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Scopes II: Monkeys Reloaded

by Kiosan at 11:27AM (EST) on November 15, 2004

In a 1925 trial in Tennessee, John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution to children, and was sent to jail for it.
I remember reading Inherit the Wind (a play based upon those events) in high school, and being shocked, at the time, that any teacher - any US citizen - could be sent to jail for teaching sound science. "Thank goodness," though my naïve 15 year-old mind, "that our country has managed to put an end to that witch hunt."

Not so fast, says Cobb County, Georgia. We aren’t finished just yet.
The school system recently placed stickers on their science textbooks stating that "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the evolution of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
The statements are almost laughable in their combined weak grasp of science, scientific language, and thinly veiled call to reject science altogether in favor of literal interpretation of religious creation myth.

Complete Lack of Understanding
First, it should be noted that in science (actual, reality-based science), the word "theory" has a different meaning than the same word used in everyday speech. When a handful of people are chatting around the water-cooler and discussing theories about who is about to be booted off of "Survivor," their theories are based on their gut feelings, hopes, and maybe a smattering of unconfirmed facts. They think Bootsie might be voted off, but have no way of testing or proving this idea until the next show airs.

Scientific theory, however, is just not in the same class.  In science, ideas begin as hypotheses: grounded in observable facts and empirical data.  As hypotheses are tested, they are either validated further, or revised and re-tested, or abandoned as incorrect.  A hypothesis does not become a theory until it proves well supported/documented by all available facts and data, to the exclusion of any other available facts and data.

Scientific theories remain theories precisely because science admits its limitations: it is always possible that the conclusion (theory) from the available evidence is incorrect. The discovery of heretofore-unknown data might one day disprove the theory as it currently stands, causing the need for revision, re-testing and restatement. The way we catch a cold falls under the heading of Germ Theory, physicists use Electromagnetic Theory in X-rays, and gravity itself – for all we can see the apple fall from the tree, is still "just" a theory.

Hence, calling evolution "just a theory" is accurate, in that it is scientific theory, but the verbiage obfuscates (either intentionally, or out of ignorance of the scientific process) the true meaning and placement of "theory" in the scientific hierarchy. Evolution is the only framework that fits all of the currently available data on how life develops and changes over time. We see it at work in new drug-resistant bacterial strains, and in virus mutations. On a cellular level, evolution is just like Newton’s apple.

Life, the Universe and Everything
The real beef creationists appear to have with evolution, though, isn’t usually the process as we are all able to see it, but is, instead, the origin of life. Creationists confuse Darwin’s evolutionary theory (which has proven sound) with various hypotheses on the origin of life (which has not been proven into the realm of theory), and reject both out of their misunderstanding. Scientists don’t actually claim to know the exact mechanics of how life began: there are a number of hypotheses, and one theory: The Big Bang.

Initially advanced by early creationists, the Big Bang was originally posited by a monk to prove that the universe was finite, not infinite. He hypothesized that a finite universe could have a supernatural creator, while an infinite universe would not. Critics called his hypothesis "The Big Bang" as an insult. Of course, that theory is now the most widely accepted scientific explanation for the origin of life.

But even The Big Bang has an acknowledged hole in it: science, as a profession, agrees that a point exists beyond which we cannot see or predict. Mathematically, we can model back only so far in time, and that model ends just before we get to the actual Bang in the theory.

At 1x10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, mathematicians reach a singularity, which means they simply have no way of knowing what happened before that point. We know what happened at that point, and at points thereafter, but the specifics of the Bang itself are beyond our current knowledge and abilities. The laws of known physics do not apply…

Oddly enough, now that the originally Christian explanation has gained scientific acceptance, fundamentalist Christians have abandoned it. And rejected evolution along with it.

Secret Decoder Ring
The last part of the controversial sticker reads "This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered:" fundamentalist code for "reject this out of hand." Of course scientific studies and data should be evaluated with an open mind – that is the hallmark of good science. It is only Creationists who ask people to evaluate their theories in a vacuum, without considering all available data, because they have already determined the only acceptable conclusion. Real science demands an open mind; so-called "creation science" won’t permit it. Thus, budding creationists must be reminded to view the contents with "an open mind," which, particularly when coupled with the "just a theory" misinterpretation, translates to "we hold that this information is incorrect, and are teaching it only to waste your time."

If you read any of the Creationist debates on the internet, you’ll see the same pattern again and again. Strident Creationists call for "open-minds" from readers, but reject any facts that contradict their primary hypotheses. Rather than follow actual scientific process, as they purport to do, re-evaluating, revising and re-testing their thoughts as new evidence and ideas are presented, they absolutely discard all challenging evidence as either untrue (without basis in fact), or a global hoax (despite lack of evidence/overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

"Open mind" in the fundamentalist creationism lexicon doesn’t mean what it means to secularists, or even to more progressive Christians. It is actually a call to close your eyes, stop up your ears, and sing at the top of your lungs until the bad bogeyman passes.

And as for "studied carefully and critically considered," isn’t that what secondary school is supposed to be teaching in the first place? Whether in the science, literature, or history classroom, aren’t we already paying people to teach our children how to do this? Despite recent, somewhat counterproductive, focus on standardized regurgitation of rote facts and figures completely lacking in historical or social context (thanks, No Child Left Behind; you’ve insured our national mediocrity), isn’t that the nominal purpose of school and education – to teach us to study carefully and think critically? Do we really need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on big yellow stickers to remind the students? Because if we do, the silly sticker won’t help. It’s our failure as parents and as teachers, and no silly yellow sticker affixed to any book will rectify that failing.

Ignorance as a Federal Case
I don’t have a problem with school boards informing students that current scientific thought is made up of theories. That’s a true and accurate assessment. I do, however, take issue with a public school system, funded by public tax dollars, misrepresenting science and scientific theory at the expense of sound education for our children just to mollycoddle a handful of reactionary parents ignorant of actual scientific process and afraid to learn anything not badly translated (but beautiful!) into early 17th century English.

If parents and schools feel they must mention the bible at all (which I’m not convinced is necessary in a secular, public education), they could present it in a World Religions Survey, along with the Qur’an, Torah, Talmud, Mahabharata, and a collection of Greek/Roman/Norse myths. That would be an appropriate place for the bible, if given equal footing and coverage with sacred texts from other religions, and highly instructive to today’s youth, given the role that theocracy has come to play on the geopolitical stage.
But keep it out of science, please. Even the fundamentalist creationists who reject science out of hand agree that the two don’t mesh.

Source: Wired
Date: Nov 1999
This Is Your Brain on God

Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an
energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.

By Jack Hitt

Michael Persinger

Over a scratchy speaker, a researcher announces, "Jack, one of your electrodes is loose, we're coming in." The 500-pound steel door of the experimental chamber opens with a heavy whoosh; two technicians wearing white lab coats march in. They remove the Ping-Pong-ball halves taped over my eyes and carefully lift a yellow motorcycle helmet that's been retrofitted with electromagnetic field-emitting solenoids on the sides, aimed directly at my temples. Above the left hemisphere of my 42-year-old male brain, they locate the dangling electrode, needed to measure and track my brain waves. The researchers slather more conducting cream into the graying wisps of my red hair and press the securing tape hard into my scalp.

After restoring everything to its proper working position, the techies exit, and I'm left sitting inside the utterly silent, utterly black vault. A few commands are typed into a computer outside the chamber, and selected electromagnetic fields begin gently thrumming my brain's temporal lobes. The fields are no more intense than what you'd get as by-product from an ordinary blow-dryer, but what's coming is anything but ordinary. My lobes are about to be bathed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect my mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation that I am seeing God.

I'm taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as "having a religious experience" is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence."

Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one's grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn't shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.

To those of us who prefer a little mystery in our lives, it all sounds like a letdown. And as I settle in for my mind trip, I'm starting to get apprehensive. I'm a lapsed Episcopalian clinging to only a hazy sense of the divine, but I don't especially like the idea that whatever vestigial faith I have in the Almighty's existence might get clinically lobotomized by Persinger's demo. Do I really want God to be rendered as explicable and predictable as an endorphin rush after a 3-mile run?

The journey from my home in Connecticut to the mining district north of Lake Huron is, by modern standards, arduous. Given what's in store, it's also strangely fitting. When you think of people seeking divine visions, you imagine them trekking to some mountainous cloister. The pilgrimage to Persinger's lab is the clinical counterpart.

The trip involves flying in increasingly smaller puddle-jumpers with a decrease in number of propellers until you land in the ore-rich Ontario town of Sudbury, a place that's been battered by commerce, geography, and climate. Jags of red rock and black iron erupt from the landscape, often bolting right out of the pavement. The weather-beaten concrete exteriors of the city's buildings speak of long, harsh winters.

A short car ride through stony suburbs ends at a forlorn cluster of a dozen buildings: Laurentian University. Near Parking Lot 4, I am met by Charles Cook, a grad student of Persinger's. He leads me into the science building's basement, then to the windowless confines of Room C002B, Persinger's lair.

Waiting there is Linda St-Pierre, another graduate student, who prompts me to sit down, then launches into a series of psychological questions. I answer a range of true-or-false statements from an old version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test designed to ferret out any nuttiness that might disqualify me from serving as a study subject. When read individually, the questions seem harmless, but as a group they sound hopelessly antiquated, as if the folks who devised the exam hadn't checked the warehouse for anachronisms in five decades:

I like to read mechanics magazines.
Someone is trying to poison me.
I have successful bowel movements.
I know who is trying to get me.
As a child, I enjoyed playing drop-the-handkerchief.

I'm escorted into the chamber, an old sound-experiment booth. The tiny room doesn't appear to have been redecorated since it was built in the early '70s. The frayed spaghettis of a brown-and-white shag carpet, along with huge, wall-mounted speakers covered in glittery black nylon, surround a spent brown recliner upholstered in the prickly polymers of that time. The chair, frankly, is repellent. Hundreds of subjects have settled into its itchy embrace, and its brown contours are spotted with dollops of electrode-conducting cream, dried like toothpaste, giving the seat the look of a favored seagulls' haunt.
In the name of science, I sit down.

Persinger's research forays are at the very frontier of the roiling field of neuroscience, the biochemical approach to the study of the brain. Much of what we hear about the discipline is anatomical stuff, involving the mapping of the brain's many folds and networks, performed by reading PET scans, observing blood flows, or deducing connections from stroke and accident victims who've suffered serious brain damage. But cognitive neuroscience is also a grab bag of more theoretical pursuits that can range from general consciousness studies to finding the neural basis for all kinds of sensations.

As the work piles up, many things that we hold to be unique aspects of the "self" are reduced to mere tics of cranial function. Take laughter. According to Vilayanur Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience at UC San Diego, laughter is just the brain's way of signaling that a fearful circumstance is not really so worrisome. At a conference earlier this year, he posited that the classic banana-peel pratfall is funny only when the victim gets up, and that we laugh to alert "other members of [our] kin that, 'Look, there has been a false alarm here; don't waste your resources rushing to help.'" He calls laughter "nature's OK signal."
Of course, this type of deromanticizing has been going on for a while - Persinger's brain manipulations have crude antecedents in the 1950s, the roaring decade for behaviorism. Back then, Yale physiologist Jose Delgado earned national renown by implanting electrodes into the brains of live animals and attaching them to a "stimoceiver" under the skull. In a technique called ESB - electronic stimulation of the brain - Delgado sent radio signals through the electrodes to control the animal. In one demonstration in the early 1960s, he used his electronic gizmo to halt a charging bull.

Delgado's relatively coarse stunts were a long way from Persinger's quest for the God spot, but Persinger is not the first to theorize that the Creator exists only in the complex landscape of the human noggin. In his controversial 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, argued that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics. Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, the ancients heard voices, summoned up visions, and lacked the sense of metaphor and individual identity that characterizes a more advanced mind. He said that some of these ancestral synaptic leftovers are buried deep in the modern brain, which would explain many of our present-day sensations of God or spirituality.

Among practicing neuroscientists, there is no overarching consensus on whether such notions are correct. Persinger is certainly out on a frontier where theory meets the boldest sort of speculation, but there's nothing inherently bizarre about his methods or the questions he's asking. William Calvin, a professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that Persinger's line of inquiry is no more mysterious than another pursuit that intrigues neuroscientists: trying to understand the sensations of d้jเ vu or its opposite, jamais vu - the feeling, during a familiar routine, that we're doing it for the first time. Maybe these feelings, like God, are just more fritzing in the electricity arcing about our brains.

Persinger arrives soon after St-Pierre has judged me sane enough to enter Room C002B.

"I see that Mr. Cook has been as punctual as usual," he says, extending a hand in greeting. Persinger, 54, blends a crisp, scientific demeanor with a mischievous smile, but overall he's a very serious man. His erect posture is enhanced by a dark, pin-striped, three-piece suit with a gold chain swag at the bottom of the vest. His sentences are clipped and stripped of any vernacular - so painstakingly scientific that they can be coy. For example, he tells me that he is actually an American who "moved to Canada in July of 1969, because I had a rather major ethical disagreement with my government." It takes me a follow-up or two before I realize he had dodged the draft.

As the researchers fit my helmet, I ask: Has anyone ever freaked out in the chair? Persinger smiles slightly and describes when a subject suffered an "adverse experience" and succumbed to an "interpretation that the room was hexed." When I ask if, say, the subject ripped all this equipment from his flesh and ran screaming from the dungeon, Persinger curtly replies: "Yes, his heart rate did go up and he did want to leave and of course he could because that is part of the protocol."

One more time: Has anyone freaked out in the chair? "His EKG was showing that he moved very, very quickly and dramatically," Persinger offers, "and that he was struggling to take off the electrodes."

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."

A new one, the Linda Genetic Pulse, is named for my psychometrist, Linda St-Pierre. Persinger says St-Pierre is conducting a massive study on rats to determine the ways in which lengthy exposures to particular electromagnetic pulses can "affect gene expression."

After spending a little time with Persinger, you get accustomed to the fact that his most polite phrases demand pursuit. Affect gene expression? It sounds so simple, but what he's really talking about is stringing together a number of different electromagnetic fields to prompt a complicated chemical reaction on the genetic level - for example, directing the body's natural self-healing instincts.

"We want to enhance what the brain does to help heal the body," Persinger explains. "Among more sensitive individuals, tests show that their skin will turn red if they believe a hot nickel has been placed on their hand. That's a powerful psychosomatic effect of the brain on the body. Suppose we could make it more precise?"

Persinger envisions a series of EM patterns that work the way drugs do. Just as you take an antibiotic and it has a predictable result, you might be exposed to precise EM patterns that would signal the brain to carry out comparable effects.
Another possible application: Hollywood. Persinger has talked to Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects wizard responsible for the look of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Brainstorm. They discussed the technological possibility of marrying Persinger's helmet with virtual reality. "If you've done virtual reality," Persinger says, "then you know that once you put on the helmet, you always know you are inside the helmet. The idea is to create a form of entertainment that is more real." But he adds, sounding like so many people who've gotten a call from the coast, "we haven't cut a deal yet."

I am being withdrawn from my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness.

Soon enough, it's time for the good professor to wish me well and lob this last caveat: "If, for whatever reason, you become frightened or want to end the experiment, just speak into your lapel microphone."

When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.

Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion. Something is definitely happening. During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.) Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.

In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.

Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.

If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associ-ated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.

I'm not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I'm not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid - read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.

So: Something took place. Still, when the helmet comes off and they shove a questionnaire in my hand, I feel like a failure. One question: Did the red bulb on the wall grow larger or smaller? There was a red bulb on the wall? I hadn't noticed. Many other questions suggest that there were other experiences I should have had, but to be honest, I didn't.

In fact, as transcendental experiences go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Persinger's helmet falls somewhere around, oh, 4. Even though I did have a fairly convincing out-of-body experience, I'm disappointed relative to the great expectations and anxieties I had going in.

It may be that all the preliminary talk about visions just set my rational left hemisphere into highly skeptical overdrive. Setting me up like that - you will experience the presence of God - might have been a mistake. When I bring this up later with Persinger, he tells me that the machine's effects differ among people, depending on their "lability" - Persinger jargon meaning sensitivity or vulnerability.

"Also, you were in a comfortable laboratory," he points out. "You knew nothing could happen to you. What if the same intense experience occurred at 3 in the morning in a bedroom all by yourself? Or you suddenly stalled on an abandoned road at night when you saw a peculiar light and then had that experience? What label would you have placed on it then?"
Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting the world to the alien invasion.

But then, Persinger continued, being labile is itself a fluctuating condition. There are interior factors that can exacerbate it - stress, fear, injury - and exterior sources that might provoke odd but brief disturbances in the usually stable electromagnetic fields around us. Persinger theorizes, for example, that just prior to earthquakes there are deformations in the natural EM field caused by the intense pressure change in the tectonic plates below. He has published a paper called "The Tectonic Strain Theory as an Explanation for UFO Phenomena," in which he maintains that around the time of an earthquake, changes in the EM field could spark mysterious lights in the sky. A labile observer, in Persinger's view, could easily mistake the luminous display for an alien visit.

As we sit in his office, Persinger argues that other environmental disturbances - ranging from solar flares and meteor showers to oil drilling - probably correlate with visionary claims, including mass religious conversions, ghost lights, and haunted houses. He says that if a region routinely experiences mild earthquakes or other causes of change in the electromagnetic fields, this may explain why the spot becomes known as sacred ground. That would include the Hopi tribe's hallowed lands, Delphi, Mount Fuji, the Black Hills, Lourdes, and the peaks of the Andes, not to mention most of California.

From time to time, a sensed presence can also occur among crowds, Persinger says, thereby giving the divine vision the true legitimacy of a common experience, and making it practically undeniable.

"One classic example was the apparition of Mary over the Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, in the 1960s," he continues. "This phenomenon lasted off and on for several years. It was seen by thousands of people, and the appearance seemed to precede the disturbances that occurred during the building of the Aswan High Dam. I have multiple examples of reservoirs being built or lakes being filled, and reports of luminous displays and UFO flaps. But Zeitoun was impressive."

Persinger says there were balls of light that moved around the cross atop the church. "They were influenced by the cross, of course. It looked like a circle with a triangle on the bottom. If you had an imagination, it looked like a person. Upside down, by the way, it was the classical UFO pattern. It's curious that this happened during a marked increase in hostilities between Egyptians and Israelis, and both interpreted the phenomenon as proof that they would be successful. It's just so classical of human beings. Take an anomalous event, and one group will interpret it one way, and another group another."

Might it surprise anyone to learn, in view of Persinger's theories, that when Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni before founding Mormonism, and when Charles Taze Russell started the Jehovah's Witnesses, powerful Leonid meteor showers were occurring?

Taken together, Persinger's ideas and published studies go awfully far - he's claiming to identify the primum mobile underlying all the supernatural stories we've developed over the last few thousand years. You might think Christians would be upset that this professor in Sudbury is trying to do with physics what Nietzsche did with metaphysics - kill off God. Or you might think that devout ufologists would denounce him for putting neuroscience on the side of the skeptics.

"Actually, it's more a mind-set that gets disturbed than a particular belief," offers Persinger. "Some Christians say, 'Well, God invented the brain, so of course this is how it would happen.' UFO types say, 'This is good. Now we can tell the fake UFO sightings from the real ones.'"

Oh, I have no doubt. I mean, who among all the churchgoers and alien fiends will let some distant egghead with a souped-up motorcycle helmet spoil their fun? It goes without saying that the human capacity to rationalize around Persinger's theory is far greater than all the replicated studies science could produce. The real tradition Persinger falls into is that of trying to explain away mystical experience. Jaynes thought visitations from God were mere aural detritus from the Stone Age. And just recently, another study suggested that sleep paralysis might account for visions of God and alien abduction.

Who knows? Perhaps mystical visions are in fact nothing more than a bit of squelchy feedback in the temporal lobes. But that's such a preposterously small part of what most people think of when they think of God, it seems insanely grandiose to suggest that anyone has explained away "God." It's almost ironic. Every so often during one of America's little creation-science tempests, some humorless rationalist like Stephen Jay Gould steps forward to say that theology is an inadequate foundation for the study of science. Noted. And vice versa.

But Persinger's ideas are harder to shake off than that. When I return to America, I am greeted by the news that massive intersections of power lines do not, in fact, cause cancer. For years scientists had advanced the power line-cancer connection, based on the results of Robert Liburdy's benchmark 1992 study. But a tip to the federal Office of Research Integrity initiated an investigation of Liburdy's work; it found that his data had been falsified.

Persinger's experiments and resulting theories suggest some new ideas about our waning 20th century, which began with Thomas Edison convincing the world to cocoon itself inside electrically wired shelters, throbbing with pulses of electromagnetic fields. Granted, those fields are quite weak, arguably too tiny to affect our physical bodies in ways Liburdy had suggested. But what about Persinger's notion that such fields may be tinkering with our consciousness?

Is it a coincidence that this century - known as the age of anxiety, a time rife with various hysterias, the era that gave birth to existentialism - is also when we stepped inside an electromagnetic bubble and decided to live there? We have never quite comprehended that we walk about in a sea of mild electromagnetism just as we do air. It is part of our atmosphere, part of the containing bath our consciousness swims in. Now we are altering it, heightening it, condensing it. The bubble is being increasingly shored up with newer, more complicated fields: computers, pagers, cell phones. Every day, entrepreneurs invent more novel ways to seduce us into staying inside this web. The Internet is well named.

Naturally, many people would presume that such a change must be a malignant force when directed at the delicate gossamer of consciousness. Yet evolution is a tricky business. Accidental changes often turn out to be lifesaving preparations for some other condition that could never have been predicted.

A few might see a world of possibility in Persinger's theories. His booth has helped us discover and confirm our true predicament. "Seeing God" is really just a soothing euphemism for the fleeting awareness of ourselves alone in the universe: a look in that existential mirror. The "sensed presence" - now easily generated by a machine pumping our brains with electromagnetic spirituality - is nothing but our exquisite and singular self, at one with the true solitude of our condition, deeply anxious. We're itching to get out of here, to escape this tired old environment with its frayed carpets, blasted furniture, and shabby old God. Time to move on and discover true divinity all over again.

see page 10- God gene

July 7, 2005

Finding Design in Nature

EVER since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was "more than just a hypothesis," defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often invoked the supposed acceptance - or at least acquiescence - of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith.

But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Consider the real teaching of our beloved John Paul. While his rather vague and unimportant 1996 letter about evolution is always and everywhere cited, we see no one discussing these comments from a 1985 general audience that represents his robust teaching on nature: "All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator." (Pope John Paul II)

He went on: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality (?) in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems."

Note that in this quotation the word "finality" is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design. In comments at another general audience a year later, John Paul concludes, "It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity."

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: "Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason." It adds: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

In an unfortunate new twist on this old controversy, neo-Darwinists recently have sought to portray our new pope, Benedict XVI, as a satisfied evolutionist. They have quoted a sentence about common ancestry from a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, pointed out that Benedict was at the time head of the commission, and concluded that the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of "evolution" as used by mainstream biologists - that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism.

The commission's document, however, reaffirms the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of design in nature. Commenting on the widespread abuse of John Paul's 1996 letter on evolution, the commission cautions that "the letter cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe."

Furthermore, according to the commission, "An unguided evolutionary process - one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence - simply cannot exist."

Indeed, in the homily at his installation just a few weeks ago, Benedict proclaimed: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

Throughout history the church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the "death of God" that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, was the lead editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

July 9, 2005

Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution

Correction Appended
An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be incompatible with Catholic faith.

The cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not."

In a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on retreat, the cardinal said that his essay had not been approved by the Vatican, but that two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the church's position on evolution. "I said I would like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged me to go on," said Cardinal Schönborn.
He said that he had been "angry" for years about writers and theologians, many Catholics, who he said had "misrepresented" the church's position as endorsing the idea of evolution as a random process.

Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schönborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Cardinal Schönborn, who is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.

American Catholics and conservative evangelical Christians have been a potent united front in opposing abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, but had parted company on the death penalty and the teaching of evolution. Cardinal Schönborn's essay and comments are an indication that the church may now enter the debate over evolution more forcefully on the side of those who oppose the teaching of evolution alone.

One of the strongest advocates of teaching alternatives to evolution is the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which promotes the idea, termed intelligent design, that the variety and complexity of life on earth cannot be explained except through the intervention of a designer of some sort.

Mark Ryland, a vice president of the institute, said in an interview that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay. Both Mr. Ryland and Cardinal Schönborn said that an essay in May in The Times about the compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory by Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, suggested to them that it was time to clarify the church's position on evolution.

The cardinal's essay was submitted to The Times by a Virginia public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the Discovery Institute.
Mr. Ryland, who said he knew the cardinal through the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, where he is chancellor and Mr. Ryland is on the board, said supporters of intelligent design were "very excited" that a church leader had taken a position opposing Darwinian evolution. "It clarified that in some sense the Catholics aren't fine with it," he said.

Bruce Chapman, the institute's president, said the cardinal's essay "helps blunt the claims" that the church "has spoken on Darwinian evolution in a way that's supportive."

But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.
"How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?" wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. "It really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Schönborn had been reading their Web pages."
Mr. Ryland said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had written the essay on his own.

Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the official American effort to decipher the human genome, and who describes himself as a Christian, though not a Catholic, said Cardinal Schönborn's essay looked like "a step in the wrong direction" and said he feared that it "may represent some backpedaling from what scientifically is a very compelling conclusion, especially now that we have the ability to study DNA."

"There is a deep and growing chasm between the scientific and the spiritual world views," he went on. "To the extent that the cardinal's essay makes believing scientists less and less comfortable inhabiting the middle ground, it is unfortunate. It makes me uneasy."

"Unguided," "unplanned," "random" and "natural" are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution "can fall within God's providential plan." He added: "Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this."

Dr. Miller, whose book "Finding Darwin's God" describes his reconciliation of evolutionary theory with Christian faith, said the essay seemed to equate belief in evolution with disbelief in God. That is alarming, he said. "It may have the effect of convincing Catholics that evolution is something they should reject."
Dr. Collins and other scientists said they could understand why a cleric might want to make the case that, as Dr. Collins put it, "evolution is the mechanism by which human beings came into existence, but God had something to do with that, too." Dr. Collins said that view, theistic evolution, "is shared with a very large number of biologists who also believe in God, including me."

But it does not encompass the idea that the workings of evolution required the direct intervention of a supernatural agent, as intelligent design would have it.
In his essay, Cardinal Schönborn asserted that he was not trying to break new ground but to correct the idea, "often invoked," that the church accepts or at least acquiesces to the theory of evolution.

He referred to widely cited remarks by Pope John Paul II, who, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, noted that the scientific case for evolution was growing stronger and that the theory was "more than a hypothesis."

In December, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chairman of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited those remarks in writing to the nation's bishops that "the Church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution as long as it is understood as a scientific account of the physical origins and development of the universe." But in his essay, Cardinal Schönborn dismissed John Paul's statement as "rather vague and unimportant."

Francisco Ayala, a professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, called this assessment "an insult" to the late pope and said the cardinal seemed to be drawing a line between the theory of evolution and religious faith, and "seeing a conflict that does not exist."
Dr. Miller said he was already hearing from people worried about the cardinal's essay. "People are saying, does the church really believe this?" He said he would not speculate. "John Paul II made it very clear that he regarded scientific rationality as a gift from God," Dr. Miller said, adding, "There are more than 100 cardinals and they often have conflicting opinions."

Correction: Monday, July 11, 2005:
A front-page article on Saturday about the effort by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, to redefine the Roman Catholic Church’s position on evolution referred imprecisely to the cardinal’s Op-Ed article in The Times on Thursday. The article, which said the church’s position had often been misrepresented, was prompted by an essay by Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss published in Science Times in May; it was not a direct response to that essay.

Correction: July 21, 2005, Thursday:

A front-page article on July 9 about an influential cardinal's skepticism on evolutionary theory referred imprecisely to the Roman Catholic Church's position on stem cell research. The church opposes such research with cells from human embryos that are then discarded; it does not oppose stem cell research in general.

September 26, 2005

A Web of Faith, Law and Science in Evolution Suit

DOVER, Pa., Sept. 23 - Sheree Hied, a mother of five who believes that God created the earth and its creatures, was grateful when her school board here voted last year to require high school biology classes to hear about "alternatives" to evolution, including the theory known as intelligent design.

But 11 other parents in Dover were outraged enough to sue the school board and the district, contending that intelligent design - the idea that living organisms are so inexplicably complex, the best explanation is that a higher being designed them - is a Trojan horse for religion in the public schools.

With the new political empowerment of religious conservatives, challenges to evolution are popping up with greater frequency in schools, courts and legislatures. But the Dover case, which begins Monday in Federal District Court in Harrisburg, is the first direct challenge to a school district that has tried to mandate the teaching of intelligent design.

What happens here could influence communities across the country that are considering whether to teach intelligent design in the public schools, and the case, regardless of the verdict, could end up before the Supreme Court.

Dover, a rural, mostly blue-collar community of 22,000 that is 20 miles south of Harrisburg, had school board members willing to go to the mat over issue.  But people here are well aware that they are only the excuse for a much larger showdown in the culture wars.

"It was just our school board making one small decision," Mrs. Hied said, "but it was just received with such an uproar."

For Mrs. Hied, a meter reader, and her husband, Michael, an office manager for a local bus and transport company, the Dover school board's argument - that teaching intelligent design is a free-speech issue - has a strong appeal.

"I think we as Americans, regardless of our beliefs, should be able to freely access information, because people fought and died for our freedoms," Mrs. Hied said over a family dinner last week at their home, where the front door is decorated with a small bell and a plaque proclaiming, "Let Freedom Ring."

But in a split-level house on the other side of Main Street, at a desk flanked by his university diplomas, Steven Stough was on the Internet late the other night, keeping track of every legal maneuver in the case. Mr. Stough, who teaches life science to seventh graders in a nearby district, is one of the 11 parents suing the Dover district. For him the notion of teaching "alternatives" to evolution is a hoax.

"You can dress up intelligent design and make it look like science, but it just doesn't pass muster," said Mr. Stough, a Republican whose idea of a fun family vacation is visiting fossil beds and natural history museums. "In science class, you don't say to the students, 'Is there gravity, or do you think we have rubber bands on our feet?' "

Evolution finds that life evolved over billions of years through the processes of mutation and natural selection, without the need for supernatural interventions.  It is the foundation of biological science, with no credible challenges within the scientific community. Without it, the plaintiffs say, students could never make sense of topics as varied as AIDS and extinction.

Advocates on both sides of the issue have lined up behind the case, often calling it Scopes II, in reference to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that was the last century's great face-off over evolution.

On the evolutionists' side is a legal team put together by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. These groups want to put intelligent design itself on trial and discredit it so thoroughly that no other school board would dare authorize teaching it.

Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Pennsylvania, said the plaintiffs would call six experts in history, theology, philosophy of science and science to show that no matter the perspective, "intelligent design is not science because it does not meet the ground rules of science, is not based on natural explanations, is not testable."

On the intelligent design side is the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit Christian law firm that says its mission is "to be the sword and shield for people of faith" in cases on abortion, school prayer and the Ten Commandments. The center was founded by Thomas Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza founder, a conservative Roman Catholic who also founded Ave Maria University and the Ave Maria School of Law; and by Richard Thompson, a former Michigan prosecutor who tried Dr. Jack Kevorkian for performing assisted suicides.

"This is an attempt by the A.C.L.U. to really intimidate this small-town school board," said Mr. Thompson, who will defend the Dover board at the trial, "because the theory of intelligent design is starting to gain some resonance among school boards across the country."

The defense plans to introduce leading design theorists like Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, and education experts who will testify that "allowing students to be aware of the controversy is good pedagogy because it develops critical thinking," Mr. Thompson said.

The case, Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District, will be decided by Judge John E. Jones III of the United States District Court, who was nominated by President Bush in 2002 and confirmed by a Senate vote of 96 to 0. The trial is expected to last six weeks and to draw news coverage from around the world.
The legal battle came to a head on Oct. 18 last year when the Dover school board voted 6 to 3 to require ninth-grade biology students to listen to a brief statement saying that there was a controversy over evolution, that intelligent design is a competing theory and that if they wanted to learn more the school library had the textbook "Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins." The book is published by an intelligent design advocacy group, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, based in Texas.

Angry parents like Mr. Stough, Tammy Kitzmiller, and Bryan and Christy Rehm contacted the A.C.L.U. and Americans United. The 11 plaintiffs are a diverse group, unacquainted before the case, who say that parents, and not the school, should be in charge of their children's religious education.
Mr. Rehm, a father of five and a science teacher who formerly taught in Dover, said the school board had long been pressing science teachers to alter their evolution curriculum, even requiring teachers to watch a videotape about "gaps in evolution theory" during an in-service training day in the spring of 2004.
School board members were told by their lawyer, Mr. Thompson, not to talk to the news media. "We've told them, anything they say can be used against them," Mr. Thompson said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that teaching creation science in public schools was unconstitutional because it was based on religion. So the plaintiffs will try to prove that intelligent design is creationism in a new package. Richard Katskee, assistant legal director of Americans United, said the "Pandas" textbook only substituted references to "creationism" with "intelligent design" in more recent editions.

Mr. Thompson said his side would prove that intelligent design was not creationism because it did not mention God or the Bible and never posited the creator's identity.

"It's clear they are two different theories," Mr. Thompson said. "Creationism normally starts with the Holy Scripture, the Book of Genesis, then you develop a scientific theory that supports it, while intelligent design looks at the same kind of empirical data that any scientist looks at," and concludes that complex mechanisms in nature "appear designed because it is designed." If a dog were intelligent enough to consider it, he might think something like human language so complex it must have been designed by a god…

A twist in the case is that a leading proponent of intelligent design, the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, removed one of its staff members from the Dover school board's witness list and opposed the board's action from the start.

"We thought it was a bad idea because we oppose any effort to require students to learn about intelligent design because we feel that it politicizes what should be a scientific debate," said John G. West, a senior fellow at the institute. However, Professor Behe, a fellow at the institute, is expected to be the board's star witness.

Parents in Dover appear to be evenly split on the issue. School board runoffs are in November, with seven candidates opposing the current policy facing seven incumbents. Among the candidates is Mr. Rehm, the former Dover science teacher and a plaintiff. He said opponents had slammed doors in his face when he campaigned and performed a "monkey dance" when he passed out literature at the recent firemen's fair.

But he agrees with parents on the other side that the fuss over evolution has obscured more pressing educational issues like school financing, low parent involvement and classes that still train students for factory jobs as local plants are closing.

"There's no way to have a winner here," Mr. Rehm said. "The community has already lost, period, by becoming so divided."

September 27, 2005

Evolution Lawsuit Opens in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa., Sept. 26 - Intelligent design is not science, has no support from any major American scientific organization and does not belong in a public school science classroom, a prominent biologist testified on the opening day of the nation's first legal battle over whether it is permissible to teach the fledgling "design" theory as an alternative to evolution.

"To my knowledge, every single scientific society that has taken a position on this issue has taken a position against intelligent design and in favor of evolution," said the biologist, Kenneth R. Miller, a professor at Brown University and the co-author of the widely used high school textbook "Biology."

Eleven parents in the small town of Dover, just south of here, are suing their school board for introducing intelligent design in the ninth-grade biology curriculum. The parents accuse the board of injecting religious creationism into science classes in the guise of intelligent design. Professor Miller, their main expert witness, was the only person to take the stand on Monday.

Intelligent design is the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that some kind of higher intelligence designed them. The notion has gained a foothold in some states and school districts as an attractive alternative to evolution, but is shunned by most mainstream scientists.
In a sign of how important this trial is to the adversaries in the intelligent design debate, they came from across the country to hear the opening arguments and to present their case to the cameras waiting outside. The two sides agree that no matter how Judge John E. Jones III decides the case in Federal District Court here, it will probably make its way to the Supreme Court.

Casey Luskin, a program officer at a group that advocates intelligent design, the Discovery Institute, said in an interview outside the courtroom: "No one is pretending that intelligent design is a majority position. What we're rebutting is their claim that there's no controversy among scientists."
The school board members, represented by a nonprofit Christian law firm based in Michigan, are taking the stance that students should have access to a variety of scientific theories.

"This case is about free inquiry and education, not about a religious agenda," Patrick Gillen, a lawyer for the board said in his opening statement.
The board president, Sheila Harkins, said in an interview during a break, "The whole thought behind it was to encourage critical thinking."
It was "not true at all," Ms. Harkins said, that board members were motivated by their religious beliefs.

The front rows of the courtroom were filled on one side with members of the Dover school board, the defendants, and on the other, the Dover residents who filed suit. On both sides of the aisle the mood was grim, and there was barely a look or a handshake exchanged across it.

The plaintiffs are trying to show that intelligent design is just "the 21st-century version of creationism," as a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Eric Rothschild, put it in his opening argument.

Mr. Rothschild said that the board's own documents would show that the board members had initially discussed teaching "creationism" - one former member said he wanted the class time evenly split between creationism and evolution - and that they substituted the words "intelligent design" only when they were made aware by lawyers of the constitutional problems involved.

The board ultimately settled for directing that a four-paragraph statement be read to the students at the opening of the semester's biology class. It says, in part: "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence."

The statement says that "intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view," and it advises students that a textbook that teaches intelligent design, "Of Pandas and People," is available in the school library.

In his testimony, Professor Miller called the Pandas textbook "inaccurate and downright false in every section."  The board's statement "undermines sound science education" by conveying to students that only evolution merits such skepticism, he said.

Professor Miller projected slides that he said contradicted the core of design theory: that organisms are irreducibly complex.  He also denigrated intelligent design as "a negative argument against evolution," in which there is no "positive argument" to test whether an intelligent designer actually exists.  If the theory is not testable, he said, it is not science.

Randall Wenger, a lawyer for the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the intelligent design advocacy group that produces the Pandas textbook, said, "If they decide that intelligent design is just a remake of creationism, that horribly undermines" both the Pandas textbook and "the motivation for scientists to study intelligent design."

Foundation's "Scopes II" Victory Halts Illegal Bible Instruction

Comparing a "Bible Education Ministry" program to "Sunday School," a federal judge in Tennessee issued a forceful decision on Feb. 8 declaring the classes in Rhea County public schools unconstitutional. The federal lawsuit was brought last April by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of parents with children in the schools.

"Rhea County, Tennessee, is no stranger to religious controversy," wrote U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the opening of his 19-page decision.

"In 1925, the Rhea County Courthouse was the site of the well known 'Scopes' or 'Monkey' trial, wherein high school teacher John Scopes was tried for violating a Tennessee statute making it a misdemeanor to teach 'evolution theory' in the State's public schools. The trial pitted William Jennings Bryan, the 'Great Commoner,' representing the State, against Clarence Darrow for the defense. The legacy of that trial in some respects gives rise to this lawsuit," Edgar wrote.
The Foundation's lawsuit on behalf of John Doe and Mary Roe pitted the rights of the parents--under a protective court order in the hostile Dayton-area community--  The scientific community in turn, has never been hostile to religion, preferring to ignore it as irrelevant. against an obdurate school system, which refused to honor more than five decades of Supreme Court precedent against religious instruction in the public schools.

The school board, which remains in educable, has voted unanimously to appeal the decision. At the Rhea County School Board meeting on Feb. 14, only one community member spoke against appealing the decision. Another speaker called for the "impeachment" of Judge Edgar. (Federal judges are appointed for life.)

The audience of 300 erupted into applause when the school board voted to appeal.

School board member Bruce Majors said "we want to teach our children that the bible is the truth. Our only course is an appeal."

The Herald News, a hostile bi-weekly published in Dayton, quoted a local mother, Rebecca Jones, saying in support of the Bible Education Ministry class: "Whoever took it out should be strung up."

The bible instruction, carried out for 51 years in grades kindergarten through five in three Rhea County elementary schools, had been taught during regular school hours for 30 minutes each week without parental consent. The bible program, operated by students from Bryan College (a bible-based college founded after the Scopes trial) to help public school students become "exposed to the Bible," had no public school oversight.

An assistant professor who is Director of Practical Christian Involvement supervised the program, which Judge Edgar characterized as what might be found in "a Sunday School class in many of the Christian churches in Rhea County."

"The lesson plans retained by Bryan College," Edgar wrote, "reveal that the children are being taught that the Bible conveys literal truth about God and Jesus Christ reflective of the Bryan College 'Statement of Belief,' that the bible is literally true. Students are asked to memorize bible verses, act out skits of biblical stories, and sing [religious] songs. . ."

At oral argument, the judge's decision noted, counsel for defendants even admitted the bible is being presented "as the truth."

Aside from the content, Edgar said, "the wholesale delegation of the administration of that program to Bryan College, a decidedly religious institution, by itself results in an impermissible entanglement of government and religion."

". . . the government, through its public school system, may not teach, or allow the teaching of a distinct religious viewpoint," wrote Edgar, saying the BEM program has "both the purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools."

"The Rhea County courses are being taught to the youngest and most impressionable school children by college students who have no discernible educational training and no supervision by the school system."

"This is not a close case," Edgar observed, pointing out that since 1948, when McCollum v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, religious instruction in public schools has been barred. The Rhea County practices do not differ substantially from McCollum, "except that, if anything, they make out an even stronger case for violation of the Establishment Clause," Edgar concluded.

Vashti McCollum, the Champaign, Illinois mother who brought the McCollum challenge, is now nearly ninety, and is an honorary officer of the Foundation. The Foundation recently reprinted a new edition of her acclaimed account of her dramatic lawsuit, One Woman's Fight.

"The Bible Education Ministry program was a flagrant and atavistic First Amendment violation. It's tremendously satisfying to see the wall of separation between church and state be reinforced by such a strong decision," said Dan Barker, public relations director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The attorneys representing the Foundation and its plaintiffs are Joseph H. Johnston, Nashville, and Steve Doughty and Alvin Harris, Nashville.

The case, John Doe, Mary Roe, and Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Sue Porter, Supt. of the Rhea County School System, and Rhea County Board of Education, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Case No. 1:01-cv-115, is excerpted on pages 8 and 9. The entire decision can be found online at:

One Radical Opinion | Scopes II: Creationists Strike Back

Last week the State Board of Education in Kansas held hearings to determine the state's standards regarding science education. At the center of the debate were proponents of a theory called "Intelligent Design" who sought to change the state's standards to allow the teaching of their theory alongside the scientific theory of Evolution as possible explanations for the origins of life on Earth.

Yes, you read correctly -- Kansas, last week, not Tennessee, circa 1925.

But the intent of the hearings were exactly the same as the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, where Creationists, headed by William Jennings Bryan, fought to discredit and banish the theory of Evolution, defended by Clarence Darrow.

The modern version, however, does have a few special twists. The fundamentalist proponents of "Intelligent Design" have learned not to call their Biblical version of creation "Creationism"; they know that any attempt to inject obvious Christian religion into the classroom will be quickly rebuffed (for now). They are trying to re-brand their doctrine by asserting that it, too, is scientific. They propose that since science cannot answer all of the questions of life, there must be a supernatural force at work. Life is too complex, they argue, to have arisen solely from natural means. No mention of God or the Bible, but some sort of "higher power" must have been involved in creating Life.

Of course, science isn't about answering philosophical questions, it is about understanding natural mechanisms, the cause and effect questions. It is about observable actions and measurable quantities. It is about rigorous peer review and replicable experimentation. Moreover, mostly, it is about having no fixed dogma in place, rather presenting theories, testing to see if nature fits those theories, and rejecting or accepting those theories based on the results. To suppose the existence of something supernatural, unobservable, and immeasurable that must be taken on faith without question -- that is the very antithesis of science -- and exactly what the proponents of "Intelligent Design" want.

According to the Kansas City Star, the board members who are pushing the "Intelligent Design" agenda "want to change the way science is defined as a search for 'natural explanations,' because they say that represents an endorsement of naturalism and atheism." This is an attempt to paint science as anti-religion, which is ridiculous. Science is as absolutely neutral on the existence or non-existence of God as is mathematics. Science neither proves nor disproves God, nor attempts to, for that question is out of the scope of science and better suited to philosophy and theology. Albert Einstein, the most notable scientist of the 20th Century, was a very devoutly religious man, as are countless other modern scientists. Actually, a tiny minority as shown by the inquest quoted on page 1, paragraph 4.

Evolution is one of the most tested and universally agreed upon theories of modern science. Religious people who accept evolution have no problem reconciling their belief with the scientific facts. My religious friends believe that God created the universe and humankind, and did so with a toolbox of physical laws, the Big Bang, and natural selection. They accept the notion that explaining to ancient Hebrew scribes the nuclear fission of stars, planetary plate tectonics, mutations of DNA, and the mathematics of random selection over billions of years might have been a little confusing, and that "God said 'let there be light'" might have been a simpler explanation for primitive people. When fundamentalists assert that God created the universe in six days, my friends respond, "how long is a day to God?"

Some who support "Intelligent Design" will point out that Evolution is "only a theory", as if to say it is "a guess". Why should a guess of natural origins be treated better than a guess of supernatural origins?

Well, theories are not guesses. They are scientific ways of explaining how something works. Then that theory is tested to see if the facts support it. Creationism, by definition, is a guess that cannot be tested, and is therefore not a theory. Evolution, on the other hand, is a guess that has been tested by the fields of chemistry, biology, geology, mathematics, zoology, paleontology, and many more -ology's, and found to be a logical way of understanding the development of life on this planet. Besides, there are plenty of scientific theories that even the most rabid fundamentalists hold as facts. The theory of gravitation, for example, is "only a theory"; scientists cannot yet fully explain how it works at a sub-atomic level. Nevertheless, no one would refute that gravitation exists or the "laws" scientists since Newton have derived about gravitation are reliable. Most people aren’t aware Einstein’s theory of general relativity disproved Newton’s assertions…

There have been disagreements and refinements about some of the particulars of Evolution. Creationists pounce of these as if they were weaknesses in the theory, rather than evidence of its strength. As more fossil records have been uncovered and new techniques of dating and measurement have been perfected, the theory of Evolution has matured, but scientists are still in universal agreement as to its validity.

However, Creationist "theory", when challenged by measurable facts and observable science, is under no such pressure to modify its tenets. It can always just say, "God did it" and be done with any messy introspection. Thus, a logical, scientific question like, "where did the estimated heat and pressure necessary to create coal come from, if not from billions of years of geologic activity?" can be dismissed by the Creationists who want to believe the account of Genesis and assert that Earth is only a few thousand years old -- God did it. "Where did the estimated 4.5 billion cubic kilometers of water necessary to cover the Earth in Noah's Flood come from, and where did it go?" -- God did it. "Why is it that we find dinosaur bones deep in the earth and we find more modern looking bones in shallower digs, and there seems to be a progression of similarities and changes among the species, and dating techniques prove the dinosaur bones to be millions of years older than the mammal bones?" -- God did it. Creationist theory, "Intelligent Design", if you will, is no more scientific than ancient Greeks surmising that the rising and the setting of the sun was due to Apollo driving a sun-chariot across the sky. The Greeks couldn't exactly stop the sun, interview Apollo, and check out his chariot.

Worse still are the sad attempts to cast doubt on Evolution by trying to poke holes in the theory with junk-science rhetoric. Sadly, a mostly-scientifically illiterate public is quick to latch on to these falsehoods, and the Creationists take advantage to say, "See, if Evolution isn't true, then Creationism must be!" Silly statements dominate that mindset, like, "well, if man came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" (Because man and monkey and all primates descended from a common ancestor; no one ever said man was "new and improved monkey") and attempts to enlighten the believer with realistic science are met with protests of "I didn't come from no monkey!" Unfortunately, these people also get to vote in school board elections.

This was part of the battle the "Intelligent Design" proponents in Kansas were hoping for, and the scientific community did not take the bait. Not one scientist deigned to take part in the Kansas hearings, for to do so would be to give "Intelligent Design" credence as a scientific theory worth debating. It would be like asking Carl Sagan (if he were alive) to debate Debbie Frank (Princess Di's former astrologer), on the validity of astrology or asking Albert Einstein (if he were alive) to debate "psychic" Uri Gellar on the validity of telekinesis.

What this is really about is a small vocal subset of religious people who hold to a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. If God said the universe took six days, then it was six days. If God said He covered the Earth in floodwaters, then it was so. If God said he made Adam & Eve, fully formed and fully human, then that's the way it happened. There is no room for interpretation, no possibility of metaphor, and any science that contradicts those "facts" must be rebuked. Radioactive dating of Paleolithic tools must be lies. Distribution of sedimentary rock and fossil records conflicting with accounts of Noah's flood must be falsehoods. Findings of Cro-Magnon, Homo-Erectus, Australopithecine, and Neanderthal fossils must be misunderstood. God said it, they believe it, that settles it!

Unfortunately, this is but a small battle in an increasing war on Enlightenment principles from Fundamentalist forces. If the "Intelligent Design" proponents win this battle, it is not just the schoolchildren of Kansas that suffer, but the very bedrock of modern Western civilization begins to crumble. Science and reason are what have made this country great and prosperous, and a retreat towards Christian Fundamentalism will soon place us on a fast track to irrelevance in a global, technological economy. Already our students stagger far behind their worldwide counterparts in math and science education. A decision for "Intelligent Design" will only design even less-intelligent kids.

Today an interesting editorial was published: Michelle M. Simmons, “Why opposing evolution resonates with some,” The Patriot-News, March 30, 2005. It is not the full history of antievolution — Herbert Spencer, the Seventh Day Adventists, and World War I are also important — but worth reading if you haven’t thought about the history before (see Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, for much more).

The backlash against the theory of evolution (and the teaching of it) resonated not only with religious fundamentalists, but also with political and economic populists. Faced with the near impossibility of changing economic and political power structures, many turned their attention to the alleged evils of a secular society.

The political career of William Jennings Bryan is a case in point. Bryan’s early days cemented him as a fiery progressive and anti-imperialist in Congress, his famous “Cross of Gold” speech ensured his populist credentials in 1894, and he served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. By the 1920s, however, he was obsessed with Prohibition and creationism. His performance at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1924 may have won his case, but it left him exhausted and humiliated. He died five days later.

Throughout the world, religious fundamentalism tends to breed among the economically and politically dispossessed, and the United States is no exception. And as with the many eruptions of book bannings in libraries and schools, creationism, or “Intelligent Design” as its proponents prefer to call it today, has found a home among the middle and working classes precisely because of the tensions created by our economic dependence on a 21st-century version of social Darwinism. MOST OF US have little-to-no control over globalization, the outsourcing of jobs, the skyrocketing of health-care costs, and on and on. So instead we scapegoat “atheists” and “secular humanists” (along with all those “others”— feminists, gays and lesbians, and immigrants); only this time around, the movement is being funded by arch-conservative think tanks and organizations with exceptionally deep pockets.

As we follow in the months ahead what is being called the Scopes II trial out of the Dover Area School District, it will be worth our while to consider why we’re at it again, what other parallels we might draw between the Gilded Age and today, and whose interests are really being served here.
(Michelle M. Simmons, "Why opposing evolution resonates with some," The Patriot-News, March 30, 2005.)

The comparison between antievolutionists then and antievolutionists now would be worth exploring in much more detail.  How did a populist antievolutionism tradition motivated by discontent with economic conservatism evolve into a populist antievolutionism tradition in league with economic conservatism?  How did we get from William Jennings Bryan to Senator Rick Santorum?


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The God Blog
An examination of contemporary views toward God from church & science

This blog began with my interest in following the so called 'Scopes II' trials when I began collecting media reports, commentary, cartoons, defences & attacks published, here & there, by some of our leading scientists & religious leaders but it eventually came to hold much more than just the trials.

I collected everything I thought interesting that science & Church had to say about morality, philosophy, etymology, politics plus poetry & even parody, like the clever & funny web-site called the Spaghetti Monster. Also a bit of history, historical quotes on the subject & transcriptions of interviews & debates with Richard Dawkins & the like.

Unfortunately the trials weren’t as amusing as they might have been if the Intelligent Design camp had better arguments & more credible support but in the end I think I have compiled a fascinating & entertaining document.

It covers both sides thoroughly &, I hope, with a minimum of repetition (& includes links to further reference).

I have added my two cents here & there in red. It is chronological with dates noted. The 11 pages contain more than 100,000 words & vary between 13 & 130 KBs each