News Notes

Science History
Evolution trial remembered

San Francisco, Feb. 18

Almost 20 years after McLean vs. Arkansas declared creation science was religion and not science at all, the antievolution movement has itself evolved while the fundamental concepts of evolution have remained the same.

Forty-three years after the Scopes trial, the Supreme Court decided in 1968 that an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution violated free exercise of religion. Thirteen years later, Arkansas passed Act 590, which mandated that public schools give balance to evolution by teaching creation science. That same year, 1981, the McLean vs. Arkansas trial began in December and concluded in January 1982 with Judge William R. Overton identifying creation science as a thinly veiled sectarian religion.

Four scientists who had testified against Arkansas spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They responded to the question of what has changed or remained unchanged in the fields of physics, geochronology, molecular biology and paleontology since the 1981 trial.

“We were interested in having participants from the trial testify on what has happened in their fields in the last 20 years,” said panel organizer Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in a separate phone interview.  “We were not there to debate evolution.”

At the AAAS meeting, Scott discussed how the antievolution movement itself has changed over the years. Those against evolution generally fall into two branches: creationists who believe in a 6,000-year-old “young Earth” and creationists who believe Earth and life were planned by intelligent design.

“As a lineage the young-Earth creationists derive from Henry Morris,” Scott said. Morris — as panelist Ronald Numbers, a scholar of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the controversy, clarified — had advanced creationism in the 1950s as a movement to gain consensus among Christians in the United States toward one literalist interpretation of Genesis in the Bible.

The young-Earth creationists have even criticized “intelligent design” creationists for being “creationist light” with too little biblical emphasis, Scott said. But this insurgency has not detracted from the movement’s support. “If you look at the intelligent design faculty, they come from secular institutions of higher learning, and this is providing the antievolution movement a respectability that it never had before.”

At the same time, changes in science over the last two decades have solidified the concepts that life, Earth and the cosmos have changed through time, that the present is different from the past and that the universe is ancient, Scott said.

Participants from the Arkansas trial speaking at the conference were Harold Morowitz of George Mason University in Virginia; Brent Dalrymple, recently retired from Oregon State University; Francisco Ayala of the University of California-Irvine and Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University.

During the 1981 Arkansas trial, creationists argued that because of the second law of thermodynamics — which states that in a isolated system, disorder or entropy will increase or at best stay the same — life without divine help is impossible. Morowitz explained to the court in 1981 why evolution does not violate this law of physics. Movement toward a state of higher organization is possible because Earth is not an isolated system.

Although creationists still confuse the definition 20 years later, “I don’t think anything has changed in the second law of thermodynamics,” Morowitz said at the AAAS panel.

Studying how life could originate from non-living material will “likely produce satisfying and confirming results on the origin of life in the next 20 years,” Morowitz said. If so, that might dampen the creationists’ arguments for life. “We shall succeed or be very close to synthesizing living cells from chemicals,” he added after the meeting.

When it comes to geochronology, while the age of Earth is still more than 4 billion years, the last 20 years have seen many reports further investigating and discussing Earth’s history. “At the time of the Arkansas trial there was no work available that summarized with any degree of thoroughness the evidence for the age of the Earth,” Dalrymple said.

He claimed that, before his own book was published in 1991, the most comprehensive work on the subject was a book published by the National Research Council in 1931. “The reason for this lack of attention was that the age of the Earth was so well known among geologists and astronomers that it was thought to be non-controversial and a subject of little interest. We now know better,” Dalrymple said, indicating a need to keep the scientific knowledge fresh in the public’s mind.

The fossil record, however, has always sparked debate. “Since 1980, amazing things have happened in paleontology,” Gould said. Scientists have “improved our understanding of how the fossil record shows evolution by filling in the gaps that have been problematical.” The fossil record has helped identify the evolution of whales for example. Also, scientists “have given us good explanations for the appearance of rapidity,” such as the mass extinction at the K/T boundary, he added.

But the gaps of knowledge that still exist will continue to intrigue scientists looking for natural causes the same way it will tempt creationists to believe in supernatural or divine intervention, Morowitz added. Scott agreed.

“It’s clear the antievolution movement has not gone away,” she said. “The McLean vs. Arkansas trial was an important trial but neither it nor the Supreme Court decision stopped the antievolution movement in the United States.”

Christina Reed

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