Two hundred years after the birth of British naturalist Charles Darwin, the debate between scientists and the religious right over the origins of man remains as heated as ever in the US.
The controversy has even gained momentum in recent decades as creationists, who believe that God created man in His own image, have fought against only teaching evolution in the nation’s classrooms.
Just last month the Texas education board adopted a resolution narrowly voting to drop references in the curriculum requiring teachers to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.
The move, which makes it harder to teach creationism in the state’s schools, was hailed by the scientific community, although a final vote after public consultation is not due until late next month.
“There are no weaknesses of evolution,” Eugenie Scott, director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, told ScientificAmerican.com. “That’s not to say we understand everything that happened in evolution or the mechanisms that caused evolutionary change. But arguments about the details aren’t arguments about whether evolution took place. The creationists make that category error.”
Texas is just the latest battleground in the conflict.
In 2005, the Kansas education board voted to allow the teaching in state schools of “intelligent design” — that all life including man is a divine creation — alongside evolution.
A similar decision in a small town in Pennsylvania a year earlier was challenged by parents who won a court decision barring the teaching of “intelligent design” in their school.
The rise of the neo-creationist movement has scientists on their guard. The American Academy of Sciences has even launched a Web site defending evolutionary arguments which say man descended over millions of years from the apes.
“Partly in response to these court decisions, opposition to teaching evolution has itself evolved, with opponents changing their goals and tactics,” said David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Center.
“Indeed, the teaching of evolution has become a part of the nation’s culture wars, manifest most recently in the 2008 presidential campaign,” he said.
He highlighted how defeated Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had spoken of being in favor of teaching creation science or intelligent design along with evolution.
And a recent Pew poll showed 63 percent of Americans believe that humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being.
“Only 26 percent say that life evolved solely through processes such as natural selection,” Maschi said.
The vast anti-evolution movement has developed over the decades, but has been sharply drawn in the courts since the famous 1925 case in Dayton, Tennessee, when a young biology teacher, John Scopes, was put on trial for teaching evolutionary theory. Scopes was found guilty of teaching theory that denied Divine Creation, and fined US$100.
Also See: SUNDAY PROFILE: Darwin’s dawn