- The Washington Times - Monday, December 26, 2005

It was about time for another monkey trial. For it’s been a while since the big one in Dayton, Tenn., starring Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Talk about your Clash of Titans. And the color commentary was provided by H.L. Mencken, whom some of us in the newspaper game have been trying to imitate ever since.

That splendid cast has never been topped, not that successive generations of litigants haven’t tried. Now the same old show is back on the road. It seems a school board in Dover, Pa., decided to make teachers of ninth-grade biology courses read a short (but nevertheless poorly written) criticism of the theory of evolution to their classes. Naturally, a lawsuit soon followed. Pity poor Pennsylvania; landmark cases can be expensive. And embarrassing.

Thank goodness Dover’s voters stepped in and cut this farce short. The eight incumbents who supported the anti-evolution statement have just been voted off the school board, doubtless because of their heavy-handed ways. Or maybe it was because of a general weariness with the whole overdone controversy, which has been going on in this country at least since the first Monkey Trial in 1925.

The decision in this latest rematch came when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones found the Dover school board had violated the First Amendment — the one that, among so many other salutary guarantees, keeps government from establishing a religion, in this case the Doctrine of Intelligent Design.

His Honor might have been better advised to base his decision on another facet of the many-splendored gem that is the First Amendment, for surely the guarantee of free speech prevents an officious school board from putting words in a teacher’s mouth, or substituting its own idea of science.

Intelligent Design may or may not be bad science, but it is still science. John Stuart Mill, no religious fanatic, once professed belief in “creation by intelligence.” In today’s ideological climate, would he be drummed out of the classroom?

Charles Darwin himself left plenty of room in his theory for some teleology — a 50-cent word meaning purposefulness. His great contribution to science wasn’t evolution, an idea that has been around since the Greeks, but his theory about how evolution proceeds: through natural selection.

Thanks to this latest judicial opinion, Darwin’s theory remains the reigning heavyweight champion of scientific disputations. But the debate will go on as long as there are fashions in science as in every other field of human endeavor.

So it shouldn’t be long before bird-like dinosaurs (proof of evolution) do battle once again with bacterial flagellum (proof of intelligent design) in a contest that, let’s face it, lacks the intellectual satisfaction and general social and political significance of Louis versus Schmeling.

Why not just let science teachers teach science the way they believe is best? Surely even the most fervent critics of evolution would admit Darwin’s theory makes a mighty handy way to organize biology classes — from the study of simpler to more complex organisms. When it comes to organizing principles, the theory of evolution is hard to argue with.

Then there are those separate but equally intolerant champions of evolution whose antennae go up in alarm at the slightest show of reverence toward the Creation, let alone the unavoidable suspicion there might be a Creator behind it.

I’d like to think reasonable defenders of evolution wouldn’t object if some biology teacher somewhere were still allowed to say something like this in an American classroom: “There is grandeur in this view of life [as] having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Would we really censor such an opinion from high school classes in either the sciences or the humanities?

That would be a shame, for those are the concluding words of the second edition of a great work of science, art and belief: “The Origins of Species” by Charles Darwin.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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