The Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, is one of the few Cold War nuclear weapons plants still operating into the 21st century, though its five towering reactors are all now shuttered. Glenn Wilson is a 39-year-old nuclear technology instructor who works there. By day, Wilson trains workers in the principles of nuclear waste disposal; principally, the delicate methods by which they will discard over 35 million gallons of radioactive waste still being stored in tanks on the site, the residue of fifty years of production when SRS supplied the killing material for every kind of nuclear weapon in the American arsenal.
By night, he tirelessly plots a campaign to have the Aiken public schools adopt a new biology curriculum that would include not only the study of the theory of evolution, as the present program does, but a "scientific" argument for a competing theory as well, the one which argues the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, that men once inhabited the earth with dinosaurs, that a man called Noah lived to be 950 years old, and that God began life by placing a fully formed human being named "Adam" in the Garden of Eden. In other words, Wilson is one man of science who rejects the theory of evolution in favor of a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Wilson’s campaign recalls the celebrated "Monkey Trial" of 1925, when the state of Tennessee, in order to protect its children from "blasphemous" science (read more), actually banned the teaching of evolution in its public schools and the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law, leading to America’s first nationally broadcast courtroom drama. Then, and particularly later, when the trial was the subject of "Inherit the Wind" (read more about the movie vs. the trial), an immensely successful play and movie, it was popularly identified as the moment when religious fundamentalism was defeated by the force of reason.
Even though Tennessee actually won the Scopes trial – named for John T. Scopes, the teacher who agreed to test the law – it has long been believed that by making a buffoon of fundamentalist lawyer William Jennings Bryan (read transcript), the famous courtroom attorney Clarence Darrow settled the argument on the side of science: reason triumphing over faith, modernism over tradition. Distinguished historians including Henry Steele Commager, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, saw Scopes as just such a turning point in American history. And yet, we now know nothing could have been further from the truth. In defiance of popular culture and the nation’s educated power elite, religious traditionalism, has refused to die; indeed, seventy-five years later, in the age of the human genome project and nanotechnology, it thrives.
The statistics are clear. While nearly all Americans (95 percent) profess to believe in some kind of God, almost half (47 percent) believe in the Biblical story of creation, and more than a third (44 percent, including the reigning president, George W. Bush) describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical," statistics which dramatically set Americans apart from the rest of the Western world.
Far from ending the central importance of traditional religion in American society, the Scopes trial appears to have been a landmark in re-affirming it: after Scopes, Arkansas and Mississippi joined with Tennessee to enact laws against the teaching of evolution, while innumerable local school boards, particularly in the South, imposed restrictions on its teaching. Only with the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s and 1970s, when the political and social turmoil of the day prompted Time to ask "Is God dead?" did the mood change. Religion was forced out of the schools, allowing evolution to creep back in. Yet while it has since become an accepted fact in "enlightened," urban Western society that when it comes to explaining the universe, science takes precedence over faith, it has also continued to be apparent that a sizable part of the American population – if not an outright majority – strongly disagrees.
Finally, when the pursuit of knowledge creates unprecedented, new moral dilemmas, of a degree unanticipated by generations before – like that now being explored in fetal tissue and stem cell research, in the mapping of the genome and the experiments in cloning – can right and wrong be addressed without resorting to a higher authority? Can the ideas of a few eighteenth century intellectuals – those who founded the American system upon a strongly worded division between church and state – still lead?
On October 17, 2000, after Wilson had made his case before them no less than 16 times in two years, the members of the Aiken County School Board convened a community meeting in the South Aiken High School auditorium to discuss the merits of his proposal to alter the science curriculum. The discussion was lively and, interestingly, it offered strong representation not only from Aiken’s faithful, but from the city’s dynamic scientific community, too. As it turned out, the two were not mutually exclusive. The first speaker was Charles H. Hewitt, Jr., who, as he quickly noted, could actually claim considerable authority on both sides of the argument. As a local physician, Hewitt had relied upon the findings of science to heal his patients; but having recently suffered a back injury, he was no longer able to practice and as a devout Christian he intended to make a dramatic shift in his career and enter the seminary.
Hewitt scoffed at Wilson’s plan, insisting that it was inconsistent with the views of the nation’s founders and he maintained that a literal reading of Genesis represented only a minority viewpoint, even among Christians. Evolution is settled science, he said, but that should pose no threat to believers. Science and religion occupy different domains of our world, he argued, as they should. Hewitt then looked directly at the panel. "They accuse the courts of kicking God out of the school," he pronounced, referring to Wilson and others on his side. "But if you as a school board cave into their minority views…you will be acting against the wishes of most Americans."
Roger Rollins, an SRS nuclear engineer, spoke second. He took the opposite view, claiming that far from being settled, evolution was still a highly debatable theory, and yet he did not leave it there. "I believe there is a much more important reason for the teaching of creationism," he said, with emotion. "Our children need to know that there is meaning to their lives…[that] we have been created for a purpose. That purpose is to worship and serve the almighty creator, God. When we thwart that purpose and throw God out of our schools, we allow chaos to reign."
Dr. Laura Janecek urged the committee to think of the repercussions of denying Aiken’s schoolchildren an adequate science education, saying that it would hamper their ability to compete in an increasingly technical world, while Reverend Frank Rottier cited statistics from the Traditional Values Coalition, a Washington lobby group, which has claimed that since prayer was removed from the public schools in 1962, teenage suicide had gone up 450%; births to unmarried women, 500%; illegal drug use, 6,000% and yet math and science scores are down ten percent. "It’s a record we as Christians should be terribly ashamed of," he said.
The discussion found two dramatic high points, one when Francesca Pataro, a Unitarian, declared that her children had been ridiculed in school for being non-Christians. "It can be very difficult to be a minority religion in this country," Pataro said, her voice shaking. "[My children] have been told that they will go to hell because Jesus Christ is not their savior." Pataro went on to say that the creation stories of Christians, Native Americans, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus all have value and should be taught in the history or comparative religion classroom. "But Creationism," she said, firmly, "is not a science."
"I would like everyone to look around. Tonight we are doing what is not allowed in the science classrooms of this school or any other school in this county. We are comparing ideas and deeply held beliefs." Gathering steam, Wilson then couched his argument in the language of a patriot. "It is not illegal to present an opposing view. It is fully American. It is why I served this country for seventeen years in the United States Navy. I put my life on the line so that others could express their opinion."
Evolution was well established in the years leading up to the trial of John Thomas Scopes in 1925. It had become accepted among scientists, social scientists, and even many theologians. References derived from it had entered the language. By the late 19th century, even the Constitution, so often referred to as a machine in the days of Jefferson was being described as an organism, in the process of adapting and evolving, improving with age.
But the twenties was a tumultuous decade, the era which thrust America deep into the social turmoil of the twentieth century, and during this time evolution, serving as a kind of metaphor for all the confusion and turmoil that came with the new age, would become a favorite target of those who wished to hold back the onslaught of modernism.
The "Age of Invention," which played out over the forty some years leading up to 1920 had focused people on the wonders of science and technology and provided excitement about a society made by men for men. It began in 1877, when Thomas Edison created the first phonograph – a machine that could "talk." But that was only the first of a series of creative triumphs that included the telephone, the motion picture camera, the automobile, the airplane, and the radio.
It appeared that no problem was too big for science, no job too large for technology. And the fact that so much of the new science – this transformative science — was being practiced on American soil reawakened that never long forgotten feeling among Americans that their land was the new Eden, American man, the new Adam.
The social upheaval that followed these developments was dramatic, and unexpected. The automobile took people out of the small towns where they saw new sites and heard new ideas; the motion pictures and the radio gave them new and often titillating forms of entertainment; and the airplane encouraged a particularly brazen form of hubris: since the beginning of time man had dreamed of soaring like the birds and now, thanks to his own ingenuity, well, he was.
The new technologies sped up the economy and created a new consumer culture, championed by new and brasher forms of advertising, urging people to abandon their old frugal ways and buy, buy, buy. Almost overnight, Americans went from a life deeply connected to the wonders of nature and an omnipotent God to an artificial environment, throbbing with the creations of man. Looking back on it, it seems only logical that there had to be a backlash.
The divide separated Americans on many fronts: urban from rural, old line American from new immigrant, the elite centers of learning from the anti-intellectuals, and fundamentalist Christians (the term itself was coined in 1921, in a defensive posture) from "modernist" Christians, those who, in the eyes of the traditionalists had compromised their religion by finding ways to reconcile theology with the findings of science. As much for convenience as for conviction, the traditionalists seized upon evolution as the stage upon which to join battle, and to speak for them they had one of the greatest orators in American political history, William Jennings Bryan.
Author Edward Larson, whose book on the Scopes trial is the definitive work on the subject, has suggested that Bryan was responsible for more Constitutional amendments than anyone but the American founders. And in fact, the portly politician with his alpaca suits and string ties, held a combination of beliefs which, while not unusual for the time, would read like a contradiction today: at once forward looking in his enthusiasm for liberal reforms, and yet provincial in his glorification of the farm and traditional religious values.
Bryan did not object to evolution in general. In fact, much like Glenn Wilson and others in Aiken who support his cause, he welcomed the idea as "theory." But he saw in it two issues consistent with his defense of the downtrodden masses, two issues which resonate deeply with twenty-first century America. For one, he believed that the insistence of the evolutionists on inserting their arguments into the American education system was patently undemocratic. "The real issue is not what can be taught in public schools, but who shall control the education system," he said. "The hand that writes the check rules the school." Bryan's other objection was a far graver issue: the acceptance of evolution as fact was dangerous for its doctrine of natural selection and the "survival of the fittest" invited a belief in eugenics, defended predatory business practices, and even justified war.
The enthusiasm for science at the turn of the century had indeed spawned a movement that advocated applying rational control over the reproductive process and hence the very path of evolution. After all, if everything else was being improved by science, why not the human species itself? "We stand on the brink of an evolutionary epoch whose limits no man can possibly foretell," pronounced Ellsworth Huntington, a professor at Yale and the president of the American Eugenics Society, " .consciously and purposefully [selecting] the types of human beings that will survive."
Racism was an implicit theme in the eugenics movement, whose members spoke derisively of the "fecundity of mediocrity" and advocated enforced sterilization of the mentally retarded. But so, interestingly, was morality. Science could be used to erase all the flaws of the human species, the eugenicists claimed, allowing for the perfectibility of man, and the true path to righteousness. "Had Jesus been among us," claimed Albert E. Wiggam, a eugenicist and author, "he would have been the president of the First Eugenics Congress."
Evolution had been taught in Tennessee's schools for some time, and without challenge, when the state legislature, in January 1925 went beyond Bryan and considered a bill that would actually declare a prohibition upon "the teaching of any theory that denied the biblical story of creation or the theory that human beings had descended from a lower order of animal." But Bryan had made the subject such a touchstone for argument nationwide and such a folk movement had built up around it, the people rallying to his side now saw the issue as "them" or "us." Ten times as many children were attending high school in 1920 as in 1890; five times more than 1910. The Tennessee law was passed by a margin of four to one to protect them from the intellectuals, the specialists, the urbanites. "Save our children for God," shouted one Tennessee senator.
[S]eventy five years later some of the same themes that inspired Bryan to defend the Tennessee statute banning the teaching of evolution have emerged in the discussions over research in genetics.
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.
Wilson audibly sighed. "To teach neither," Burkhalter continued, "clearly fails to follow the minimum requirements and testing standards provided for school districts in South Carolina by the State Board of Education. To teach both, would unequivocally violate the constitutional mandate that public school maintain neutrality regarding matters of religion, as concluded by numerous Supreme Court and federal cases which have dealt decisively with these issues."
Wilson planted his right hand on his forehead and looked around at the gathering in amazement. But Burkhalter's report contained more. Citing the legal history of the issue, the attorney retold Scopes and the 1968 Supreme Court decision which found statutes like Tennessee's unconstitutional. He then cited all the various compromises that have been tried, including the teaching of Creation Science along with evolution (rejected in Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987), the offering of disclaimers at the outset of instruction saying that evolution is not intended to influence or dissuade Biblical teaching (rejected in Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 1999). He examined the idea that a prohibition of the teacher's right to teach Creationism is an infringement of academic freedoms (dismissed in Webster v. New Lenox) and, finally, the argument that the ban on Creation Science was a violation of a teacher's right to free speech (also rejected, in Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District.)
The High Court had been asked repeatedly to find a Constitutional basis upon which Creationism advocates could amend the teaching of evolution to promote their values and repeatedly the justices had come down on the side of those who wished to protect the schools from even a whisper of religious dogma. To challenge such a wealth of case law, said Burkhalter, would be foolhardy for it would mire the county in a protracted and costly legal battle that it would have little chance of winning.
Wilson hurriedly left the room, muttering that the surprise delivery of the announcement had been like "the attack on Pearl Harbor." But within a few minutes he had taken the board answer in stride and begun to think of new strategies. He would demand a formal hearing on the matter, he would file a grievance, he would take his argument to the people of the town, something - anything - to see to it that the fight continues.
And indeed, one year later there he was again at 1000 Brookhaven Drive, listening to the prayer and reciting the pledge, waiting while a few laudatory remarks about school achievements were read. Then, when John Bradley asked for community comment, Wilson, text in hand, quietly walked forward. "We are in a moral crisis," he said, "the origin of which can be found in our high school biology classes."