, according to Michael Lienesch, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina.

"The courts say if it's in a science class it has to be science," he said. But intelligent design has gained ground because its backers "have a lot of resources and a more sophisticated infrastructure. They have worked very hard to frame the evolution issue in terms of intelligent design."

"What makes it seem convincing is that it splits the difference between certainty and faith in a way that old-style creationism didn't," adds Kirk Wegter-McNelly, a professor of theology at Boston University. "The search for certainty is important among evangelicals and it's important as people live in an increasingly multi-religious society."

John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said the debate has ripened because more credentialed scientists are critical of Darwin's theory. The institute has a list of 400 people with a variety of degrees in and out of academia who it said have signed a "dissent."

It states that they are "skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence of Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

What the institute would like to see, West, said, is a requirement that schools "teach the controversy" -- to note in lessons on evolution that not everyone accepts the theory.

That approach is equally abhorrent to Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

He blames the spreading debate in part on "narrow-minded religious leaders repeatedly saying people have to choose between science and religion." What they really want, Zimmerman said, is "to overturn the scientific paradigm that explains the natural world in materialistic terms."

He has gathered nearly 9,000 signatures of U.S. clergy members on a letter posted online urging school boards to keep teaching evolution "as a core component of human knowledge."

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education that is opposed to introducing any form of creationism, said the intelligent design approach is but another attempt to skirt the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing religion.

He also said the 2002 "No Child Left Behind" law requires states to develop standards for science teaching, and that has opened a new forum for the debate.


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