Nothing New Under the Sun

Barbara Forrest

 

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”

—Ecclesiastes 1:9—10, New International Version

Resistance to the teaching of evolution is an integral part of the history of American anti-intellectualism, which stems in great part from religious fundamentalism. Hence, framing this discussion of creationism within a biblical context is fitting given the singular importance of biblical interpretation in creating the problem. At the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, these verses from Ecclesiastes perfectly capture the perennial Am­er­ican problem of creationism, which began in the early twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first. In 2009, evolution remains the most contentious issue in public-school science education, as Louisiana has—once again—shown the world.

In Louisiana, as written in Ecclesiastes, what has been done before has indeed been done again. The Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), initially named the Louis­iana Academic Freedom Act, was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal in June 2008. It is a sad replay of Louis­iana’s 1981 passage of its Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act, which mandated the teaching of creationism whenever evolution was taught in public schools. That law was immediately litigated, and in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in Edwards v. Aguillard, forcing creationists to change their tactics if they hoped to keep their effort alive. Among these changes was the sanitizing of the terminology in which creationist policy proposals and legislation are now written. The LSEA reflects this tactic, permitting the use of creationist supplementary materials in public-school science classes under the cloak of terminology such as “critical analysis” and “objective discussion.” This is the new strategy of the intelligent design (ID) creationist movement, which was integrally involved in both crafting and promoting the Louisiana bill.

From Edwards to the Dover Trial

In 1987, pro-science advocates hoped that Edwards would put an end to creationist legislation. However, the ink was barely dry on the Court’s ruling when creationists, as they always do after their (so far consistent) defeats in federal court, began constructing an alternate route into science classrooms under the guise of “intelligent design.” From the early twentieth century until Edwards, the center of resistance to evolution was Protestant fundamentalist, young-earth creationism (YEC). Although YEC remains very much alive, the post-Edwards resistance is dominated by the ID movement, most of whose leaders are old-earth creationists who accept Earth’s age as 4.5 billion years but reject the idea that life-forms were shaped by natural processes. Head­quartered at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, ID leaders are mostly Pro­testant evangelicals, with a few Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim followers whom the leaders cite to create the illusion of diversity, attemp­ting to downplay their predominantly evangelical Christian demographics.

As creationism goes, ID is nothing new. Its central thesis—the religious idea that the complexity of biological organisms required the formative intelligence of a supernatural designer—is rooted in the thirteenth-century natural theology of Thomas Aquinas. This argument was revived by the British cleric William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. ID’s creationist ancestry is also clearly traceable to its immediate predecessor, the creation science of the 1960s and 70s. After the Edwards decision, the more sophisticated creationists judged it legally expedient to jettison the biblical literalism that required acceptance of Earth’s age as six thousand to ten thousand years and of the “flood geology” based on the story of Noah. However, little else has changed.

From a strategic standpoint, ID creationists’ current tactics are merely the retooled creationist strategies that were used decades ago. After a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Epperson v. Arkansas, declared unconstitutional a 1928 Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, creationists in the 1980s tried the “balanced treatment” approach that Edwards struck down in 1987. The only ploy left after Edwards was to disguise creationism so that federal judges either would not recognize it or, if they did, would find their hands legally tied by sanitized language that creationists hoped would—in a narrow, technical sense—pass constitutional muster. Just as earlier creationists had to shift their tactical approach and terminology following federal court defeats, the ID movement now must take a similar tack following their own defeat in the first legal case involving ID, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Dis­trict (2005), “the Dover trial.”

In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board required that a statement be read by biology teachers instructing students that ID is an alternative to evolutionary theory, which, according to the statement, “is not a fact.” The Discovery Institute tried to dissuade the school board from adopting this statement because it referred explicitly to “intelligent design” and was sure to be litigated, since ID had been exposed as creationism. ID would clearly be the central focus of the plaintiffs’ case, meaning that the Discovery Institute’s entire agenda was jeopardized. Nonetheless, the board plowed ahead and suffered a resounding defeat, just as Discovery Institute strategists feared. Like adherents of “creation science” after Edwards, ID creationists now needed another legal subterfuge. They had learned from the earlier defeats that the terminology of any legislation or policy proposal must be strategically altered—a recognition that brings us again to Louisiana.

From the Dover Trial to the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA)

Although Kitzmiller briefly sucked the wind from the ID movement’s sails, Discovery Institute operatives quickly regrouped. After publishing a new ID textbook, deceptively titled Explore Evolution, they began promoting their “Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution.” In spring 2008, variations of their model “academic freedom” bill were introduced in Flor­ida, Michigan, Alabama, South Carolina, Missouri, and Louis­iana. To advance the legislation, they needed a “new” strategy, but the only alternative was to create a terminological façade. So they reverted to shopworn creationist code language in an attempt to camouflage the bills.

Except for the Discovery Institute’s most popular sound-bite, “teach the controversy,” this code language can be found in young-earth creationist literature dating back decades. “Critical thinking,” “critical analysis” of evolution, teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution/neo-Darwinism, “arguments for and against” evolution/neo-Darwinism, “academic freedom,” and other code terms are the lingo in which ID creationists must now speak. The LSEA, which is full of such language, requires the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to &
ldquo;allow and assist” school boards “to create and foster an environment” in public schools that “promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” In addition to state-approved textbooks, teachers “may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” Even objective is a code term, denoting the teacher’s presentation of “both sides” of the controversy, which means presenting creationist criticisms of evolution alongside the evidence supporting it. ID proponents in Ohio used this phrase frequently in their effort to get ID inserted into Ohio science standards. In 2002, after a good deal of wrangling with the pro-science opposition, ID supporters on the Ohio Board of Education inserted into the standards a benchmark (learning objective), worded in code language, requiring students to “Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” Teachers were to implement the benchmark using a lesson plan written by an Ohio high-school science teacher who was also an ID supporter. After an effort that lasted for almost five years, ID proponents failed in February 2006 when the Ohio Board of Education, enlightened by the Kitzmiller ruling, deleted both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

How They Pulled It Off in Louisiana

To achieve its legislative victory in Louisiana, the Discovery Institute followed its usual playbook: its operatives worked behind the scenes with locals who got the initiative up and running, with Discovery Institute representatives surfacing in person after the plan was well under way. Discovery Institute fellow and legal advisor David K. DeWolf, a Gonzaga University law professor, acknowledged his role in crafting the legislation. Staffer Casey Luskin showed up at the House Education Com­mittee hearing in Baton Rouge on May 21, 2008, escorting creationist Caroline Crocker, a spokesperson for the ID cause who testified in favor of the bill. The groundwork had been laid by the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), an affiliate of Focus on the Family. Founded in 1999, the LFF courts the legislature aggressively, lobbying for its socially conservative agenda. It rewards supportive legislators and intimidates nonsupportive ones through the Web site publication of annual “Legislative Scorecards” and its ability to generate voluminous contacts to legislators from LFF supporters. Through its political arm, Louisiana Family Forum Action, it conducts overtly political activity. Operatives travel the state constantly, cultivating the LFF’s network of supporting pastors and public officials.

The LFF’s promotion of ID had been gearing up for several years, but the most important in the alignment of stars they needed came in 2007 with Bobby Jindal’s election as governor. Jindal, a close LFF ally, was the essential figure in the LFF’s success in passing the LSEA. Without a governor who would sign the bill, all the legislative work would have been futile. Jindal made it clear during his two gubernatorial campaigns that he favored teaching creationism, so there was little doubt of his support. He ignored appeals for a veto from Louisiana teachers and scientists, prestigious organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and even Dr. Arthur Landy—his genetics professor at Brown Uni­versity, where Jindal earned an undergraduate biology degree. When he signed the bill, the Discovery Institute trumpeted its success on its Evolution News & Views Web site: “Victory in Louisiana: Governor Jindal Signs Historic Science Education Act on Evolution and Education.”

Your State May Be Next!

Louisiana stands as a warning to other states, especially the five where substantial legislative and political groundwork has already been done. With respect to ID’s future prospects, past experience is instructive, showing that creationists’ most consistent trait is their persistence. The words of Ecclesiastes still ring true: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” This is one biblical lesson that both secularists and the progressive religious community are well advised to heed.

Further Reading

  • Bergman, Jerry. “Does Academic Freedom Apply to Both Secular Humanist[s] and Christians?” Institute for Creation Research, 1980. Accessed November 1, 2008, http://www.icr.org/article/162/.
  • Crowther, Robert. “Victory in Louisiana: Governor Jindal Signs Historic Science Education Act on Evolution and Education.” Evolution News & Views, June 27, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2008, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/06/victory_in_louisiana_governor.html.
  • Discovery Institute. “David DeWolf on the Louisiana Academic Free­dom Bill.” Intelligent Design the Future, Discovery Institute podcast, June 13, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2008, http://www.idthefuture.com/2008/06/david_dewolf_on_the_louisiana.html.
  • Discovery Institute. “Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution.” Accessed October 29, 2008, http://www.academicfreedompetition.com/freedom.php.
  • Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). Accessed November 1, 2008, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1986/1986_85_1513/.
  • Forrest, Barbara. “Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals.” Position paper. Center for Inquiry, July 2007. Accessed October 29, 2008, http://www.centerforinquiry.net/advocacy/understanding_the_id_creationist_movement/.
  • Forrest, Barbara. “Analysis of SB 733: LA Science Education Act.” LA Coalition for Science, May 22, 2008. Accessed October 29, 2008, http://lasciencecoalition.org/2008/05/22/sb_733_analysis/.
  • Forrest, Barbara and Gross, Paul R. Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Hoftstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.
  • Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). Accessed November 1, 2008, http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf.
  • Louisiana Science Education Act (Act 473), 2008 Regular Session. Accessed October 29, 2008, http://www.legis.state.la.us/billdata/streamdocument.asp?did=503483.
  • McCalla, Arthur. The Creationist Debate: The Encounter Between the Bible and the Historical Mind. New York: T & T Clark Inter­national, 2006.
  • Nossiter, Adam. “In Louisiana, Inklings of a New (True) Champion of the Right.” New York Times, June 2, 2008.
  • Scott, Eugenie C. Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Timmer, John. “Louisiana Passes First Antievolution ‘Academic Freedom’ Law.” Ars Technica, June 27, 2008.
  • Timmer, John. “A Biologist Reviews an Evolution Textbook from the ID Camp.” Ars Technica, September 24, 2008. Accessed October 29, 2008, at http://arstechnica.com/reviews/other/discovery-textbook-review.ars.

Barbara Forrest

Barbara Forrest is professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and coauthor of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (with Paul R. Gross, Oxford University Press, 2004, 2007). She was a key expert witness in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District and has served on the boards of the National Center for Science Education, American United for the Separation of Church and State, and the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association.


  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” —Ecclesiastes 1:9—10, New International Version Resistance to the …

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