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19th Century cartoon of Charles Darwin
12.03.04
Science and Health:
Battle Over Evolution
More on This Story:
Timeline

In their recent conversation Bill Moyers and eminent scientist and author Richard Dawkins discussed the ongoing controversy over teaching of evolution in American schools. Dawkins remarked:

All materials should be studied with an open mind, studied critically, etcetera. I'm all for that. What's wrong is to single out evolution as though that is any more open to doubt than anything else...Among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know. And that, of course, as you know is accepted by responsible educated churchmen, as well as scientists.
However, a 2004 CBS News poll indicates why evolution remains a battleground in America. The poll found that just 13 percent say that God was not involved in the process of creating humans. Fifty-five percent said God created humans in their present form. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans want creationism taught along with evolution. Only 37 percent want evolutionism replaced outright. 60 percent of Americans who call themselves Evangelical Christians, however, favor replacing evolution with creationism in schools altogether, as do 50 percent of those who attend religious services every week. These findings echo those of a series of Gallup polls conducted in 1982, 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2001. In that series of polls no fewer than 44% of those responding subscribed to a strict creationist view.



19th c. cartoon of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin's Day

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was published in THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES in 1859. Although Darwin carefully avoided discussion of the evolution of humans in the book, beyond the famous sentence "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," readers and critics were quick to acknowledge that the theory had great implications for ideas of human development.

Within a decade there were sixteen editions of ORIGIN in England and America and translations into six European languages. Simplified and popularized views of Darwin's theories were both lauded and parodied — as can be seen in the contemporary cartoon to the left which shows Darwin as half-man and half-ape. Victorians could sing a "Darwinian Theory" piano duet and purchase a Wedgewood bowl illustrating the "tree of life."

A widely-covered event helped Darwin's theories gain popular acceptance in England. The British Association in Oxford held a debate between evolution foe Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and evolution supporter scientist T. H. Huxley on June 30, 1860. Although he started the debate as underdog, newspaper accounts of the day named Huxley as the winner. It was one of the first public showdowns over evolution which have played out as a battles between religion and science.


Dayton, TN Courthouse
The Monkey Trial

Popularly known as "The Monkey Trial," the battle between two of America's most famous orators, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, was actually Tennessee v. John Scopes. In 1925 Dayton, Tennessee teacher John Scopes agreed to be a test case against a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The case became a national phenomenon — pitting the religious former Presidential candidate Bryan against the American Civil Liberties Union and America's most famous lawyer Darrow.

Covered in the press by H.L. Mencken and carried live on a Chicago radio station, the trail riveted the nation. The jury convicted Scopes for breaking the state law, but Darrow's stinging cross-examination of Bryan as a Biblical expert made him the winner in the popular mind. The crusade against evolution in the schools became dormant for several decades. Read more about court challenges of the 1960s and 1980s from EVOLUTION on PBS.


Local Georgia school department warning sticker, 2004

21st Century Schoolyard Battles

There are currently several controversial school cases related to evolution under debate in the U.S. In late 2004 the Dover, Pennsylvania school district mandated that a theory called "intelligent design" be taught along with evolution in public schools. Intelligent design, the counterpart to evolution presented by the creationist movement, maintains that because of its complexity, life on Earth was created by an intelligent being, not by the evolutionary forces of change over time.

In Grantsburg, Wisconsin, school officials revised the science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism, prompting an outcry from more than 300 educators who urge that the decision be reversed. Members of Grantsburg's school board believed that a state law governing the teaching of evolution was too restrictive. The science curriculum "should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory," said Joni Burgin, superintendent of the district.

And, a court in Georgia is currently reviewing the policy of the Cobb Country school district which required that a sticker be placed on science books reading "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

The controversy is reaching beyond school systems. Recently several scientific organizations and the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park requested that a book presenting a creationist view of the formation of the canyon be removed from the scientific section of the park book store.



Additional sources: THE NEW YORK TIMES; OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN HISTORY; "Darwin in Caricature," Janet Browne, Wellcome Center for the History of Medicine, American Philosophical Society, 2001"

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