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The debate over evolution continues

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JULY 13, 1998:  Andrew Kramer is standing in a room full of skulls. Some of them are human. The rest...well, that's where it gets tricky. Kramer hefts one in his hand, a reconstruction of a small domed cranium with a sloping forehead and deep eye sockets. Its spot on the table is marked with an index card that says "Homo Habilis." "This, I think, is really one of the key transitional fossils between a human form and a more apelike form," says the affable Kramer, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee's Department of Anthropology. The bone room is two doors over from his office, along a whitewashed hallway on the ground floor of Neyland Stadium. Long ago, the rooms were dormitories for UT athletes. The other skulls and fragments (casts rather than the priceless originals) are spread out over two tables to form a rough timeline, from 2 million years ago up to modern Homo Sapiens. Along the way are Homo Erectus, Neanderthal, and several subgroupings within each species.

For Kramer, the implications of the skulls--with their increasing brain sizes, rising foreheads, and shrinking brow ridges--is clear. This is human evolution. "It's difficult to argue the creationist perspective when you have the whole series of fossil hominids laid out in front of you," he says. Maybe so. But as Kramer and his colleagues are well aware, the "creationist perspective" is not so easily discounted.

Seventy-three years after the famous but little-understood Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., evolution is still a battlefield. Within the academy, it is a bedrock principle of several sciences, not much more controversial than, say, gravity. But in churches, state legislatures, and schools, the idea that life has mutated and adapted over millions of years, that humans and apes, dogs, cats, and armadillos all derive from the same genetic miasma, is at least as contentious as it was in 1925. And the counterview--Christian "creation science"--has actually become more anchored to biblical literalism than it was in the days of Scopes. Creation scientists still don't get much attention outside the realm of evangelical Christianity; but as the evangelical movement has gathered cultural and political strength, so have they.

Creationists see evolution as the root of most modern evils. Racism, war, hedonism--all these arise from the idea that life is a selfish struggle for survival. Evolutionists, on the other hand, see creationism as a threat to intellectual liberty, the latest assault in the centuries-old religious war on free thinking.

At the heart of the creationist platform is the notion that science and religion should not--cannot--occupy separate realms. Creationists contend that Christians for too long have been willing to give the material world to science, reserving only the spirit for God. And they see evolution as the great wall in this division, one that must be torn down. It's far from a universal view, of course, even among Christians (not to mention church-going scientists). But it's one with some resonance.

The 1990s have seen a flurry of legislative efforts around the country to curb evolution education, including a failed bill two years ago in Tennessee. At the same time, a small but growing group of dedicated creationists have begun work on what they hope will be a scrupulously scientific model that would reconcile the existing data with the biblical record of creation. So far this year, Tennessee has seen two conferences on creationism--one in Knoxville and one in Dayton--along with the second annual pro-evolution Darwin Day symposium at UT. "This issue rises and falls in the popular press, but it doesn't seem to go away," says Ronald Numbers, a University of Wisconsin professor of science history who wrote a 1993 book called The Creationists. "Although there are some tactical shifts, I don't see any evidence that would convince me that belief in creation of some kind is going to die out or is dying down. It's an issue very close to human identity."

Evolution means a lot of different things in different scientific fields, but it has a few key concepts: Life is dynamic and changes over time; the major mechanisms for change are mutation and natural selection; and current living species are descended from earlier, different species.

In the evolution/creation debate, the first point is usually conceded by creationists. They don't have any problem with the idea that, for example, plants or animals can be bred to emphasize certain characteristics or decrease other ones. But the second one is more prickly--a favorite creationist line is that no scientist has ever produced an example of a good mutation (scientists say they do it all the time)--and the third is a call to arms.

Creationists take a stark view of Darwinism as a system of violence and struggle, the "survival of the fittest," with no room for morality or compassion. If God didn't create humans--literally from dust--then humans aren't responsible to anyone. Evolutionists argue the reverse--that understanding the complexity of human origin creates more sensitivity toward the entire natural world.

Listening to a dialogue between the two sides--as at a Monday-evening debate recently at Knoxville's Civic Auditorium--can be completely baffling. There is no evidence, no fossil record, to support evolution, thunders the creationist (in this case, Duane Gish of the California-based Institute for Creation Research). Sure there is, there's tons of it, replies the evolutionist (Massimo Pigliucci of UT's botany department, playing to a crowd largely drawn from area churches). Evolutionists can't show how invertebrates like trilobites (which look like big marine potato bugs) turned into fish, the creationist charges. True, there's a lot of things we can't show, but we will someday, the evolutionist says. And evolution also violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the creationist says, a "gotcha!" glinting in his eye. No it doesn't, not at all, the evolutionist calmly rejoins.

Trilobites? The Second Law of Thermodynamics? If anyone in the audience is swayed by any of this, he doesn't show it. "You can't really just come into this neutral," asserts Steven Russell, a 14-year-old middle school student who's there mostly to learn how to bolster his own anti-evolution arguments. "Everyone in this room has some preconception."

In his UT office the next morning, Pigliucci--who, with his strong Italian accent, high forehead, and curly hair, could almost be a caricature of a scientist--admits some of his colleagues think such debates are pointless or even dangerous, because they give a platform to creationists. "My response to that is that, first of all, they don't need a platform. They have it already. They have the attention of the American public," he says. "If anybody has [something] to gain from getting a platform there, that's us. Because evolutionary biologists are not heard by the general public."

The 34-year-old Pigliucci, who received an international award as the most promising young biologist from the Society for the Teaching of Evolution last year, never knew evolution was controversial before coming to the U.S. in 1990. In Europe, he says, there is no evolution/creation debate.

He became an activist after arriving at UT two years ago; at the time, the Tennessee Legislature was pondering a bill that would have made it illegal for teachers to present evolution as "fact" rather than "theory." The bill failed, not least because state leaders felt it was tarnishing Tennessee's "New South" image. But it prompted Pigliucci and others at UT and Oak Ridge to launch the Darwin Day events. If science has a foe, he says, it's not just creationism; it's ignorance in the public and apathy in the academy.

"[Scientists] think of this as a scientific debate, and they say, 'That has been settled a hundred-and-something years ago, what are you wasting your time for? You should be doing research,' " he says. "What they don't understand is, if we are not involved in this debate--which is not a scientific debate, it's an educational debate--we might turn out to not have any scientific research to do a few years down the road, when somebody's going to pass a law against funding evolutionary biology at the federal level."

If that sounds alarmist, Pigliucci notes that he and his colleagues routinely see the word "evolution" disappear from grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, the nation's leading supporter of biological research. In presenting the proposals to Congress, NSF officials often use euphemisms instead.

Pigliucci--whose desk boasts a statuette of a pixie-winged cherub flipping its middle finger--is an avowed atheist. But he is not quite so dismissive of religious objections to evolution as some of his peers. While many scientists take the soothing middle ground that evolution and religion can coexist, Pigliucci thinks creationists are right to see a conflict.

"Some particular kinds of gods, some particular kinds of religious beliefs, are in direct contradiction with science, whether you like it or not," he says. Among those are most forms of Christian fundamentalism. But even beyond that, he continues, "I think that if you are intellectually honest, you have to acknowledge a broader conflict between science and religion.... Really, there are very few kinds of gods that don't have any conflict whatsoever with science. "If you believe in miracles of any kind, then you're denying what science is all about."

Robert Gentry not only believes in miracles--he says he has found them. A quiet man with steely eyes and a calm but insistent voice, Gentry has the precise bearing of someone for whom no detail is too small. Giving directions to his house, he uses phrases like "approximately point-eight-five miles." The precision got him a position as a visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 13 years during the Cold War. His insistence--in this case, his taciturn belief that the earth is 6,000 years old and the book of Genesis is literally true as written--lost it for him. "It's not an easy thing for people to believe, even people who are interested in believing in the Bible," says Gentry, sitting in the formally furnished living room of his comfortable home in the Knoxville suburb of Powell.

A physicist by training, he has spent the last 36 years looking for clues to the creation and publishing his findings in respected academic journals, including Science and Nature. His peculiar career started like those of many other scientists in the 1950s--after receiving a master's degree from the University of Florida in 1956, he spent several years working in the defense industry, for military contractors like General Dynamics. At the time, he was a "theistic evolutionist," a Christian who accepted the general theory of evolution.

But in 1959, he joined the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which emphasizes scriptural literalism. Studying the biblical account of creationism, Gentry concluded it could not accommodate an evolutionary approach.

"I sort of wrestled with living with what I felt were two distinct world views," he says. "I knew that one of them had to be incorrect. So basically I started an independent research program myself."

He started with radiometric dating, the method by which scientists have arrived at the generally agreed-upon earth age of about 4.5 billion years. His research soon led him to the phenomena that have become his specialty, or maybe more accurately his obsession--pleochroic halos, microscopic concentric ring patterns formed in some granites by the rapid decay of radioactive elements. Geologists cannot explain how some of these halos came to be, given traditional models that say the rocks they're in took millions of years to form. Gentry--to put his decades of research in simple terms--thinks they are nothing less than God's fingerprints, impossible formations put there intentionally as evidence of the spontaneous creation of the earth. In a self-published book, Creation's Tiny Mystery, he calls the halos "a Gibraltar of evidence for creation."

Over the years, he has found fellow scientists interested in his research but scornful of his analysis. While pursuing his doctorate at Georgia Tech, he was cautioned by the chairman of the physics department to pursue a "more conventional thesis topic." Instead, Gentry quit the program. A few years later, his research on "superheavy" elements--a spin-off of his halo work--brought him to the attention of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and led to the Oak Ridge position. (He was allowed to use Oak Ridge National Laboratory facilities, but his salary was paid by Columbia Union College, a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Maryland.)

A turning point came in 1981 when Gentry got a phone call from the office of the attorney general of Arkansas. The state was preparing to go to trial defending a law requiring "balanced treatment of creation science and evolution in public schools." The ACLU was challenging the law; the state wanted Gentry to come testify in its favor. He knew the trial would be widely covered by the media.

"I realized there was a good chance my whole position as a guest scientist at Oak Ridge...that this could easily turn people who had been very friendly to me to be very negative to me," Gentry says. But feeling it was "God's providence" for him to present his data, he testified anyway. When his position came up for renewal at Oak Ridge the next year, it was terminated. He appealed, with letters of support from U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser among others, but to no avail.

Since then, Gentry has worked out of his home with limited funding from various donors. Although his diligence in submitting to and publishing in academic journals hasn't exactly earned him acceptance, Gentry thinks it's a reminder to mainstream science that there are other views of the world.

"Look to the published scientific literature for anything that would counteract or counterprove what we have said. It isn't there," he asserts.

Kurt Wise doesn't think much of Robert Gentry's work. In fact, he doesn't think much of creation science at all, at least not as it's traditionally been practiced. "This gets me in a lot of trouble with a lot of creationists," says the boisterous, bushy-haired professor at Bryan College, a fundamentalist school founded in Dayton, Tenn., in memory of William Jennings Bryan after the Scopes trial. "The material that's out there is--uh, I'll hold back and be nice--garbage. It's really atrocious."

Wise, who's given to manic laughter and arm-flailing when he gets worked up, is something of a legend in creationist circles. Not yet 40, he's the great hope of at least some creation scientists (and the bane of many others). His reputation rests on his unquestionable intellect and willingness to self-criticize, but even more on his credentials--a master's degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate in paleontology from Harvard University, where he worked under maverick evolutionist and popular science writer Steven J. Gould.

But if Wise is dismissive of, for example, Gentry (he calls the older man "sincere" but thinks his halo focus misguided), his own quest has at least a similar starting point--reconciling the science he loves with the God he believes in.

He laid out the dilemma in a lecture at an Origins Conference at Bryan in February: If Christianity arises from the redemption offered by Jesus Christ, it must also arise from the sin that led to the need for salvation. Original sin came in the Garden of Eden; Eden came from the creation. If life actually evolved slowly over millions of years, there was no "first man" or "first woman." There was also death--of whole species, not to mention individual organisms--well before there were humans. But the Bible says death was imposed only after the fall from grace, again setting the stage for the resurrection promised by Christ.

"If the earth is old, throw out your Bible!" Wise told an audience at the college's chapel/auditorium.

Wise says he came to that conclusion as a teenager, when he carefully read the Bible and cut out all the passages that would have to be false if evolution were true. The result was a tattered text that didn't have enough paper left to hold together.

But he's also careful not to throw out evolution just because he thinks it's wrong. It is, he acknowledges, "a very good theory." Simply attacking it--as Gish mostly did in the Knoxville debate (Gish's name is another that makes Wise wince)--won't get creationists very far, Wise says.

So he's taking on a more daunting task: putting together an international team of credentialed scientists to build a comprehensive creation model in geology, astronomy, biology, and related sciences. One of their top priorities is looking for evidence of the savage worldwide flood ("40 days and 40 nights") he believes created most modern geology and topography. This often involves seizing on small bits of scripture ("all the fountains of the great deep broken up") to theorize about things like plate tectonics.

"It'll be years before I'm satisfied enough with a model to toss it out into the scientific community," Wise says. "But I'm working on that."

Creationists are often the only Christian voices heard on the subject of evolution. But their views are far from universal within the Christian diaspora. "The Bible is clear that God is the creator, but the Bible doesn't tell us how," says Bishop Robert Tharp, who heads the East Tennessee Diocese of the Episcopal Church. "We and the writers of the gospels don't feel compelled to do it either. We accept God as the creator, but we also know there are two contrasting creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, and they don't always jibe." Tharp sees much of the Bible as parable--glimpses of divine workings that offer more as subjects for meditation than they do as literal history. He thinks arguments like Wise's miss the broader picture. The point, he says, is man's obligation to God and to all life.

"When we take it literally, we make God too small. We put Him into our categories and make Him anthropomorphic, rather than letting God be God," he says.

The Catholic Church, 365 years after forcing Galileo to recant his theories, is also circumspect about creationism. In a statement two years ago, Pope John Paul II essentially accepted the scientific data of evolution, claiming only the creation of the soul for God.

"In general, the church certainly believes that there is nothing to be feared from the truth," says East Tennessee Bishop Anthony O'Connell. "And secondly, the church has learned over the years that, when it comes to science, there's no need to run ahead of science."

O'Connell, a former high-school physics and chemistry teacher, says Catholic schools take a straightforward approach to evolution.

"We certainly don't shy away from the word 'creation,' " he says. "But we don't present at all the idea that evolution and creation are opposed. One of the ways creation could have occurred, obviously, is that God created and then allowed evolution to proceed."

That interpretation is broadly shared by Judaism. Rabbi Howard Simon of Knoxville's Temple Beth-El says, "What we look for is much more the meaning that [the creation story] has for us as human beings, rather than the literalness of the creation. We look at the final result and the responsibility that is ours."

Tom Ferguson says he can hear minds clicking closed when he uses the word "evolution." So he avoids it whenever he can.

The veteran educator has taught biology at Knox County's Farragut High School for 26 years. He and the thousands of other science teachers in the state are on the front lines of the evolution issue. For a variety of reasons, they tend to be less strident about it than their colleagues at the university level.

"The feelings and emotions of high-school students are tender," says Ferguson, who teaches ninth-grade honors biology. "And of the issues that you want to bring up in a classroom for the purpose of a heated debate, I don't think evolution is one to choose."

Not that he doesn't teach evolution--the Prentice Hall textbook for his class devotes two comprehensive chapters to it--but he introduces it gently, acknowledging at the forefront that some people have other ideas about the history of life. He even has creationist books available if students want to read them. As a result, he says, he rarely hears a complaint.

But Farragut is a large school with a fairly diverse population. Evolutionary scientists worry that teachers in more rural, homogeneous schools are afraid even to bring up evolution. A recent survey of state science standards by the conservative (but not religious) Fordham Foundation noted that Tennessee and Mississippi are the only states in the nation that ignore evolution in their curricula. (The study raised even more alarms about Alabama's approach: There, every textbook that discusses evolution has a disclaimer pasted inside the front cover raising doubts about the subject.)

"I've had a number of teachers tell me they're very cautious," says UT paleontologist Michael McKinney. "They feel very constrained when they talk about pressures from the school administration, pressures from the PTA."

A dedicated environmentalist, McKinney sees a direct link between anti-evolutionism and issues like overdevelopment and pollution. "I think it has a lot of practical implications," he says. "Say, here in Tennessee. I was just screaming about [Gov. Don] Sundquist vetoing the state parks bill. I mean, this is the most anti-environmental state I've ever been in, and I think it's not a coincidence that people here aren't all that well educated on the basics of evolution and biology."

With both evolutionists and creationists feeling embattled, it's no surprise that neither side expects a resolution.

For Pigliucci, the ongoing insistence on creation merely descends from ancient beliefs that everything from sunrise to lightning was a divine act. Evolutionists call it "the god of the gaps"--inserting God wherever science falls short. It's a process Pigliucci expects will continue.

"Everybody is interested in the fundamental questions of life. Everybody wants to know, where do we come from and what are we here for," he says. "And then there is the easy answer and there is the complex answer. There's the answer that requires no homework, and there's the answer that requires lifelong homework."

Wise already knows the answers. When he was a precocious 9-year-old, he came to the conclusion that there was no way to prove that the universe or even he himself actually existed. Shortly before Easter, he decided he would kill himself the next week. But at church that weekend, his Sunday school teacher directed him to Romans 5:8--"But God commended his love toward us in that while we are yet sinners, Christ died for us." It changed the young boy's life. And it's that faith that drives his research.

"This is truth," he says. "God created the universe, and the earth, and the seas.... He did that. My fun job, my vocation, is to understand the creation in the light of that. Not to prove it--it doesn't need any proof. Because it's true."

Jesse Fox Mayshark is senior editor at Metro Pulse in Knoxville. This article originally appeared in that publication.

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