From Scopes to Dover-30: Looking at the big picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in this series (Yes, there really is an end!), I want to look at the big picture, to see both how the struggle to oppose the teaching of evolution evolved as a result of legal decisions centered around the establishment clause, and why religious believers have pursued with such vigor this dead-end policy to discredit evolution.

Religious people have always been uncomfortable with the theory of evolution. The extent of this discomfort varies. At one end of this religious spectrum we have those Biblical literalists who want to believe that every single extant species was created specially by god. For these people, the theory of evolution is anathema. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are those who willing to accept an interconnected and evolving tree of life, provided that humans are not part of the tree and were somehow miraculously created separately. Such people allow the theory in some areas but arbitrarily exclude it from any part of the origins of humans. At the other end of the religious spectrum are those who accept that humans are also part of the evolutionary tree and have common ancestors with other species but want to reserve some special property for humans (the ‘soul’ for want of a better word) that was created by god using some mysterious means beyond our ken. Such people want to believe that each human being has something special, unique, mystical whose creation and existence cannot be accounted for by the mechanisms of natural selection.

All these people have the fear that lurking in the shadows of Darwinian theory is the fact if you carry the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion, there is absolutely no way of avoiding the conclusion that humans, like every other species of living thing, are entirely the product of the Darwinian mutation and natural selection algorithmic process, and thus we are entirely material objects produced by materialistic mechanisms. God is ruled right out of the picture. William Jennings Bryan correctly saw this way back in 1922 when he wrote “If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible.. . Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism.” (my italics)

So while the form and tactics of the fight against the teaching of evolution has undoubtedly changed from the time of William Jennings Bryan, the one constant feature has been the feeling that the theory of evolution is somehow dangerous to religion and has to be either overthrown or arbitrarily limited in its scope or its teaching balanced with ideas favorable to a god-centered view of life and creation. But all efforts so far to control ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ (as Daniel Dennett puts it) have run up against the challenge of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution and its associated idea of the separation of church and state.

To briefly recapitulate this legal history, as Darwinian ideas gained acceptance at the turn of the twentieth century, it became increasingly taught in schools. Meanwhile, the rise of the ideas of the separation of church and state had resulted, by the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, in much of the teaching of religion and the Bible being eliminated from public schools. Evolution had become seen by then as anti-religious and the first attempts at counteracting its influence took the form of state legislatures passing laws banning its teaching, with the 1925 Butler Act in Tennessee being the first. It was only in 1968, in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, that such attempts were ruled unconstitutional.

The attempts at mitigating the effects of the teaching of evolution then shifted from outright bans on teaching evolution to trying to achieve ‘balanced treatment’ (whatever that meant) for both evolution and the Genesis theory of creation. But the Tennessee law requiring this was ruled in 1974 to be unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals in the case of Daniel v. Waters.

The next evolution in the strategy was to call for ‘balanced treatment’ for the teaching of evolution and something called ‘creation science’, the latter being essentially the young-Earth Genesis story, but carefully shorn of any mention of god or the Bible or any religious terminology. Such laws were passed in 1981 in both Arkansas and Louisiana. The Arkansas law was ruled unconstitutional in 1982 in the US District Court in McLean v. Arkansas, and the Louisiana law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard.

This setback gave rise to the theory of ‘intelligent design creationism’ (IDC), which was carefully crafted to address all the objections raised by these previous legal precedents. Its essential structure was to allege that certain systems in nature (the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism, and the human immune system being the only ones that IDC advocates could come up with) were so ‘irreducibly complex’ that evolutionary theory had not only failed so far to provide an adequate explanation for how they could have come into being by the gradual mechanism of natural selection, but that the theory would never be able to explain them. This unsubstantiated assumption allowed IDC advocates to make the inference that these systems were deliberately designed and that hence there must be some ‘designer’ at work. The identity of the designer was deliberately kept unspecified and, like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, never named openly by IDC advocates, but there was never any doubt that they were referring to their god.

But this latest hope for undermining the teaching of evolution in public schools was dashed by the verdict in 2005 in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the US District Court ruled that intelligent design was a religious belief and not science, that the reasons for introducing it into the curriculum was to advance a religious agenda, and hence such a policy was unconstitutional.

So the religious forces, having lost the scientific case against evolution (basically because they never had a scientific case to start with, just a religious belief adorned with scientific language), now have pretty much lost the legal case as well. And that is where things stand.

It is interesting that the current legal state of play supports what Clarence Darrow had argued in 1926 in the appeal of the Scopes verdict, when he said that anti-evolution efforts are not designed to foster neutrality in education but that opposition to the theory of evolution essentially sprang from a religious foundation that was hostile to science, and thus any attempt to suppress its teaching was an attempt to advance religious views at the expense of science, and that this went counter to the purposes of public schools.

It is not clear what other avenues are available to try and resurrect intelligent design creationism as a viable legal strategy. The attempts seem to have now shifted to an exclusively public relations effort by the Discovery Institute, the well-funded organization that has been behind the entire IDC strategy all along. Their attempt to push back against the disaster at Dover is taking many forms.

One facet of this effort is to try and discredit the Dover verdict, arguing that it was due to ‘judicial activism’ and over-reaching by a biased judge with ambitions to greatness. In 2006 they published a book called Traipsing Into Evolution attacking the judge’s verdict and reasoning. (For a detailed critique of this book, see here.)

The charge that Judge Jones who presided in the Dover trial is some kind of anti-religious partisan is hard to sustain since the judge is a Republican and a long-time member of a Lutheran church who was nominated for his post by then-US Senator Rick Santorum (who himself is a strong supported of IDC), was appointed to the bench by President Bush who has argued that ‘both sides’ of the evolution issue (whatever that means) should be taught, and whose assignment to the case was praised by Tom Ridge (former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and the head of the Department of Homeland Security) who said “I can’t imagine a better judge presiding over such an emotionally charged issue.”

The judge himself seemed to anticipate that this kind of attack might occur and preemptively responded to this in his opinion saying:

Those who disagree with this ruling will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. (p. 138)

On another front, in 2007, Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism, which tries to resurrect the corpse of IDC by adding a new claim, which turns out to be one that was already tried in the 19th century and failed.

There is also a film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that is due to be released on Darwin’s birthday in 2008 that argues that ‘big science’ is deliberately suppressing evidence of intelligent design and persecuting scientists who think there is something in it. It has already been accused of unethical practices in the making of it.

What is conspicuously missing in all these efforts is any actual old-fashioned science. You know, experiments done, data collected, hypotheses formulated, causal mechanisms suggested that can be used to make concrete predictions that can be investigated. This is the kind of detailed, careful, painstaking work that constitutes the bedrock of science. Grand, sweeping, and speculative ideas can be fun for a while but if not supported by that solid foundation, they sink and disappear leaving very little trace.

It seems like now that the pro-IDC people have lost in both the courts and the scientific arena, they are reduced to acting as if they are victims and making pleas for public sympathy, to try and convince people that the scientific and legal establishments have somehow conspired to use their muscle to suppress alternatives to the theory of evolution.

What religious people have not grasped (or perhaps do not want to grasp), is that while scientific theories can overthrow religious beliefs and have done so numerous times in history, the reverse simply does not happen.

Religious beliefs cannot overthrow a scientific theory. What overthrows a scientific theory is a better scientific theory.

In the final analysis, it is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart

A stand-up routine from about ten years ago that is still relevant and funny.


  1. bob says

    Agreed. This was a very interesting and well constructed series of posts.

    Now that we all understand evolution and why religious people hate it so -- does anyone know what gave rise to that first single cell organism 😉

  2. Heidi Nemeth says

    I am also very impressed with this series -- and your blog. When I started reading your blog, I called myself an atheist. Since you wrote about the lack of justification for religion, I have started calling myself a militant atheist. Now your comments about supernatural causation give me another way to define myself. I do not believe in supernatural causation.

    Thank you for the well-researched legal and scientific information.

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