As Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (Feb. 12) looms, evidence mounts: No way is all the furor over the teaching of evolution going to disappear, or even abate. Not in our own time, brothers and sisters.
A Gallup Poll of June 2007 found Americans equally divided as to whether they believe or disbelieve Darwin's theory of evolution. Just a month ago, another poll showed belief in the devil running stronger among Americans than belief in the teachings of Darwin, who, to some opponents, is himself a sulfurous figure in red tights.
Then there's the foofaraw over the Texas state education board's narrow failure last week to preserve a 20-year-old rule requiring classroom exposure of the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Champagne and cake passed among the proponents of Darwinism. The New York Times declared, charmingly, that, "scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists "
Proponents of the idea that an "intelligent design" informs the universe breathed more easily when the board voted to allow arguments having to do with the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of gaps or contradictions in the fossil record. The Times wondered, "how that differs from the old language of 'strengths and weaknesses.'" And so on. And so on .
What we all intuit about the debate, to the degree it really is one, rather than a shouting contest, is what our Victorian forbears intuited: that evolution is less about fossil records and genetic adaptations than it is about the Lord God Almighty. It's the great religious controversy of our times: Did He or didn't He? Because if He did, major consequences ensue; if not, same story.
"With Darwin," a columnist in Britain's Daily Telegraph observes, "secularization and atheism began to have momentum." The pushback, which began immediately, goes on to the present day, immortalized, in American history at least, by the Scopes Trial in 1925, and by the invigorating movie based on the play about the trial, "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.
Neither the trial nor the movie/play settled anything. How could they have? The two camps -- biblical and Darwinian -- merely bellowed past each other. The judicious judgment of John Henry Cardinal Newman that Darwinism "may simply be suggesting a large idea of divine providence and skill" left too much ambiguity to suit most. Ambiguity, when it comes to evolution, is a thing many people dislike strongly. On go the furor and the anguish.