Hitchens: Why Texas Is Right on Teaching Evolution

Mention the name "Texas" and the word "schoolbook" to many people of a certain age (such as my own) and the resulting free association will come up with the word "depository" and the image of Lee Harvey Oswald crouching on its sixth floor. In Dallas for the Christian Book Expo recently, I had a view of Dealey Plaza and its most famous building from my hotel room, so the suggestion was never far from my mind.

But last week Texas and schoolbooks meant something else altogether when the state Board of Education, in a muddled decision, rejected a state science curriculum that required teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. Instead, the board allowed "all sides" of scientific theories to be taught. The vote was watched as something more than a local or bookish curiosity. Just as the Christian Book Expo is one of the largest events on the nation's publishing calendar, so the Lone Star State commands such a big share of the American textbook market that many publishers adapt to the standards that it sets, and sell the resulting books to non-Texans as well.

In many ways, this battle can be seen as the last stand of the Protestant evangelicals with whom I was mingling and debating. It's been a rather dismal time for them lately. In the last election they barely had a candidate after Mike Huckabee dropped out and, some would say, not much of one before that. Many Republicans now see them as more of a liability than an asset. As a proportion of the population they are shrinking, and in ethical terms they find themselves more and more in the wilderness of what some of them morosely called, in conversation with me, a "post-Christian society." Perhaps more than any one thing, the resounding courtroom defeat that they suffered in December 2005 in the conservative district of Dover, Pa., where the "intelligent design" plaintiffs were all but accused of fraud by a Republican judge, has placed them on the defensive. Thus, even if the Texas board had defiantly voted to declare evolution to be questionable and debatable, its decision could still have spelled the end of a movement rather than the revival of one.

Yet I find myself somewhat drawn in by the quixotic idea that we should "teach the argument." I am not a scientist, and all that I knew as an undergraduate about the evolution debate came from the study of two critical confrontations. The first was between Thomas Huxley (Darwin's understudy, ancestor of Aldous and coiner of the term "agnostic") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (third son of the great Christian emancipator William) at the Oxford University Museum in 1860. The second was the "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, which pitted the giant of Protestant fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken. Every educated person should know the arguments that were made in these transatlantic venues.

So by all means let's "be honest with the kids," as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. And one of his supporters on the board, Ken Mercer, has said that evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional forms between dogs and cats. If any state in the American union gave equal time in science class to such claims, it would certainly make itself unique in the world (perhaps no shame in that). But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.

The Texas anti-Darwin stalwarts also might want to beware of what they wish for. The last times that evangelical Protestantism won cultural/ political victories—by banning the sale of alcohol, prohibiting the teaching of evolution and restricting immigration from Catholic countries—the triumphs all turned out to be Pyrrhic. There are some successes that are simply not survivable. If by any combination of luck and coincidence any religious coalition ever did succeed in criminalizing abortion, say, or mandating school prayer, it would swiftly become the victim of a backlash that would make it rue the day. This will apply with redoubled force to any initiative that asks the United States to trade its hard-won scientific preeminence against its private and unofficial pieties. This country is so constituted that no one group, and certainly no one confessional group, is able to dictate its own standards to the others. There are days when I almost wish the fundamentalists could get their own way, just so that they would find out what would happen to them.

Perhaps dimly aware that they don't want a total victory, either, McLeroy and his allies now say that they ask for evolution to be taught only with all its "strengths and weaknesses." But in this, they are surely being somewhat disingenuous. When their faction was strong enough to demand an outright ban on the teaching of what they call "Darwinism," they had such a ban written into law in several states. Since the defeat and discredit of that policy, they have passed through several stages of what I am going to have to call evolution. First, they tried to get "secular humanism" classified as a "religion," so that it would meet the First Amendment's disqualification for being taught with taxpayers' money. (That bright idea was Pat Robertson's.) Then they came up with the formulation of "creation science," picking up on anomalies and gaps in evolution and on differences between scientific Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Next came the ingratiating plea for "equal time"—what could be more American than that?and now we have the rebranded new coinage of "intelligent design" and the fresh complaint that its brave advocates are, so goes the title of a recent self-pitying documentary, simply "expelled" from the discourse.

It's not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that evolution is inscribed in the fossil record and in the lineaments of molecular biology. It is more that evolutionists will say in advance which evidence, if found, would refute them and force them to reconsider. ("Rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer" was, I seem to remember, the response of Prof. J.B.S. Haldane.) Try asking an "intelligent design" advocate to stipulate upfront what would constitute refutation of his world view and you will easily see the difference between the scientific method and the pseudoscientific one.

But that is just my opinion. And I certainly do not want it said that my side denies a hearing to the opposing one. In the spirit of compromise, then, I propose the following. First, let the school debating societies restage the wonderful set-piece real-life dramas of Oxford and Dayton, Tenn. Let time also be set aside, in our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural school system, for children to be taught the huge variety of creation stories, from the Hindu to the Muslim to the Australian Aboriginal. This is always interesting (and it can't be, can it, that the Texas board holdouts think that only Genesis ought to be so honored?). Second, we can surely demand that the principle of "strengths and weaknesses" will be applied evenly. If any church in Texas receives a tax exemption, or if any religious institution is the beneficiary of any subvention from the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we must be assured that it will devote a portion of its time to laying bare the "strengths and weaknesses" of the religious world view, and also to teaching the works of Voltaire, David Hume, Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This is America. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend. We may one day have cause to be grateful to the Texas Board of Education for lighting a candle that cannot be put out.

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