Inferior Design: In Late September, a Contemporary Scopes Trial Gets under Way in Pennsylvania. for the Right, It's Been 39 Years in the Making

By Mooney, Chris | The American Prospect, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Inferior Design: In Late September, a Contemporary Scopes Trial Gets under Way in Pennsylvania. for the Right, It's Been 39 Years in the Making


Mooney, Chris, The American Prospect


ON SEPTEMBER 26, AN EVENT THAT THE NATIONAL media will surely depict as a new Scopes trial is scheduled to begin. Hearings will commence in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district over its decision to introduce "Intelligent Design,' or ID, into its biology curriculum. The analogy with the 1925 Tennessee "monkey trial" certainly has its merits. With a newly rejuvenated war against evolution now afoot in the United States, one being prosecuted by religious conservatives and their intellectual and political allies, it is virtually inevitable that the courts will once again serve as the ultimate arbiters of what biology teachers can and cannot present to their students in public schools.

The Dover case was filed on church-state grounds, and the Dover school-board member who drove the policy in question made his conservative Christian motivations clear in widely reported public statements (which he now disputes having made). And yet, curiously, members of the national ID movement insist that their attacks on evolution aren't religiously motivated, but, rather, scientific in nature.

That movement's home base is Seattle's Discovery Institute, whose attempt to lead a specifically intellectual attack on evolution--one centered at a think tank funded by wealthy extreme conservatives and abetted by sympathetic Republican politicians--epitomizes how today's political right has developed a powerful infrastructure for battling against scientific conclusions that anger core constituencies in industry and on the Christian right. Just as Charles Darwin himself east light on the present by examining origins, in the history of the Discovery Institute, we encounter a narrative that cuts to the heart--and exposes the intellectual sleight of hand--of the modern right's war on science.

NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO, IN 1966, TWO TALENTED YOUNG political thinkers published an extraordinary book, one that reads, in retrospect, as a profound warning to the Republican Party that went tragically unheeded. The authors had been roommates at Harvard University and had participated in the Ripon Society, an upstart group of Republican liberals. They had worked together on Advance, a magazine that slammed the party for catering to segregationists, John Birchers, and other extremists. Following their graduation, they published The Party That Lost Its Head, a spirited polemic that devastatingly critiqued Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential candidacy. The book labeled the Goldwater campaign a "brute assault on the entire intellectual world" and blamed this development on a woefully wrong-headed political tactic: "In recent years the Republicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy" If the party wanted to win back the "national consensus," the authors argued, it had to first "win back" the nation's intellectuals. Their critique was both prescient and poignant. But the authors--Bruce Chapman and George Gilder--have since bitten their tongues and morphed from liberal Republicans into staunch conservatives. Once opponents of right-wing anti-intellectualism, they are now prominent supporters of conservative attacks on the theory of evolution, not just a bedrock of modern science but also one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history. Chapman now serves as president of the Discovery Institute; Gilder is a senior fellow there.

So not only have Chapman and Gilder become everything they once criticized; their transformation highlights how the GOP went in precisely the opposite direction from the one that these young authors once prescribed--which is why the anti-intellectual disposition they so aptly diagnosed in 1966 still persists among modern conservatives, helping to fuel a full-fledged crisis today over the politicization of science and expertise.

Chapman, a Rockefeller Republican to his core during a career in electoral politics in Washington state, moved to the right after entering the Reagan administration in 1981 as director of the Census Bureau.

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