The Texas-Size Debate over Teaching Evolution

By Hitchens, Christopher | Newsweek, April 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Texas-Size Debate over Teaching Evolution


Hitchens, Christopher, Newsweek


Sure, discuss Darwin's 'strengths and weaknesses.' Just not in biology textbooks.

Mention the name "Texas" and the word "schoolbook" to many people of a certain age (such as my own) and the resulting free association will come up with the word "depository" and the image of Lee Harvey Oswald crouching on its sixth floor. In Dallas for the Christian Book Expo recently, I had a view of Dealey Plaza and its most famous building from my hotel room, so the suggestion was never far from my mind.

But last week Texas and schoolbooks meant something else altogether when the state Board of Education, in a muddled decision, rejected a state science curriculum that required teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. Instead, the board allowed "all sides" of scientific theories to be taught. The vote was watched as something more than a local or bookish curiosity. Just as the Christian Book Expo is one of the largest events on the nation's publishing calendar, so the Lone Star State commands such a big share of the American textbook market that many publishers adapt to the standards that it sets, and sell the resulting books to non-Texans as well.

In many ways, this battle can be seen as the last stand of the Protestant evangelicals with whom I was mingling and debating. It's been a rather dismal time for them lately. In the last election they barely had a candidate after Mike Huckabee dropped out and, some would say, not much of one before that. Many Republicans now see them as more of a liability than an asset. As a proportion of the population they are shrinking, and in ethical terms they find themselves more and more in the wilderness of what some of them morosely called, in conversation with me, a "post-Christian society." Perhaps more than any one thing, the resounding courtroom defeat that they suffered in December 2005 in the conservative district of Dover, Pa., where the "intelligent design" plaintiffs were all but accused of fraud by a Republican judge, has placed them on the defensive. Thus, even if the Texas board had defiantly voted to declare evolution to be questionable and debatable, its decision could still have spelled the end of a movement rather than the revival of one.

Yet I find myself somewhat drawn in by the quixotic idea that we should "teach the argument." I am not a scientist, and all that I knew as an undergraduate about the evolution debate came from the study of two critical confrontations. The first was between Thomas Huxley (Darwin's understudy, ancestor of Aldous and coiner of the term "agnostic") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (third son of the great Christian emancipator William) at the Oxford University Museum in 1860. The second was the "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, which pitted the giant of Protestant fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken. Every educated person should know the arguments that were made in these transatlantic venues.

So by all means let's "be honest with the kids," as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. And one of his supporters on the board, Ken Mercer, has said that evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional forms between dogs and cats. If any state in the American union gave equal time in science class to such claims, it would certainly make itself unique in the world (perhaps no shame in that). But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.

The Texas anti-Darwin stalwarts also might want to beware of what they wish for. The last times that evangelical Protestantism won cultural/ political victories--by banning the sale of alcohol, prohibiting the teaching of evolution and restricting immigration from Catholic countries--the triumphs all turned out to be Pyrrhic. …

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