Little Rock

Little Rock in the middle of December had far less carnival than Dayton, Tenn., had in the summertime 57 years ago. But as a legal contest, Little Rock was far better than the Scopes "monkey trial."

The judge ruled out deep legal issues early in the Scopes trial: It was a criminal case. The defendant was simply convicted of violating a law against the teaching of evolution.

In Little Rock, it is the law itself that is on trial--a new state law that requires the teaching of creation theory wherever evolution theory is taught. The judge here must decide whether put-ting creationism into the classroom violates the First Amendment prohibition against the state's establishment of religion.

The challenge of the Arkansas case is that the creationists brought in a new argument--that belief in a creator and the sudden creation of the world is not necessarily a religious belief if there is valid scientific evidence to support the idea.

So the Arkansas law (and an identical one yet to be tested in Louisiana) redefines the question. It sets up two "scientific models" for the origin and development of life--"creation science" and "evolution science."

There has been some circus here: jugglers, people in monkey suits, demonstrators telling the American Civil Liberties Union to climb back up its tree, creationists swaying and praying in the courtroom above the Little Rock Post Office.

And there have been humorists: Geneticist Francisco Ayala's testimony about the striking similarity between the gene sequences of apes and man prompted a story about the time geneticists were first able to compare genes between the two species. The first gene tested showed no difference at all. Nor did the comparisons of the second or third gene indicate a single difference between ape and man. By the time the fourth test showed no difference, the joke began to circulate that evolution was wrong--the only difference between ape and man was cultural.

But the scholars and rebels who trooped past the bench here in the past two weeks (as one newspaper said, the creation took seven days, its trial took twice as long) were not brought here as circus performers or stand-up comics. Their presence was a result of a new wave of fundamentalism that has challenged the state with its argument that there is scientific underpinning for the idea of creation.

"There is not the slightest possibility that the facts of science could contradict the Bible," the head of the Creation Science Society, Henry Morris, was quoted as saying several times during the trial. His point is that Bible believers can therefore create a science and beat evolution on its own ground in schools, legislatures and the courts.

It was just this two-minded approach, however, that kept coming back at the creation-science witnesses day after day. The essence of religion is faith; the essence of science is doubt. Can one mind carry both? Letter From Little Rock

It is true that the ACLU and the New York firm of Skadden Arps attacked the Arkansas law with a powerful case. Their brief is so good that there is talk of publishing it as a book. Their witnesses gave brilliant little summaries of several fields of science, history and religious philosophy.

They cross-examined the witnesses for the other side--impassioned believers, rebellious educators and scientific oddities--with devastating results. All but one of the creation scientists came from obscure colleges and Bible schools. The one who didn't said he believed diseases dropped from space, that evolution caused Nazism, and that insects may be more intelligent than humans but are hiding their abilities.

One witness on religion for the creationists gave a believable explanation of how the creator might be a secular or scientific concept, like Aristotle's "first cause." An important point. But two minutes later the same witness said his literal interpretation of the Bible led him to believe in demonic possession, exorcism and Unidentified Flying Objects. UFOs, he said, are a satanic attack on the world.

The sad parade of melting credibility could not have been possible if it weren't for the first essential split between faith and doubt.

The moment came and went many times during the trial. High school chemistry teacher Jimmy Don Townley sat nervously in the box. He'd taught evolution reluctantly for years.

Now, he told the judge, he wanted to teach a few creationist facts, like the calculation that shows that random combinations of chemicals cannot make the molecules of life.

Why can't you just go ahead and teach that scientific calculation in class? the judge asked him. Why bring in creation?

Townley seemed confused at the possibility that discordant data might be taught within science. He could only think of it one way, he said: Points that raise doubt about science must be points for God and creation.

The judge pressed him to think of data as science. Townley finally responded: "I want to teach . . . creation."

Another painful moment came when Donald Chittick, a small gray-haired man with a worried look, took the stand. He talked about radiometric dating, about geology, about the chemistry of coal and why the earth is young. He showed pictures of rock formations he took on his vacation. The dark lines on the rocks were evidence of a worldwide flood, he said.

In the cross-examination, Chittick was asked in essence whether he could accept any result in science that contradicted his belief in the literal meaning of the Bible's words. Could one both believe and doubt?

Chittick looked down at the brown wood of the witness stand. He looked at his hands. He sat silent for a full minute as 150 people watched his mental struggle.

Softly, he said, "I cannot give an answer . . . ."

That answer, once a personal one for the creationists, is now in the hands of the court.