Onward Darwin's soldiers

April 28, 2006

As creationist John Mackay tours the UK, Stephen Phillips charts the evolutionists' campaign of resistance.

John Mackay has toured the UK several times to preach his creationist view of the world. He is back this month, but this time round his visit comes in the wake of a decision by the Royal Society and others to take a stand against those who seek to undermine evolutionary theory.

Mackay, the Australian director of the Creation Research Organisation, will on Saturday speak to evangelicals at a hall hired from Bangor University and later this month at St Andrews University at a meeting organised by the religious and theological studies fellowship. On June 10, he will speak at a public debate at Northampton University, where his opponent will be Jeff Ollerton, an environmental studies lecturer.

Mackay is described as a star of the creationist lecturing circuit and has debated with British academics in the past. Ollerton says he agreed to take part in the debateJ"because I have a long-standing interest in creationist arguments, one of my research areas being the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions, one of those (supposedly) wonderful examples of how God has created precise interactions between species that could not possibly have evolved".

Ollerton is aware that Richard Dawkins and others argue that scientists should not engage in debates with creationists. Some have warned that creationists shift the goalposts and distort what scientists say. "They're not going to go away and they are influencing school curricula," Ollerton says. "They need to be tackled head on."

The RS, too, believes that creationism cannot be ignored. It issued a statement earlier this month opposing the way evolution is being represented in some schools to promote religious groups. This was closely followed by a motion put by members of the National Union of Teachers to their annual conference that warned of the dangers presented by religious organisations to science teaching.

In the US, where creationism is more widely taught, Darwinists are leading a campaign to promote the scientific basis of evolutionary theory. For years, individual US scientists have defended evolution against the fundamentalist onslaught, but in the past few months a broader coalition has been stirred into life, spurred by December's landmark ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science held a symposium in February that emphasised the threat posed by fundamentalist anti-evolutionists as a priority for rank-and-file US scientists. The proceedings were also a coming-out party for an evolution advocacy group, the Alliance for Science. Irving Wainer, its founder and a senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, says the alliance will reach out to "grassroots non-scientists" by organising, for example, talks that stress the link between scientific literacy and US competitiveness. The group also aims to co-ordinate efforts to thwart anti-evolution state legislation.

The day the group was launched has been dubbed "Evolution Sunday". Some 466 churches commemorated the 197th anniversary of Darwin's birth with sermons and events to celebrate his theory. Michael Zimmerman, a biology professor, says enlisting supporters in the religious community is critical.

Zimmerman, who organised the event, wants to make it an annual fixture. He has collected more than 10,000 signatures from clergy for an open petition supporting the teaching of evolution in schools to challenge the "false dichotomy" between evolution and religion.

"It's time for Christian clergy to stand up and say that these fundamentalists are not speaking for us," he says.

Such mobilisation has been a long time coming, says Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive and executive publisher of the journal Science . He estimates that the teaching of evolution is under siege in 30 states.

"We've not moved as rapidly as we would have liked," he says. Part of the reason has been scientists' reluctance to see the difference between public opinion and the refereed pages of peer-reviewed journals. Intelligent design holds that the intricacy of life can be explained only by an overarching intelligence, but it refuses to specify whether this represents God. Robert Crowther, communications director at intelligent design pressure group, the Discovery Institute, cites "digital code embedded in DNA" and "molecular machines in cells" as "empirical indicators of intelligent design".

But the theory has been called "creationism in a lab coat". Leshner says:"They say evolution can't explain how you get from A to B, therefore it must be intelligent design. If you can't explain this, why only one alternative? Why isn't it cottage cheese?"

But Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University who has campaigned against creationism for years, says creationism's popularity among anti-evolutionists places scientists in a tricky position. Many have been loath to dignify intelligent design with a response for fear of lending it credence. "Being willing to debate (intelligent design) automatically puts it on an equal footing with evolution, even though intelligent design has zero scientific standing and conveys the (false impression) of a divided scientific community," he says.

But a refusal to debate evolution has not stopped intelligent design activists from drumming up publicity, says Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse , which examines the tactics of America's anti-evolution movement.

"Refusing to address the problem has been a mistake," Forrest says. Scientists have tended to view intelligent design proponents as harmless cranks and have assumed intelligent design would founder in the market of ideas, she adds. But, in doing so, they have turned a blind eye to anti-evolution groups' powers of spin. Intelligent design propaganda conflates the strict scientific definition of "theory" as an evidence-backed paradigm with the term's everyday usage as something altogether more conjectural and speculative to sow doubt about evolution, experts note. The Discovery Institute's masterstroke has been to distance itself from intelligent design to disavow any partisanship, calling instead for "both sides of the debate" to be brought out - an ostensibly reasonable request, appealing to the public's sense of fair play, while at the same time elevating critiques of evolution to the same level as evolutionary science, Forrest and Wainer say.

Crowther argues that scientific initiatives "to prop up the Darwin-only approach to teaching evolution show... fear from the scientific establishment that the public, and a growing number of scientists, want students to learn more about evolution, including the evidence that supports Darwin's theory as well as that which challenges it."

But Wainer and Forrest point to the so-called Wedge Document , posted on the Discovery Institute's website in 1999, which outlines an agenda that "(seeks) nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies" and "to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions". In a statement, the Discovery Institute calls speculation about the document - which it says is a "fundraising proposal" - "paranoid" conspiracy theorising by a "Darwinist fringe".

Leshner notes that few scientists would now underestimate the political nous of the intelligent design movement. And they fear the effect the "debate" stirred up by the movement has already had in schools. A 2005 straw poll by the National Science Teachers Association found that 31 per cent of science teachers felt "pressured to include creationism (and) intelligent design" in their classes, with 30 per cent reporting feeling "pushed to de-emphasise or omit evolution". There are also fears that the evolution "debate" is the first step in a full-frontal assault on scientific materialism. In Kansas, a key battleground in the creationism debate, science standards adopted last year include the most pointed criticism of evolution yet in US schools, directing teachers to poke holes in the theory.

This growing assertiveness on the part of Christian groups comes hot on the heels of the 2004 US election. Elected officials in Dover, Pennsylvania, were responsible for mandating that teachers inform pupils about intelligent design. Christian groups went on the offensive, mounting anti-evolution initiatives in several states.

But this political momentum was checked in November with the ousting of Dover's officials. A month later came the Pennsylvania ruling that the teaching of intelligent design in schools was a violation of the separation of Church and State. Since then, an attempt by an education authority near Los Angeles to include intelligent design on the curriculum has been prevented, an anti-evolution Bill in Utah has been defeated, a Kansas education authority has refused to abide by the state's science standards and Ohio officials have voted to remove criticism of evolution from the state's science standards.

Miller says the Dover decision was pivotal. "It was the lowest federal court and isn't legally binding (for other schools), but the case was so thoroughly and carefully argued, it represents a powerful intellectual precedent." It didn't hurt that the judge was a churchgoing Republican, appointed by President George W. Bush.

But no one expects Dover to be intelligent design's Waterloo. "It's part of the religious Right, (which) isn't going anywhere," Forrest says. She expects the Discovery Institute to continue "sanitising its vocabulary", using euphemisms such as "the strengths and weaknesses of evolution", instead of explicitly mentioning intelligent design, which may now represent a "legal liability", she says.

A recent issue of the Discovery Institute's newsletter hints at targeting higher education. It proclaims: "We have entered a new front in the debate over intelligent design - the need to protect academic freedom, particularly on college campuses." It expresses concern for "the treatment of scientists who conduct intelligent design research, 'teach the controversy' about Darwin's theory, or even think (intelligent design) thoughts".

The movement itself represents a "perfect example of evolution", says Lawrence Krauss, physics professor at Case Western Reserve University.

"They constantly evolve. No one has any illusions this is over."

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