19 DECEMBER 1981, Page 13

The case of the pagan God

Tom Bethel!


very so often le tout Washington has a good laugh at the red-necks and hillbillies of Middle America. Such an opportunity arose last week with the 'trial' in Little Rock, Arkansas, of a new state law that requires 'balanced treatment' in the teaching of evolution and 'creation-science' theories. If one is to be taught, so must the other. As defined by the Arkansas law, 'creation-science' is the view that the world and all life on it came into being rather suddenly about 6000 years ago as a result of an act of creation (not necessarily by God, however).

The American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that such a law would smuggle religious instruction into the biology classrooms of state schools, filed a suit arguing that the law violates the separation of Church and State and is therefore unconstitutional. The `trial', a hearing of this suit, is regularly compared to the 1925 trial (and conviction) of a Tennessee high school biology teacher, John Scopes, who violated a Tennessee law by teaching evolution. But notice the difference. The Tennessee law attempted to exclude evolution from biology; the new Arkansas law attempts to breach evolution's monopoly. As a result of the Protestant evangelical revival there has been a marked increase in hostility to evolution in America in the past decade. A similar law is on the books in Louisiana, and comparable bills are pending in 18 other states. Earlier this year a religious fundamentalist sued the state of California for depriving his children of their religious rights by teaching evolution in the classroom, and won a partial victory. The judge ruled that educators must distribute a 'policy statement' to schools explaining that evolution should not be regarded as 'the ultimate cause of origins'.

The defenders of the Arkansas law under review are surely disingenous when they claim that 'creation-science' is logically independent of religion. `The concept of a Creator is not necessarily inherently religious,' said the Arkansas AttorneyGeneral, who defended the law. 'It is a concept of an intellect, and perhaps one with organisation and design, but does not have to be religious.' That may be, but his argument would have been stronger if the law had omitted reference to a worldwide flood occurring some time after the creation. A Catholic priest testifying for the Civil Liberties Union said that the law `has as its unmentioned reference book the first 11 chapters of Genesis'. In addition, the State of Arkansas could have done itself a favour by calling as its first witness someone other than Norman Geisler of the Dallas Theological Seminary, who testified that he believed in the 'factual inerrancy of the Bible', and added that he not only believed in flying saucers but regarded them as `a Satanic manifestation in the world for the purpose of deception'.

In some ways the anti-evolution people would have been better off forthrightly proclaiming that they want the Genesis account of origins to be taught in schools. But then they would have run into the constitutional roadblock. The failure to circumvent it to date is the main reason why new religious schools have been springing up all over the place and State-school attendance has been declining. But private education is expensive, hence legislative assaults on the constitutional separation of Church and State continue.

The Arkansas trial has given the secular intelligentsia an opportunity to celebrate (in the guise of deploring) the persistence of `bigotry' in America, with much cartooning and fun and games in the press. The irony, less noticed, is that this is occurring at a time when Darwin's theory of evolu tion is under attack within the academic community as never before in this century. For example, Colin Patterson, a senior Palaeontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, visited America a few weeks ago and gave a talk to professional biologists. He remarked that he had been studying evolution for 20 years and now he didn't think he knew a thing about it. He added that he didn't think that anyone in the room did either.

Miles Eldridge, a palaeontologist at the American Museum, recently wrote that the theory of evolution 'is for the most part consensus, not proof'. That consensus now seems to be fragmenting. Admittedly Eldridge, Patterson and others, such as R. C. Lewontin at Harvard, who has argued against Darwinian 'adaptation', are questioning how evolution occurred; they do not doubt that it did occur. Still, this is quite a retreat. The problem of 'how' was supposed to have been solved 122 years ago by Charles Darwin. Natural selection, or 'the survival of the fittest', was supposed to be the agency. Today this is believed to be a disguised tautology: fitness is defined by the survivors.

It may be significant that this new scepticism about the Darwinian mechanism has occurred at a time when a parallel scepticism about the more general idea of progress is widespread. Now that people no longer believe life automatically gets better and better, they are less willing to believe that nature has a 'progressive' tendency built into it.

Speaking at a gathering of evolutionary scientists at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History just over a year ago, Dr Eldridge went even further and questioned the popular idea of a `missing link' in evolution. He questioned instead whether there were any connecting links. 'The pattern [of fossils] that we were told to find for the last 120 years does not exist,' he said.

The New York Times report of the Chicago meeting continued as follows: `Dr Eldridge reminded the meeting of what many fossil hunters have recognised as they trace the history of a species through successive layers of ancient sediments. Species simply appear at a given point in geologic time, persist largely unchanged for a few million years and then disappear. There are very few examples — some say none — of one species shading gradually into another.'

One had the eerie feeling that this could put us all very swiftly back to square one, perhaps to Genesis I. If species 'simply appear', stay the same and then 'disappear', maybe God makes them, occasionally getting bored with the old models and coming up with new ones to replace them. Just a thought. It's one that the Arkansas lawmakers might find rather appealing, and no doubt it has crossed their minds. But in countries where constitutional restraints are placed on religious practice, legislators sometimes have to avoid speaking their minds too directly.