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Monkey Business 

The ongoing attack on evolution

If a career in music doesn't pan out for Bruce Springsteen, he ought to consider teaching high school. He'd be a lot more qualified than many of the Pennsylvania party hacks raising a stink about education.


Prior to his July 28 solo show at the Petersen Events Center, Springsteen had just been over in Europe. While abroad, Springtseen told the Pittsburgh crowd, he had explained that Americans were still arguing over "which came first: the man or the monkey.


"I tried to tell them: The monkey doesn't vote."


He doesn't hire lobbyists either. That may be why schools in York, Pa., are teaching an alternate theory of human origins -- "intelligent design" -- which argues that biological complexity can only be explained by the existence of a god-like designer. This summer, Harrisburg bandied about a bill to permit other school districts to teach the same theory, and one of our U.S. senators boasts of being an evolution skeptic. And as The New York Times documented Aug. 21, the controversy isn't going away.


The debate over evolution is not the result of new earth-shattering evidence. It's the result of right-wingers refusing to accept the evidence that already exists. As the Times reports, while there is almost no scientific dispute over evolution, "some of the same Christian conservatives who helped [President] Bush win the White House" are trying to act as if there is. A well-funded Seattle think tank, the Discovery Institute, has waged a PR battle conducted "like a well-tooled electoral campaign" to cast doubt on Charles Darwin's 140-year-old theory.


Among Discovery's billionaire supporters: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, whose Carthage Foundation gave Discovery $40,000 in 2003.


Ironically, America's wealthy embraced Darwin a century ago. Scaife's own ancestor, banker Andrew Mellon, was a chief proponent of "Social Darwinism," the belief that free markets carried out a process of natural selection, rewarding the "fittest" with money, and culling the poor from the herd. Economics 101, in fact, may be the only place the GOP wants Darwin to be taught.


To be fair, though, the stupidity is bipartisan: Among the state legislators encouraging the teaching of intelligent design, for example, is Vandergrift Democrat Joe Petrarca. Last spring, Petrarca told the Valley News Dispatch that intelligent design was "just another theory like evolution is a theory."


Apparently Petrarca skipped a day in science class. In science, a "theory" is an explanation that has been verified by experiment and observation. Intelligent design is at best a hypothesis: a guess whose validity has yet to be proven. Teaching a hypothesis as if it were a theory undermines the entire scientific method. 


But if you read U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's book It Takes a Family, you get the feeling that undermining science is the whole point.


Scientists have "rejected the notion that nature has an end," writes Santorum. "If nature has no end, no goal, no destiny, then neither can human nature. But if human nature has no end, then our judgment of Nazi war criminals has nothing to do with justice, only with power....Modern science seems to tell us that there is no purpose in nature, only the mindless movement of matter in conformity to the unchanging laws of physics."


See? Believing in evolution means you don't really hate Nazism.


Ordinarily, I'd say there's no greater expert on "mindless movement" than a conservative Republican. But science doesn't tell us physics is all there is; physics just happens to be all that science studies. The values of science aren't hostile to religion, just different. When someone drops a rock from a tower, you don't pray to understand how fast it falls; why would you expect to find God in a test tube?


Millions of Americans, including church-going scientists, understand that. Theirs is a God of faith, and they don't test that faith under laboratory conditions. But for Santorum, that's not enough. When the No Child Left Behind Act was crafted in 2001, Santorum proposed the following amendment: "Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy."


Santorum's amendment was dropped, which is too bad. Students should learn why evolution generates so much controversy -- in social-studies class. There, they could find out about political pandering, and about the sums rich men will pay to make us stupid.


They may even learn that, while chimps can't vote, they can be elected.


Speaking of Potter's Field


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