When I heard the first stories, they sounded merely absurd. It was as if some people had exhumed poor John T. Scopes and put him back on trial.
But now it is apparent that a full-scale war is being waged against evolution, against the observations and theories of that mild-mannered naturalist, Charles Darwin. And it is not a revivalist joke.
The newest subject for conflict in the schools isn't sex education or prayer, but science. Three weeks ago, the Georgia state legislature passed a law requiring that Genesis be taught side by side with evolution. In 15 states, bills have been introduced that would give the Bible equal time with Darwin. In 27 states, textbook selection committees are under pressure to accept books that teach Divine Creation -- not as theology, but as biology.
The new "creationists" are more sophisticated than their ancestors who fought Copernicus when he said that the earth moved around the sun. They are more sophisticated than those who forced the Scopes trial 55 years ago.
But the issue is the same. In the words of the Creation Research Society. "The account of origins in Genesis is a factual representation of simple historical truths."
On this issue even as firm a believer as William Jennings Bryan had hedged in the famous monkey trial. When Clarence Darrow asked him, "Do you think the earth was made in six days?," the silver-tongued orator had waffled: "Not six days of 24 hours. My impression is they were periods . . . It might have continued for millions of years."
Scientists do more than hedge. They gasp. While new studies have modified Darwin's scheme, they all support the notion that life changed over eons in response to the environment. Genesis is good metaphor and bad biology.
Despite this, the creationists, who never fully disappeared, have come back more powerfully than at any time since 1925. Their success hinges on and heightens our own anxiety about science, our fear of changing values and lives. There is simply no area more touchy than what our children are being taught in school. Today parents wrestle with teachers and textbooks for control over what their children will know, what they will think. It is an understandable and often valid match.
But now the people who blame sex education for sexual activity -- who claim that history textbooks have produced disrespect for our history -- have turned to science. They blame the "teaching of evolution" for "animal behavior."
Chief Judge Braswell Deen of the Georgia Court of Appeals actually stated that "the teaching of scientific creationism as evidenced in the book of Genesis would significantly reduce crime in America."
W. Lloyd Dale, the only biology teacher at the high school in Lemmon, S.D., told Barbara Parker of the American School Board Journal, "I maintain that if you teach a kid that he's an animal and that his behavior is based on his environment that he is going to act like an animal."
To support religious values, the creationists would subvert scientific truths. They perfer the notion that we are little lower than the angels and rebel at the idea that we have descended from the animals.
In many ways, science has dealt a series of blows to the human ego. Copernicus discovered that our planet wasn't the center of the universe. Darwin suggested that we were not created whole and dominant.
Religion promised us a certain place. Science put us in our real place.
In Darwin's context, we are a part of nature and natural laws. People who do not rule nature have to learn to live within it. In that sense, our children could do worse than remember that we are animals.
But the creationists don't want them to know our heritage.
It seems to me that there is no intrinsic conflict between faith and science, believing and knowing. The theory of change doesn't begin to explain the ultimate mystery: the origin of the species. The beginning of the beginning is a subject for philosophers and theologians and the scientists in their ranks.
But to suggest that we give Genesis equal time with evolution is like giving Pope Urban's math equal time with Galileo's. The creationists are people for whom the Bible is the only textbook. They would leave a chill wind for our children to inherit.