Fundamentalist Christians have changed tack in their efforts to oppose the teaching of evolution. Stephen Phillips finds that they are making inroads in schools.
The world's most technologically advanced nation has always had a tricky task squaring science with the fundamentalist Christian beliefs held dear by millions of Americans.
Although beyond dispute in scientific circles, the theory of evolution is opposed by 45 per cent of Americans, according to a recent Scientific American poll. And scientists in the United States cannot count on President George W. Bush for succour. During his election campaign, he said: "On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth."
Teaching creationism - the belief that life sprang from the hands of God within the past 10,000 years and that the Bible is the literal transcription of human origins - is outlawed by federal law in public schools. But this has not stopped proponents from watering down the teaching of evolution and getting creationism onto syllabuses.
"Evolution" is a dread word for more than just a handful of backwoods schools in America's Bible belt. "Many schools don't use the 'e' word," says Lawrence Lerner, emeritus professor of physics at California State University, Long Beach. In its place, he says, are misleading euphemisms such as "change over time" and "variation".
In a 2000 survey, Lerner found that teaching of Darwin's theory was inadequate in one-third of US states. In 13 states, it was treated dilatorily or omitted from the curriculum altogether.
Academics worry that neglect in schools of a theory central to understanding natural science is saddling universities with scores of ill-equipped students. "They are poorly prepared and don't understand how things fit together. It's like not teaching tectonics in geography or energy in physics," says Kevin Padian, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Such complaints have spiralled with the recent resurgence of attacks on the teaching of evolution in US schools, says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Moves are afoot in Ohio and Washington State to de-emphasise evolution and promote alternative quasi-religious explanations of biological development. Last November, Alabama upheld its policy of applying stickers to biology textbooks warning pupils that evolution was a "controversial theory". At that state's 1995 hearing to approve the disclaimer, Fob James, the governor, impersonated an ape to mock evolutionary theory's view that humans had ape-like ancestors. Scott estimates that the teaching of evolution was under siege in 25 to 30 states last year.
Aside from at least 200 Bible colleges and seminaries, where it is taught that God created the Earth in six days and that dinosaurs were wiped out by the biblical flood, creationists have had no direct impact on secular US campuses. But a few higher education proponents of the so-called intelligent design theory are in the vanguard of the intensified drive to displace evolution in schools.
Intelligent design holds that the intricacy of organisms can be explained only as the product of a creator with a purpose in mind.
Proponents of intelligent design theory argue that evolutionists have failed to prove their case, highlighting the absence from the fossil record of major evolutionary transitions. The chief protagonists include Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Behe, a biochemistry lecturer at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Lerner brands the academic activists "a new group of people who are more sophisticated and tend not to have the redneck image of older creationists".
To avoid falling foul of the ban on classroom preaching, they are at pains to distance themselves from the religious implications of their position. But there is no doubt about their ultimate agenda, Lerner says. Lurking behind the theory is the familiar "God of the Protestant Bible", he says, noting that Johnson and Behe make no bones about their evangelical Christian faith and devout Catholicism, respectively.
Their message is reaching the public. Johnson's books, such as Darwin on Trial , have sold more than 250,000 copies, and the popular currency of intelligent design is making political inroads. A clause encouraging teaching of the theory was inserted in a draft of January's US Education Act before being shunted to an adjunct report.
In Ohio, advocates are lobbying for intelligent design to be granted equal footing with the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. State university officials are vehemently opposed. A letter to the state board of education from 14 university presidents expresses concerns that the move would "sabotage educational development efforts" and handicap efforts to "recruit and retain top researchers in the biological sciences".
The creationists in Ohio typify the movement's new modus operandi . Abandoning efforts to affect monolithic change, they are focusing on the local level, Lerner says. "They couldn't hope to win in the full blaze of publicity at national level with all the experts available. But, locally, things get under the radar."
Incongruously, joining the assault on evolutionary theory are leftwing postmodernist critics who decry it as reductionist and biologically deterministic. But evolution is just one of a number of universal ideas under attack from this quarter, Padian says. "It's less a postmodernist threat to science than a postmodernist threat to rational thought - thinking everything is a cultural text and nothing objective can be discovered." Moreover, no one says that postmodern thinkers are aligned with creationists in the drive to exile evolutionary theory from schools.
In fact, the momentum of creationist campaigns - bankrolled by well-heeled think-tanks such as the Institute for Creation Research, which commands a war chest of more than $5 million (£3.5 million) - is such that it needs little outside impetus. This means that US scientists have scant prospect of relief from the educational repercussions of a debate that most think should have been consigned to the history books decades ago.
Lerner compares creationism in the US with chickenpox. "It breaks out here and there from time to time and is a permanent, intermittent problem."