God's Country by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan smiles on Aiken, S.C. -- where the debate between evolution and creationism still rages

 

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"What worries me most," says Alan Roberts, a physician and author of the ethics curriculum at the Medical College of Georgia, across the Savannah River from Aiken, "is that our ethics have not caught up with our technology." He is waving a copy of the standards of the American Medical Association, which he considers to be hopelessly outdated; then again, what isn't in a world where in just a few years the speed of research has put us face to face with the awesome responsibility inherent in changing human nature itself?

The "old" eugenics was Hitler, says Roberts. He describes the syphilis experiments the American government conducted on blacks at Tuskegee in the 1930s and the involuntary sterilization of the mentally retarded authorized by statutes in twenty-some states until the 1940s as examples of America's own abuse of its citizens' rights. Roberts acknowledges that American society has moved away from such practices. "I think the Nuremberg Trials and the [awareness of the] Holocaust were the beginning of the change," he says.

But he sees a "new" eugenics coming, in the willingness to allow parents to choose the eye color of their baby, to advertise for an egg donor with "good soccer skills" and the host of challenging questions raised by gene therapy. On the one hand, gene manipulation offers the opportunity to wipe out disease; on the other, it could meddle with the human condition. We now have the power to identify fetuses with birth defects in time to permit women to decide to abort them, and, as time passes, we will be able to know more and more about the genetic makeup of an emerging child, in effect allowing for what the eugenicists of the twenties dreamed of, control over the evolutionary process itself.

It was a misty evening in early January, 2001 when Glenn Leonard Wilson drove the two miles from his house to the administrative offices of the Aiken Public Schools for yet another meeting of the Aiken County school board. As he passed the Shoney's and the McDonald's, the Target store and the Aiken Mall, Wilson recited his speech to himself, wondering which flourish he might employ this time. Then, upon arriving, he took a seat in the front row and listened quietly as Chairman Bradley called the meeting to order.

Three months had passed since the open forum and so, aware that the board was still considering his motion, Wilson chose to focus his talk less on the evils of teaching evolution (though he did take a moment to liken it to slavery and racism), than to encourage the board to take its time before making a decision. He told them that it will take courage to resist the likes of the ACLU, but "it's time to end censorship" and allow the Creation story to be told.

Next, Allen Dennis, a professor of geology at University of South Carolina-Aiken, went to the front of the room, to counter the Creationist argument. The board looked visibly tired. They had spent so much time and effort on this subject and yet there seemed to be no end to the parade of people who wanted to speak their minds on it.

Dennis reminded those in the room that a fragment of a dinosaur skull some 210 million years old had recently been found at SRS, and that the intersection of Martintown Road and I-20 is known as a fossil repository. He invited the board, and Wilson, too, to spend a Saturday with him to learn about fossils and geology. Wilson listened, smiled at Dennis's invitation, then arranged his things and got up to leave. He had made his points, and been respectful to the others; now he wanted to get home to his children. But as Wilson started for the door, Bradley motioned to him. "You might want to stick around," he said.

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