Science quietly wins one of the right’s long-standing culture wars


The bitter culture wars over teaching evolution in public schools dominated headlines throughout the 2000s, in large part because of the Bush administration’s ease with evangelicals who rejected science. on evolution. Yet move forward to 2021 – when the acrimonious battle over science has shifted from evolution to pandemic public health – and few young people are likely to have any idea what even “smart design” means. Oddly enough, despite the right to grasp the science and immunology of face masks as new battlegrounds in the culture wars, the struggle for evolution is all but forgotten. In fact, for many Americans it is completely forgotten.

While it might seem hard to believe, Americans are more scientifically educated than ever in 2021 – so much so that creationism has become a minority opinion. And Americans are also able to identify intelligent design and other forms of creationism as the inherently religious theories that they are.

We know this from a new study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, which analyzed public opinion polls since 1985 and noticed a trend in attitudes towards evolution. As more and more Americans have become highly educated – graduating from college, taking science courses in college, displaying increasing levels of civic science literacy – acceptance of evolution has increased. Consequently.

From 1985 to 2010, there was a statistical deadlock among Americans who were asked if they agreed that “human beings, as we know them today, have developed. from previous animal species “. Acceptance then started to increase, becoming a majority position in 2016 and reaching 54% in 2019. Even 32% of religious fundamentalists accepted the evolution in 2019, a stark contrast to the only 8% who did. 1988. Eighty-three percent of Liberal Democrats said they accepted evolution, compared to just 34% of conservative Republicans.

“Almost twice as many Americans had a college degree in 2018 than in 1988,” University of Michigan researcher Dr. Mark Ackerman said in a statement. “It’s hard to get a college degree without gaining at least some respect for the success of science.”

The change in attitude towards evolution is particularly surprising given that teaching evolution was a major aspect of culture wars from the late 1980s to the 2000s, particularly during the Bush era when the evangelical right was ascending. In 2005, the then raging cultural war involved the so-called “smart design” theory and, more specifically, a textbook called “Pandas and People”.

At a decisive moment in the culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s, the school district board of the Dover area of ​​Pennsylvania asked its ninth grade biology teachers to refer their students to “Pandas and People.” because it encouraged smart design. By 1997, the strategy of using intelligent design as a Trojan horse for creationism had grown sufficiently to end up in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Once there, however, the school district was told that their philosophy was indeed a form of “creation science” and equally scientifically invalid. When the Dover case was heard by the United States District Court for the Central District of Pennsylvania in 2005, a judge appointed by President George W. Bush sided with the plaintiffs and noted the irony. people who claim to be religious, dishonestly claiming that they did not admit to having a religious agenda.

“It is ironic that many of these individuals, who have so firmly and proudly touted their religious beliefs in public, lie over and over again to muddy the waters and disguise the real purpose behind the ID. [intelligent design] Policy, ”noted the judge in his decision.

Even though the Supreme Court had banned the teaching of creationism in the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, nine other significant legal cases occurred between 1981 and 2005 (including those in Louisiana and Pennsylvania which were mentioned above). Despite the legal setbacks, teaching about evolution remained a hot topic during the 2000 presidential election. In 2005, Bush even legitimized the smart design movement by telling reporters that “both sides should be. properly taught ”and that“ part of education is exposing people to different schools of thought ”. His scientific advisor later added, although he did not want evolution to be taught as an alternative to evolution, “I think I ignore. [ID] in class is a mistake. As recently as 2014, popular science artist Bill Nye held a high-profile debate with young Earth creationist Ken Ham.

There is a long history of rejected evolution in the United States, although a generation of Americans didn’t even know they had a theory to be potentially scandalized about. While Charles Darwin’s classic book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” made waves in his native Britain when it was released in 1859, the book did not arouse widespread anger in the United States. United until the end of the 19th century. The issue was particularly controversial among American Protestants, who by this time were divided into Modernist and Evangelical camps. By the 1920s, the theory of evolution had been linked in the public mind to other “modern” intellectual tendencies which they found unpleasant, from Marxism to psychology. Fundamentalists pushed to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools since – as former Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan said – the theory would convince future generations that the Bible was simply “a collection. of myths ”.

Bryan got the chance to test his point in court during the Scopes trial, when he faced off as an expert Bible witness against legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. American journalist HL Mencken contemptuously wrote about the inevitability of Darrow’s defeat and overwhelming support for anti-scientific theories, yelling that “obscenities such as the upcoming Tennessee evolutionist trial, if not used to nothing else, at least attracting attention dramatically. to the fact that enlightenment among mankind is very narrowly dispersed. ”

This exchange, dramatized in the play “Inherit the Wind”, turned public opinion against Bryan, but ultimately did not dampen anti-evolutionary movements, which gained new success after his banning in Arkansas and Mississippi. A turning point did not come until the 1940s, when scientists in the United States came to a consensus that natural selection was the engine of evolution and explained the rise of human beings.

In 1947, the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Education Council that the First Amendment clause prohibiting the establishment of a religion applied to state governments, not just the federal government. As Judge Hugo Black wrote, teaching an explicitly theological doctrine like creationism meant that citizens were taxed for supporting a religious point of view.

“No tax of any amount, large or small, may be levied to support religious activities or institutions, whatever their name, or whatever form they take to teach or practice religion.” , Black said.

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The 1947 decision, which was reinforced in a series of other cases over the following decades, made it clear to opponents of evolution that they needed to adopt a different tactic. In the 1980s, a University of California, Berkeley law professor named Phillip E. Johnson proposed a concept known as “smart design”. He argues that the complexity of life on this planet is so precise that strictly naturalistic explanations cannot rationally explain them, and that scientists must recognize possible religious or supernatural causes. This movement, though dismissed by most scientists as a simple, rejuvenated attempt to teach creationism, has grown enough that in the 21st century many states are pushing for laws to allow for the teaching of creationism. smart design in public schools.

While it is welcome for scientists that acceptance of evolution continues to spread, fundamentalists still pose a threat to America’s overall scientific culture.

“Such beliefs are not only stubborn but also increasingly politicized,” senior researcher Jon D. Miller of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan said in a statement, noting the discrepancy. growing between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to basic science knowledge. .

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