After 56 years of fitful slumber among the old, passed-over issues, it is back: evolution vs. the creation. The literal Bible vs. the accumulated judgments of scientists. The modern version of the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial starts today in a California court.
This time, the entire nation will be able to watch. Cameras have been admitted to the courtroom; the network television news will be there. And through it has been five decades since William Jennings Bryan defended the "old-time religion" and Clarence Darrow deflated Bryan's bravado with arguments for Darwin's theory, the California evolution trial in one sense picks up just where the battle left off in 1925.
Then, John T. Scopes was convicted in Dayton, Tenn., of violating a state law against the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. Though he was fined $100, he never paid because the conviction was later overturned on a legal technicality. However, the nation's eyes were riveted on the case, because of the issue and because of the two famous lawyers who opposed one another in the state court.
Darrow had a distinguished list of scientists and scholars waiting to testify; he was ready to argue about religious freedom and science, but the judge in the Scopes case let none of the experts speak, and let none of the constitutional issues be argued.
Now, another generation of scientific and scholarly witnesses is ready to testify. The attorneys for both sides this time are ready to discuss science and religion -- to debate whether religious freedom requires that public schools must teach, or at least not contradict, the biblical story of creation, taken literally.
The excited plaintiffs in the California trial are seeing their case large: "I am told this could be the trial of the century," said kelly segraves, the chief plaintiff, whose children have been taught science in a way he finds offensive. "The outcome will affect the way science is taught in every state in the counry."
Segraves, a 37-year-old publisher of religious books, sued the State Board of Education in 1979 on behalf of his three children in the San Diego public schools. He hopes to force the state to rewrite its guidelines for teaching science and to establish the biblical story of creation as one of two or more scientific "theories" that should be given some credence in public school classrooms.
For the state's defense, more than a dozen eminent scientists and religious scholars are ready to testify, including astronomer Carl Sagan and Nobel Prize laureate Arthur Kornberg.
"I'm not going to prove that evolution is a fact," said Deputy Attorney General Robert Tyler, who will argue the state's case, "just that there are no scientific alternatives." Creationism is taught in social studies in the California schools, not in science.
For the plaintiffs, a succession of schoolchildren is expected to take the stand to tell what they have been taught in science class; also expected to testify are some expert witnesses not yet named by Richard Turner, the plaintiff's attorney and a former assistant legal aide to Ronald Reagan.
"We do not have to prove or disprove evolution or the creation," Turner said. "We are not asking for equal time or any time. We are just saying, 'Don't tell my client's kids, in the classroom, that their religious beliefs are wrong.' We are not trying to sneak the Bible into the public schools. We just don't want them to say that evolution is the only theory. That amounts to the exaltation of scientists into the God posture."
Science is still on the defensive, as it was in 1925, but this time the state and science are partners in the case, while it is the fudamentalist Christians fighting established practice.
The turnabout for fundamentalists has been a long time coming, since one documented effect of the Scopes trial was to wipe out the teaching of evolution in science texts for more than 30 years. It was only beginning in about 1963 that evolution began to reappear in textbooks in a major way.
In recent years, a new creationist movement, a direct descendant of the successful one of scopes' day, has gained increasing force in its effort to have the biblical creation story taught alongside evolution in science classes, or at least not contradicted openly in class.
Bills demanding that biblical creation be taught in public schools have recently been argued in 15 states. South Dakota, Wisconsin and Missouri now provide instruction on creation as part of public school biology. Iowa and Texas have adopted policies that evolution may be taught only as one of several possible theories. In some state -- including Mississippi, Georgia, Idaho, and Indiana -- groups offering the biblical creation as a literal event have gotten their own texts included on the lists of books recommended for approval by local school boards.
Books published by Kelly Segraves' nonprofit outfit, the Creation-science Research Center, have been put on two lists of state-approved science books. His texts do not mention scripture, and refer to God only in such a euphemism as "the designer of life," and present a sudden, all-at-once creation of the universe as a "scientific" theory.
"Scientific" creationism holds that the universe and man were created in six days, sometime roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This contradicts the basic tenets of biology, physics, astronomy and geology, but creationists assert that the interpretations that scientists have given to their data are wrong.
In its 10 years of existence, Segraves' organization, with annual revenues of about $100,000 from contributions by individuals and church groups, has published 17 texts and thousands of pamphlets attacking what the group calls "the state religion of atheism." His organization had also argued against abortion, sex education and the Equal Rights Amendment.
The trial beginning today is the greatest test in recent years for the modern "scientific" creationism, which got its first big boost into the public schools 12 years ago in California when then-Gov. Reagan openly encouraged creationists to sue the state schools to get creationist ideas into the curriculum.
Reagan appointed a notably religious state Board of Education, which voted to accept a statement that creationism is a valid alternative to the theory of evolution. Textbooks teaching evolution exclusively were softened, and wording changed to say that evolution is only a theory, no more verifiable than the creation story.
But in 1978, under a Board of Education appointed by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., the 103-page book that serves as state policy on science teaching and science textbooks was rewritten again, this time without giving credence to the story of creation for science classes.
It is this book and policy that is attacked in the Segraves case, a case that may serve as the first national platform in five decades for the revival of the debate of faith versus science, public education versus private freedom.