America's Evolving Problem: This Country Has Long Been Divided-Science versus Religion, Progressive versus Traditionalist. Which Is Why Even the Best-Supported Theory about the Origin of Our Species Is Going to Be an Unnatural Selection for Some

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I HAVE JUST RETURNED from a conference in Paris. It was held on the left bank of the river Seine, at the Jardin des Plantes, in the Grande Gallerie of the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle, one of the most beautiful buildings in a city of beautiful buildings. The inside is hollow, with balconies around the sides featuring one of the very best exhibitions on evolution and its mechanisms that I have ever seen. Always packed with visitors, many of whom are schoolchildren, the museum offers one interactive display after another teaching about genetics, classification, and natural selection.

Although the conference was on ecology, I rarely had a chance to speak to the subject. Every French scientist wanted to know what on earth was happening in America. In this day and age, can it really be that there is a major effort to combat the teaching of evolution in schools? Can it be that there are people who want to introduce miracle-based accounts of origins into biology classrooms? Do some people truly believe that the Earth was created a mere 10,000 years ago, in six days, and that Noah's flood is literally true? Does the president of the United States really think that evolution is an open question?

I had to answer that, indeed, it is all true. Everything they had heard, and more. A startling proportion of people in America do not believe in evolution; they really do think that dinosaurs and humans coexisted; and they are absolutely convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when the plains of the Midwest were covered with water and some chap in an ark stuffed with animals came floating by.

More than this, I had to tell them that I think the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, if indeed it does get better. I see this biblically based version of origins--once known as fundamentalism, then creationism, and now in its latest user-friendly version as intelligent design, or ID--getting into the schools. In August, President George W. Bush endorsed the teaching of ID, telling a small group of reporters that "part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." According to Knight Ridder Newspapers, Bush said students learning about human origins should be exposed to ID alongside evolutionary theory, just as he, as governor of Texas, advocated exposing students to creationism. And if Bush successfully reshapes the Supreme Court--a process that has already begun--we shall see old-fashioned religion taught as part of the science curriculum. At the moment, the creationists are being stealthy: ID is purposefully distinguished from broad biblical literalism. But its supporters are candid about the fact that they have what they call a "wedge" strategy. One bit at a time. First a few miracles, then a few more, and finally all of Genesis absolutely as it is written.

My French friends were baffled. America represents the greatest scientific force the world has ever seen. It gets as many Nobel Prizes each year as the rest of the other countries do combined. How can it be so blind, so stupid, so religious, when it comes to evolution? One might want to argue about the mechanisms of evolution, but to doubt one of the pillars of modern science, in this day and age? Those Americans really are crazy, they concluded, and someone like Michael Ruse, born and educated in England, a long-time philosophy professor in Canada, and now spending his declining years teaching in the American South, must be in his dotage--or a gross hypocrite--for condemning creationists, yet living among them.

Whatever my personal failings may be, my job as a scholar is to try to understand things. Why is creationism alive and well today? Why, in the Western world, is it a uniquely American phenomenon? Is there something about American Christianity that makes it especially susceptible to biblical literalism? A new Associated Press study tells us that only thirty-seven percent of French people claim that religion is important in their lives, whereas eighty-four percent of Americans claim this. …