Remember long ago--like last February--when some on the religious right had run up the white flag in the culture wars?
Our president had slipped the impeachment posse and taken his victory lap. Nervous Republican leaders told the true-believer right to stifle itself. Christian conservatives counseled abandoning the electoral arena.
Fast forward six months. It's Labor Day and the cusp of the presidential primary season and what are the candidates talking about?
The Kansas Board of Education decides to expunge evolution from its public school curriculum and, just like that, everyone stops debating tax cuts and the possible cocaine-sniffing pasts of certain presidential candidates and starts arguing about the Bible and apes turned into humans. Or not.
It's "Inherit the Wind" redux.
"In between the pitched battles, the guerrilla culture wars never really wane," says Leo Ribuffo, a historian at George Washington University. "All that happens is that these issues fall off the cosmopolitan radar screens."
The battle over evolution is a hardy chestnut. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke in favor of letting public schools teach that God created Earth and man.
But in purely anthropological terms, the views of our Ivy League-educated presidential candidates are perhaps most striking, as evolutionary theory found its first and broadest acceptance in the nation's elite institutions. Malcolm Stevenson "Steve" Forbes (Princeton '69) and George W. Bush (Yale '68, Harvard '75) apparently take the view that Charles Darwin is just another dead guy with a theory.
Forbes, a member of Princeton's board of trustees, holds that certain illustrations of evolution in unspecified biology textbooks are "a massive fraud." And he notes that "a lot of what we thought was true, it turns out, science is finding is not true."
Texas Gov. Bush would accord evolution and creationism (the latter being the theory that God created the universe, the Earth and man about 10,000 years ago) more or less equal credence. "I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started," he says.
To which his spokeswoman adds: "He believes both creationism and evolution should be taught."
Even Vice President Albert Gore (Harvard '69), that avatar of all things serious and scientific, says that, while he personally favors teaching the theory of evolution, he would let local school boards decide the matter.
"That decision should and will be made at the local level, and localities should be free to teach creationism," his spokesman says.
(Bill Bradley, a Princeton grad, is the only presidential candidate to specify that he favors having public schools teach evolutionary theory.)
It's all enough to set another Harvard man, the author and Harvard biology professor Stephen Jay Gould, to vibrating.
"It's intellectually so disappointing and so absurd," Gould says. "It's like teaching English but making grammar optional."
This is not a question, he and other biologists note, of rival theories chasing an uncertain truth. There is a central "truth," embraced by virtually every mainstream scientist worldwide: that the cosmos and the Earth were created billions of years ago, and that life evolved from one-celled animals to modern humans.
That these overarching concepts are pockmarked with unexplained gaps and phenomena, and subject to constant revision and debate, is but the nature of the scientific method.
Nor should that method be taken to preclude the possibility of a divine role in the universe. Pope John Paul II has sanctioned the teaching of evolution, and some evangelical leaders hold open the possibility that the Bible's timetable--typically calculated in "begats"--is metaphorical rather than literal.
"The politicians seem to treat this as one big joke and it's not," says Gerry Borgia, a biology professor at the University of Maryland. "The so-called creationist scientists inhabit a parallel universe. There is simply no interface with mainstream science and to suggest otherwise is shocking."
For the scientists, this is cultural politics with real consequences. The battles to keep evolution out of high school textbooks, or to water them down to a damp and unrecognizable point, take a toll. The result is that many bright students walk into college biology without any grounding in evolutionary theory.
"About 10 percent of my honors biology class drops out in the first week and another one-third of the students have very strong religious views and I have to explain that this is science, not just some theory," Borgia says. "The creationists have been quite successful at keeping evolution out of high school textbooks.
"Someone needs to hold our public officials' feet to the fire."
In the end, however, there is the cold fish eye of political reality. The candidates' spokesmen recite polls that show that 44 percent of Americans believe in a strict biblical creationist view. (And another 40 percent take the view that God guided the millions of years of evolution that culminated in modern humans.)
In this debate, as in so many American battles over abortion and sex education and the behavior of our public officials, there are no final defeats or victories. To claim otherwise is to risk rapidly looking like a fool.
"Even Darwin postponed publicizing his views for 20 years for fear of offending his wife, who was devoutly religious," says David Buss, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Texas. "These debates have been with us for 140 years; the culture wars aren't going anywhere."