Tucked into a leafy fold of the Ozark Mountains, a new dinosaur museum boldly goes where few museums have gone before -- deep into the pages of Genesis.
At first glance, with its research-quality replicas and lush dioramas of prehistoric Earth, the Museum of Earth History, which opened here in April, may seem like any other facility devoted to dinosaurs and fossils. But with exhibits aligned with the Bible's six days of creation, it is also emblematic of the increasing volume in the national debate over how evolution should be taught in public schools and the emboldening of those who oppose or question evolution.
At issue, in state legislatures, school boards, museums and other cultural institutions across the country, is whether Charles Darwin's theory that all life descended from common ancestors and developed through natural selection and random mutation should be presented alone or with alternative explanations.
Most visitors to the Museum of Earth History prefer the explanation in Genesis. And that is exactly what the museum, a joint project of the nonprofit Oklahoma-based Creation Truth Foundation and Eureka Springs' Great Passion Play outdoor Bible theme park, offers.
Suspended overhead in one display, for example, is a replica of a pteranodon, a pointy-headed flying reptile with a 33-foot wingspan, hollow bones and a bony ruffle on its skull. Visitors are told: "Each of these unique design features indicate that Pteranodons were created to fly, not that they slowly evolved into flying creatures."
Similar creationist viewpoints appear on plaques throughout the museum, a 3,500-square-foot prototype for a series of regional museums 10 times that size, the first of which is planned for Dallas in 2007.
Finishing the tour with their two sons in tow, Robert and Debbie Archer, surgeons from Tulsa, said they were happy to visit a museum that reflects their beliefs and not Darwin's.
That is why he developed the museum, said G. Thomas Sharp, founder and chairman of the Creation Truth Foundation.
"There is so much demographic data telling us that about 50 percent of the American public believes in the biblical story of origins," said Sharp, 62, a former high school science teacher.
According to a November 2004 Gallup Poll, 45 percent of the U.S. population believes humans did not evolve, but were created by God -- as stated in the Bible -- about 10,000 years ago. The number of Americans who say they believe this hasn't dipped below 44 percent since Gallup began polling on the issue in 1982.
"However, there was not an entertaining, educational cultural center to visit that presents that story," said Sharp.
There are various creationist-themed centers and museums across the country, but Sharp's museum represents a new wave. These museums are offering high-quality dinosaur replicas in the vicinity of major cities or tourist destinations, such as the Great Passion Play, which draws some 400,000 people a year to its 4,100-seat outdoor amphitheater and its New Holy Land Tour of life-size replicas of biblical sites.
No explanation of the origin of life on Earth can be proved definitively. But the Supreme Court ruled in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard that creationism, which the court deemed to be religion, may not be taught in public schools because it would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause calling for separation of church and state.
Partly as a result, the dominant current challenger to evolution in education is "intelligent design," which asserts that there is a scientific argument that some complexities of nature, unexplained by Darwin's theory, cannot be the result of random mutation, but must be the work of an unnamed intelligence. Some critics call it "creationism lite."
On Aug. 1, President Bush unexpectedly amplified the debate, fortifying proponents of intelligent design and biblical creationists. Bush, who as Texas governor favored teaching both evolution and creationism, said students today should be taught both evolution and intelligent design, "so people can understand what the debate is about."
"Teach the controversy" is one of intelligent design's marketing mantras. But the mainstream scientific community holds that there is nothing scientific about intelligent design and no credible controversy over evolution as the foundation block of modern biology.
In a statement, the National Science Teachers Association described itself as "stunned and disappointed" by Bush's words. But the majority of Americans long have agreed with the president's view. Since the early 1980s, polls have consistently indicated that a majority or near majority of Americans believe both evolution and creationism should be taught.
This may not be surprising in a nation where more than a quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians, many holding creationist views, and 96.8 percent claim some religious belief, according to the 2004 National Survey of Religion and Politics released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"Many Americans think these religious ideas should be taught in school because they believe them and they're true. But a lot of Americans say that because they think it's fair," said John Green, a Pew fellow and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, which conducted the poll.
"We, who teach in the more liberal academies, tend to forget that those who take biology classes are also being taught on the weekends how to interpret that in church," said Phillip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University. America's argument over evolution, which grabbed the world's attention at the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," is an old one, perhaps the oldest in the culture wars, according to David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum.
"I think one of the reasons it's popping up now is you have a tremendous infrastructure of conservative Christian groups, connected to conservative Christian churches, that's grown up in the last 40 years," he said.
It is evident that evolution's critics and opponents are bringing their views more assertively into the public square.
In Oklahoma, Tulsa's Park and Recreation Board voted in June to install a display of the biblical account of creation in Genesis at the Tulsa Zoo, then reversed itself in July under sharp criticism.
In Kentucky, a $25 million, 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum, slated for 2007, is under construction by the nonprofit Answers in Genesis, one of the world's largest creationist organizations.
In Texas, the Odessa School Board is under fire this month for voting to introduce an elective biblical history and literature course that opponents say contains blatantly sectarian and creationist material.
And soon, the Kansas State Board of Education is expected to finalize new science standards that criticize Darwin's theory and open the door to alternative explanations of man's origins, including intelligent design.
So far in 2005, intelligent design has been considered for curricula inclusion in at least 25 cases by state legislatures and school boards, according to the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Devoid of any reference to the biblical or the divine, intelligent design thus far has skirted the Supreme Court's ban on creationism in the classroom. That issue and the scientific validity of intelligent design will be put to the first major test in September, when a federal judge hears the case brought by a Pennsylvania parent group against the Dover Area School District's decision to include intelligent design in biology classes.
Creationists such as Sharp don't think intelligent design goes far enough, but nevertheless are buoyed by its rising profile.
"You've got these incredibly credentialed scientists who are starting to question what, for 100 years, has been accepted as standard," he said, referring primarily to the fellows at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that is funding research into intelligent design by scientists.
Meanwhile, dinosaurs provide a potent platform for evangelism.
"Everyone is totally fascinated by dinosaurs," said Dennis Lindsay, president and chief executive officer of Christ for the Nations, a nonprofit international Bible ministry that is co-founding the Dallas museum.
"It will be an attraction to have those and share the story that, from our position and opinion, dinosaurs did not live 65 million years ago," he said, referring to many creationists' belief in an Earth age of less than 10,000 years.
It is important to many creationists that man and dinosaurs lived simultaneously because they believe there was no death in the world until Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. If the Genesis story is false, they say, then there would be no need for Jesus Christ to redeem the sins of the world.
Thus, at the Museum of Earth History, Genesis dictates gentle vegetarian dinosaurs sharing Eden with Adam and Eve, whose vaguely Polynesian appearance represents all races, according to a guide. Another exhibit maintains that dinosaurs, like all land creatures created on Day 6, were on Noah's Ark. The exhibit maintains that the ark could accommodate them because it was huge -- 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high -- and only smaller, adolescent dinosaurs were put on board.
Such literal interpretation is essential, Sharp said, because "If we lose Genesis as a legitimate scientific and historical explanation for man, then we lose the validity of Christianity. Period."