Transcript

Va. Group Sees Threat to Darwinist Teaching

Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005; 2:00 PM

In Wednesday's article "Classroom Evolution's Grass-Roots Defender" (Post, July 20), Washington Post staff writer Peter Slevin reports that a grass-roots group troubled by recent Republican triumphs and the influence of the Christian right is fighting back in Northern Virginia by defending the teaching of Darwinian evolution, a battleground in the national culture war.

Slevin was online Thursday, July 21, at 2 p.m. ET to answer your questions.

A transcript follows.

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Peter Slevin: Greetings from Chicago, where I'm based for the Post, and welcome to another discussion of the politics of evolution and intelligent design. There never seems to be a shortage of sharp responses to the stories we've run this year.

Yesterday's brought questions from one reader who wondered why the Post had given so much space to a group that has accomplished so little, and another who said creationists will have the last laugh.

More readers wrote that they remain perplexed that the United States is still debating evolution and some wondered where to sign up in Darwin's defense. Feel free to send your thoughts and, especially, any concrete experiences you have had. I'll get to as many as I can.

Let's get started.

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Ashburn, Va.: An intellectual argument with politicians or creationists on the merits of evolution is a waste of time because they are not interested in scientific truth. Religious faith and electoral success trumps book knowledge any day. A better strategy may be to persuade companies in the biological sciences fields to have policies that they will not locate their facilities in jurisdictions which are anti-evolution, or from universities that will not admit students to the biological science faculties who come from such an education-impaired region of the country. Any thoughts on this?

Peter Slevin: In fact, this is an argument that scientists and defenders of Darwin are making.

For example, they're finding in Kansas, where the conservative board of education appears likely to require teaching doubts about evolution, that academic recruits and business executives are reluctant to locate there.

And that this is happening without any lobbying. Rather, the pro-evolution forces are telling Kansans that to bring bioscience firms and top-flight researchers to the state, the science curriculum must remain intact.

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Minneapolis, Min.: Is there something different about evolutionary theory that makes it easier to attack? Or are all of the sciences discredited when attempts are made to discredit evolution?

Peter Slevin: Good question. People attack modern Darwinian theory for many reasons, some religious, some political and some scientific.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe God created man or had a guiding hand. For many people, the issue of where we came from is deeply and personally connected to faith.

It's also clear that some groups are using evolution as a proxy in the culture wars. It's a wedge issue, a way to mobilize forces, a way to challenge public schools -- a multi-purpose tool.

Rev. Terry Fox told me in Wichita earlier this year that the debate on evolution is connected to the duel over abortion: "If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby. If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die."

On the scientific front, the overwhelming majority of the science establishment supports evolution, but there are others who point to unexplained aspects of the earth's origins and say they undermine the work of Darwin and his descendants.

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Fairfax, Va.: The bio-science and other corporations mentioned by "Ashburn" might also consider contributing money to the public school system for science education, and insisting that it be used to teach unadulterated science. Established Christian and other churches, many of whom explicitly accept evolution, should consider doing the same thing.

Peter Slevin: Interesting thought. The pro-evolution forces have been looking closely at churches and religious leaders who support evolutionary theory, including many who do not see a contradiction between faith and origins science.

I attended a rally in Lawrence, Kansas, in April that was held in a church to make precisely that point. The Message Group has a similar idea.

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Annandale, Va.: What I liked best about your article was not "the cause," but the revealing insights about the people ... and how they wanted to do something to help and therefore picked a cause that they could agree upon. It was fascinating to hear about the "grass-rootness" of it all. I truly think that is the American process working at its finest. Thanks!

Peter Slevin: Thanks yourself! I'm glad that struck you; in working on the story, the piece was as much about the individuals and how and why they came together as about the evolution debate itself.

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Ashburn, Va.: Very interesting article! I was thrilled to read about people who think like I do organizing. Do you plan to follow this organization with follow-ups on their progress?

Peter Slevin: Thank you. Yes, we do hope to follow the group and see what direction the members take and what they find. I, too, am curious to see how it all turns out.

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RE: Minneapolis: The problem with debating the creation/IT people is that they cite studies that scientists won't waste their time with, and the nature of the debate has little to do with actual facts (as the audience has no idea) and a great deal to do with a charismatic/evangelical style.

Peter Slevin: A number of scientists and opponents of intelligent design have said the same thing. They have come to believe they are not engaged in a scientific debate as much as they are enmeshed in a political duel where tactics and language matter greatly.

One scientist I interviewed lamented that the intelligent design advocates had been so clever at devising mottos and sound-bites to advance their cause, e.g. "Teach the controversy" and "Evolution is just a theory."

He said by the time scientists have explained their own convictions, the audience has often tuned out. The science community is trying to figure out how to fight back.

I did a story on this in May. I'll see if we can post a link.

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washingtonpost.com: Teachers, Scientists Vow to Fight Challenge to Evolution (Post, May 5)

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Escanaba, Mich.: Good afternoon. Why do the theories of Creation and Evolution always have to be at odds with each other? They CAN co-exist. After all, the Bible does say man was created from dust which is similar to what evolutionists say.

Thank you.

Peter Slevin: More than a few scientists who also consider themselves devout Christians, including some evangelicals, have been saying the two are not necessarily at odds.

You might check out the work of Keith B. Miller, a Kansas State University scientist who recently gave a lecture he called "Ending the 'Warfare' of Science and Faith."

Not to say that the dust reference is exactly a central part of the argument, however.

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Charleston, S.C.: This evolution debate is so ridiculous. First of all, evolution makes no claim as to how the earth was formed, so the religious right should not be claiming that as a hole in evolutionary theory. Evolution explains changes in organisms over time, so unless you really think that God placed each animal and plant on the Earth as is, evolution should be easy for the right to accept. Do people really think that Noah could fit every animal on the Earth into one boat, and that modern animals are all descendents of these boat animals?

Peter Slevin: Don't laugh, but I do believe there is a panel on the latest thinking about the ark at this week's creationism "Mega Conference" at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The event is co-sponsored by Answers in Genesis.

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Alexandria, Va.: "there are others who point to unexplained aspects of the earth's origins and say they undermine the work of Darwin and his descendants."

That is a losing position, basically if science doesn't yet explain something, that's the role of God. It's a loser because science is gradually explaining more and more.

A better position is to say that God is (philosophically, not literally) above, behind and beneath all of creation, both what human intellect (science) can comprehend, and what it cannot.

Peter Slevin: That's an argument that makes sense to a lot of people who have written to me, and is reflected in the growing literature about the debate.

There are of course others who are of the school that says, "The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it."

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Washington, D.C.: How come this "debate" is only happening in this country?

Peter Slevin: Theories, anyone?

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Arlington, Va.: Have you seen any reason why its taken the pro-science people so long to organize and publicly fight against the creationists? Do you think this group is the "tip of the iceberg" and we can expect to hear more about groups like this in the coming months?

Peter Slevin: Scientists themselves have told me they may have been too quick to dismiss intelligent design as bogus science, or even anti-science. They thought it would self-destruct, that no one who mattered would accept it. But then school boards and other political bodies started taking intelligent design very seriously, to the scientists' dismay.

I've also spoken with scientists who say the political arena is not where they prefer to have their debates. But many are now worried and are developing fresh tactics.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you know if there are many Republicans in this grass roots group? It seems to me that more traditional Republicans should wake up and realize that the Republican Party is moving in new directions that is leaving them behind. I just wonder how vocal such Republicans have become, or whether they are allowing their old voice to slowly die out.

Peter Slevin: You might want to look at the intriguing op-eds that former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, has been writing. Looking at such issues as evolution and embryonic stem cell research, he has been wondering aloud whether the Republican party is essentially being hijacked.

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Munich, Germany: It's hard to understand how the U.S., as home to such pioneers as Ernst Mayr with his work on evolutionary synthesis, could have such vehement and punctuated arguments between evolutionists and creationists.

As I was growing up, some thirty years ago, the wife of the Pastor told us in Sunday School, "It's impossible to deny the existence of evolution." As far as I know, even the Catholic Church has no squabble with evolution.

What has happened in the meantime to create this distance between evolution and creation?

Peter Slevin: Yes, the Catholic church has long seemed to say that belief in evolution was not incompatible with Catholic faith, but Cardinal Christoph Schonborn made quite a stir recently when he suggested otherwise in a column in the New York Times.

For the reasons why Americans are debating this question afresh, I think you have to look to politics and particularly the rising influence and ambitions of social conservatives and the Christian right.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Can't argue facts to faith. Once an argument turns on an unquestionable, unavailable, and unknown god (or allah, or whatever) there's no more reasonable discourse. The only way to fight faith is to drop way down to their level and use clever marketing and fear.

Things like "You're harming your children's potential for employment by teaching ignorance" or "let's also teach that the earth is flat and that the sun is pulled across the sky by Apollo's chariot" or "if we teach christian religion we'll have to teach satanism too," etc.

Peter Slevin: Those arguments would spice up the debate.

I wonder where you can buy tickets for that chariot ride.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As to the question on why this "debate" is only happening in this country, it is because this country's political discourse has been hijacked by the right-wing religious fanaticals that squeeze out mainstream opinion and true discussion.

Peter Slevin: That's one unvarnished view.

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Arlington, Va.: This is in regards to the question about other countries having this debate. Are there other "first-world" countries that are as polarized as we are in the U.S.? I don't know a whole lot about world politics, but it seems that amongst the "first-world" countries the US spends the most time worrying about "us" vs. "them" instead of the actual issues at hand.

Peter Slevin: Here's another.

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Columbia, Md.: I am glad to hear there's someone out there willing to challenge the religious right. I think Americans should be worried sick about the continual blurring of the separation of state and religion.....the more we can use the democratic process of organizing and contacting our local and national reps on these issues the better. The right is well organized, and their mission is clear....it's time for those opposed to act.

Peter Slevin: Many people have written with a version of this thought regarding the folks I wrote about yesterday.

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Sonoma, Calif.: Choosing not to locate a firm or research facility in intellectually unfriendly areas seems quite reasonable. However, I think it most unfair to deny a student entrance to a university because he or she comes from Kansas, Mississippi, or some other suspect area. There are minority views everywhere, and even when a school curriculum fails that is not necessarily an indication that the student has not learned on his or her own. Perhaps instead science departments at these universities could make it clear that their grading and evaluation systems will simply not accommodate students who are unwilling to apply scientific principles to their work.

Peter Slevin: I don't think anyone's talking about denying admission to students for such reasons beyond their control. Your second point is one that I'm confident is widely accepted. I've heard science professors say just that.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: As a scientist, the problem I have with creationism is that it doesn't fit at all with the whole of scientific observation (geology, physics, biology). As a whole science does fit together very well, including evolution, and provides benefits for all of us.

The problem I have with Intelligent Design is that there's isn't anything to test, God? Goodness? Testing hypotheses is the central method of science, this is why IT is not scientific and shouldn't be taught as science in schools.

Peter Slevin: Intelligent design opponents often say the theory should not be taught in schools until it has been vetted through scientific debate. And that if it can prove its merit, then fair enough.

Some of the strongest proponents of intelligent design, including Seattle's Discovery Institute, say the theory is not ready to be rolled into classrooms. Rather, the argument is that schools should teach "doubts" about evolutionary theory.

One potential problem with teaching intelligent design in public schools, opponents say, is that it would violate the separation of church and state because who is the designer if not God.

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Nashville, Tenn.: I find it interesting that this debate is quite possibly being taken more seriously in the 21st century than it was in the early 20th. I grew up about 20 miles from Dayton, TN, where the Scopes-Monkey trials took place. It's not widely known, but that trial was more a publicity stunt for the area than it was an attempt to settle the scientific debate. The town's leaders actually met with John Scopes in the general store and told him they had an idea to bring attention to the area, and he agreed to have charges brought against him. Not to belittle him, because I think he was fighting for scientific principles, but all of the actors involved acknowledged that it wasn't -just- about religion. Interesting that 80 years later and we're fighting the exact same battle.

Peter Slevin: Interesting detail.

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RE: D.C.: There is a similar debate in the UK, I saw Tony Blair mention this during "Question Time." I don't know much about the details though.

I wouldn't be surprised if similar debates occur most places, maybe there is greater separation of religion and education, at least in Europe religion isn't as great a political force.

An Austrian Cardinal recently tried to re-align the position of the Roman Catholic Church toward IT, apparently with Papal blessings. Not a good move, and politically motivated in my opinion.

Peter Slevin: A report from Britain.

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Falls Church, Va.: Peter, You have covered this issue of creationism in the science class as it has evolved across the country, what have you found as the most compelling reason why the average, middle of the road citizen should be personally concerned about this issue? Would you have a different answer if the citizen was a business person?

Thanks.

Peter Slevin: At root, this is about the quality of education children will receive, whether it's the 450,000 students in Kansas or countless students elsewhere, and how we come to consensus on what students should be taught.

It is also about the tenor and depth of political discourse, how we see ourselves and how we address what's important. All of that connects to business and the economic prospects of a county, a state or a nation, whether it be the competitiveness of industry or the quality of health care.

Or so it seems to me.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why is the Post committing so many resources to Intelligent Design? Evolution is a time tested scientifically widely accepted explanation. ID is pretty much a brand new hypothesis with a following that is inconsequential when compared to evolution. Yet, the Post seems dead set on placing the two side by side and confusing lay people by acting like one is just as scientifically valid as the other.

Peter Slevin: The previous answer could apply to this very good question, as well.

We are covering this issue as closely as we have because we think the intelligent design debate, in its many permutations, is registering at the local and state level across the country on issues connected to schools and electoral politics alike.

Easily 20 states have faced one challenge or another to evolutionary theory, whether it is a stick on a textbook or a challenge to classroom teaching itself. Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, made it an issue in the Senate.

You might take a look at another couple of stories we've done. I'll ask Katie, the ever talented and efficient producer, if she can post links.

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Long Beach: Greetings, Do you find any irony in the fact that the most strident politicians clinging to creationism are the most virulent Social Darwinists? Why should survival of the fittest be so anathema to the religious right when it is the anthem for Republican social policies? Your thoughts?

Peter Slevin: Have you thought of writing for Jon Stewart and The Daily Show?

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washingtonpost.com: In Kansas, A Sharp Debate on Evolution (Post, May 6)

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washingtonpost.com: Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens (Post, March 14)

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Peter Slevin: On that note...

We've run out of time, with many thoughtful and provocative comments still in the queue. Many thanks for tuning in.

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