The classic debate about evolution took place between Thomas Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog", and Samuel Wilberforce, Anglican bishop of Oxford, in 1860. It ended when Wilberforce asked whether Huxley was related to an ape on his grandmother's or grandfather's side, and Huxley demolished Wilberforce by replying that he would rather be related to an ape than to an educated man who used his intelligence to obscure the truth.
Or so goes the usual version of the story.
In 1986 Stephen J. Gould demonstrated that almost every aspect of the story is false, or at best doubtful. The original press reports suggest that Wilberforce's main opponent was Joseph Hooker and that Huxley played only a minor role. The only uncommitted scientist present wrote that Wilberforce won the debate.
Gould used this example to argue that there is no real battle between science and religion. He concluded with an impassioned plea for the peaceful coexistence of evolution and Christianity. Regrettably, recent events make this ideal seem impossible.
In the 1990s, several scientists developed compelling arguments that the findings of modern science give clear evidence of intelligence, a conclusion known as Intelligent Design (ID). For example, Michael Behe's seminal work, Darwin's Black Box, shows that the human blood clotting system is an extremely complex set of interactions between 18 different substances, and that if even one of these is missing, a person can either bleed to death or die of a thrombosis; thus there is no conceivable way that this system could have evolved by a series of chance mutations.
Nevertheless, ID has been repeatedly attacked, ridiculed and sneered at in all the major scientific periodicals and on thousands of websites. Apparently the suggestion that the universe may have had an intelligent designer is an unforgivable heresy. The proponents of ID use only scientific arguments and strive to avoid both confrontation and theology, but the response has been to declare it a dangerous, unscientific religious movement.
In 2005 Nature magazine insisted that ID is overwhelmingly rejected by most scientists and that it "poses a threat to the very core of scientific reason." The Scientist referred to ID as a "frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution." New Scientist devoted an entire issue to "The End of Reason: Intelligent Design's Ultimate Legacy."
At Ohio State University, a PhD student was prohibited from presenting his thesis because the judging committee all believed in ID and therefore, according to the Ohio Academy of Science, were "not qualified to judge science".
Ironically, despite their insistence on scientific method, most critics of ID rely more on sarcasm than reasoned argument. They make little attempt to assess the arguments for ID - in fact, most show no evidence of even having read them - insisting that ID means God and is therefore unscientific.
This specious reasoning was given the status of law in the recent decision in the Pennsylvanian District Court. The issue was a decision of a school board to inform students that Darwinian evolution is a theory, that ID is an alternative explanation and that a reference book is available for any student who wants to know more about it. (There was no suggesting of actually teaching ID or denying evolution.)
Judge E. Jones ruled that even to mention ID to students is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state. His reasons were: that the proposed reference book is published by a Christian organisation, and that an objective observer would conclude that the intelligent designer is God. Therefore, "while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science". The issue at stake is not truth, but eliminating God.
Supreme Court ruling
The judge's decision was based on a 1987 Supreme Court ruling:
"Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family".
This conclusion prohibits religious views but not non-religious views which conflict with students' beliefs. Since both sets of views offend someone's beliefs - that is what the whole debate is about - the Court is, in effect, mandating atheism. This is an astonishing position for a nation whose whole history has been Christian.
Not only is this decision a slap in the face for scientists and science teachers trying to balance belief in Christianity with their careers, it is very difficult to see how it can be reconciled with freedom of speech, as it prohibits them from discussing their valid conclusions. It has become a clear victory for atheism and a major reference point in the ongoing legal and psychological battle against God in the United States and around the world.
Stephen Hitchings is a Sydney-based science teacher.