cover_story (2006-11)

Brad Meccia

Jacque Merriman

Caitlin Reeves

Phillip Ray

Terry Simpson, head of education at Maryville College.

Perhaps, as Kurt Vonnegut suggests in his evolution-themed satire Galapagos , these “big brains” we humans have are a curse rather than a blessing. After all, you don’t see turtles or horses or inchworms starting world wars, terrorizing one another, committing racist acts, or even having politics or national boundaries. You don’t hear of raccoons needing Zoloft or Cialis. And you certainly won’t overhear a congregation of cheetahs and lions zealously arguing over how and why they came to be.

But we are humans, and we must bear the burden of our large brain and all its complex interworkings. One question that’s plagued humans since the dawn of humanity is how we got here. Did we evolve from a wriggling mass of primordial pond scum? Or did a god create us in his image out of earth and mud? Or was it some combination of the two?

In the past year, the evolution debate has once again emerged in the headlines, with school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio attempting to pass policies allowing teachers to teach evolution “more critically.” For the most part, though, these proposals that have made it into the court system have been handily shot down.

Considering we’re not far from the scene of the infamous “Monkey Trial” of 1925 and we’re enveloped in a Bible Belt mentality, one might expect tensions in Knoxville and surrounding cities to be flaring wildly over this resurgent debate. Most of the controversy has centered around the Blount County Board of Education, which first made waves when it voted in 2003 not to adopt new biology text books that did not contain alternate theories to evolution. Then, in 2005, it unanimously passed a policy that would allow teachers to present a “variety” of theories on the subject.

Aside from Blount County though, it seems that Knoxville-area policies toward teaching evolution haven’t been pulled into the undertow of the national fray. There’s certainly the possibility that other “theories” such as intelligent design and creationism have surreptitiously leaked into the curricula of area schools, or, as some students say, such subjects have become cafeteria conversation. In that sense, it’s nearly impossible to keep religion out of schools. And perhaps banning the phrase intelligent design is going too far; denying the idea is out there might not be the best way to address it. The key, instead, seems to be in clearly determining the lines between science and religion, which is easier said than done.

This distinction was noted in 1925, in the article “Tennessee’s Dilemma” by Knoxville native Joseph Wood Krutch published in The Nation . Krutch conveyed doubts as to the actual importance of the verdict of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., as the subject of debate was not the law itself, but the division between creationists and the severely outnumbered evolutionists. “The real problem raised is not legal but sociological. No verdict of the jury and no injunction of the Supreme Court can change the fact that the trial is a symptom of the vast gulf which lies between two halves of our population, and that the real question to be settled is the question of how this gulf may be bridged.”

Three-quarters of a century later, the staggering parallels to that statement in today’s dilemma almost beg the question: Have we evolved at all? The debate is still, at its root, less about what to teach in schools than it is about people and the vast rifts between their varying sets of beliefs. What compromise is there that might bridge the gulf, as Krutch optimistically suggested? Such a compromise, in and of itself, spurs a seemingly endless realm of debate.

The tension is likely rooted in the media’s coverage of the intelligent design controversy; National Public Radio did a segment when the Blount County Board first passed the policy allowing for a “variety of scientific theories about origins.” It goes on to conclude, “We hereby encourage our biology teachers to teach the controversy with respect to biological origins. The theory of intelligent design may be taught as part of the current controversy.  We also encourage the inclusion of intelligent origins in the State approved textbooks.”

Several members of the board did not return Metro Pulse calls. Police officer/board member Chris Cantrell, who voted to pass the proposal along with the rest of the board, called back only to say, “Ever since the Ohio ruling came down, we’ve been advised by our attorney not to discuss it.” The board is currently embroiled in a number of lawsuits regarding the Confederate battle flag controversy, and has been advised by attorney Rob Goddard not to speak with media regarding this and other potentially sticky situations.

Don McNelly, the board member who authored the resolution, was outspoken in the NPR piece, saying, “The area of science dealing with Darwin’s theory is very ingrained, and it is quite sacrosanct to many of them within the field. More and more evidence is making it clear that there are areas within Darwin’s theory that are being challenged. Some errors were made and those need to be discussed.”

Tonight, however, McNelly refuses to answer any questions. Alvin Hord, the county schools director, is relatively tight-lipped as well, carefully stating, “The action was to give teachers an opportunity. They didn’t mandate that [alternate theories] be part of the curriculum. That’s how ours is different [from policies in other states] because it’s not a mandate. It’s encouraging academic freedom.”

Technically, policies in other states weren’t mandates either, as they, too, tiptoed around the issue by using language that was at once cryptic and appealing to Americans’ sense of equality—i.e. allowing for other theories, not just one. Hord adds, “You see, teachers were having trouble when kids would say ‘What else?’ when that discussion [of evolution] happens.” McNelly, standing nearby, is unable to resist interjecting, “A teacher shouldn’t have to feel guilty.”

Terry Simpson, head of education at Maryville College, isn’t surprised by the Blount County Board’s policy. “With my knowledge of growing up in this area and how religious and conservative it is, I’m quite sure the majority of folks out here would be for the teaching of intelligent design, if you were to put it to a vote,” he says.

Despite what he perceives as a community consensus, Simpson opposes the inclusion of intelligent design and creationism in school curricula. “The courts have consistently said [intelligent design] is not a legitimate science, that it’s a religious perspective, and that’s hard argue against,” he says. “That’s not to say it’s not a valid philosophical position, so it might be appropriate to mention in other classes like sociology or history. Looking at the impact of religion on culture, you’d be remiss to ignore that even at the high school level.”

Mary Boldon, the Science Department chair at Maryville High, takes a pragmatic approach, saying that evolution is the best explanation of diversity on earth, and it is covered on the state aptitude tests. “As far as intelligent design goes, that could go into a philosophy course,” she says, “but I don’t think it would be appropriate to teach it in biology because it implies some religion.”

Though she encourages teachers to present evolution in an un-threatening manner, she emphasizes the importance of the theory itself. “Evolution runs throughout biology. We spend a week on Darwinian theory itself but the theories continue throughout all of science whether you’re talking about mutation, bacterial resistance, etc. Evolution is not something that’s isolated in biology.”

It seems the younger the kids, the more shocked they are by talk of evolution. George Brown, who teaches fifth grade history at Bonny Kate Elementary, says his class had an ardent reaction when he brought up the Scopes trial in a historical context. “They perked up their ears and said, ‘You mean you believe man came from monkeys?’” he says. “It looked like they’d been prepared for it. I was really taken aback.”

Brown was even more appalled, though, when the kids let on that their 4th-grade teacher had instructed them to mark out segments of their textbooks that referred to the Earth as being over 6,000 years old—conflicting with a strict interpretation of the Bible’s creation story. Brown recalls that one of the kids piped up, “She said we didn’t have to believe any of that stuff about evolution.” Brown asked around and learned that the teacher had been warned by school administration not to repeat the indiscretion after a parent filed a complaint.

As far as the school system’s procedure on the teaching of evolution, Brown acknowledges the furtive tendencies. “I don’t think the administration has any hard line on it,” he says. “I think they’re just hoping it doesn’t rear its ugly head. In this Bible Belt area, it could be ugly.”

One aspect of all this that’s hardly ever mentioned is that, despite what’s taught in schools, kids often have staunchly developed belief systems by the time they’re in high school, and many of them aren’t going to be swayed by what’s in the curriculum. Caitlin Reeves, a 17-year-old student who recently transferred from Farragut to Christian Academy of Knoxville has such a set of beliefs. “I believe God created everything. Although it’s hard to comprehend, it’s easier for me to have faith in something instead of evolution, where everything has to have reason and proof,” she says. Reeves says that her public school teachers always approached the subject appropriately, “they didn’t try and push those beliefs on anyone.” Now that she’s at a religious school though, she says, “It’s very refreshing to talk about God and how he created everything. It’s nice to be in the same place where everyone has the same beliefs as you do.”

Brad Meccia, a freshman at UT in engineering who attended Farragut High, has subscribed to intelligent design ever since he was exposed to it through classmates and church in his sophomore year. “I’d like to see evolution taught as being only a theory, and to have evidence against it shown as well,” he says. “I know there were a lot of my friends at Farragut that believed in creationism, but I know they can’t teach that in particular because it’s the Christian account, so if you were to teach that you would have to teach creation stories from all different religions. Intelligent design is just a general idea that covers all of those.”

On the other end of the spectrum, 16-year-old Farragut student Jacque Merriman is confident in the theory of evolution. “I completely stand by it,” she says. “It seems to be the most logical explanation, and it isn’t based in religious beliefs that aren’t held by everyone.” As to whether there’s room for religious dogma in school, she replies, “I don’t think there is, personally. In biology, evolution is taught because it was a scientific discovery that has been greatly influential, and although other opinions may be important to some people, they are not based in scientific knowledge, and therefore shouldn’t be included in the classroom.”

Phillip Ray, a former student of William Blount High School who is now a freshman at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn., sees diversity of ideas as something that schools should embrace. Though he personally believes in evolution, he says, “I think all hypotheses should be presented. When you’re talking about this, many ideas are going to be religious. Even if you’re atheist, that’s kind of a religion in itself.” As for his experience in Blount County schools, he says, “[Evolution] was a heated topic, but we didn’t actually spend very much time on it. [Our teacher] covered it for one day to avoid controversy. There were some students who disagreed and others that didn’t show up that day.”

Though it’s not clear what “both” refers to—there are countless creation stories among the world’s religions—this still functions as a pretty persuasive argument. “I think that plays into the American desire for equal time and balanced treatment,” says Dr. Andrew Kramer, head of UT’s anthropology department who specializes in paleontology. “While I think those are wonderful values and I’m completely for them, the one big difference here is that science is not a democracy. That’s one thing people don’t understand; Science is not scientists saying, ‘We like this idea; we don’t like that idea.’ Science progresses by ideas that are proven wrong, and once proven wrong they are no longer taught as science.”

One controversial point is whether intelligent design, this idea that the world’s diversity was created by some sort of supernatural designer, is legitimate science. Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor whose ideas in his seminal work Darwin on Trial , published in 1991, gave scathing critique to the widely accepted Darwinian theory, helped propel intelligent design to become a more mainstream idea. On a long-distance call from the West Coast, Johnson says the main flaw in evolutionary theory is its reliance on “a purposeless unintelligent mechanism that doesn’t have any creative power.” Though he’s never actually written on intelligent design itself, Johnson would like to see that “evolutionary theory be taught objectively and its flaws be pointed out. It’s just a question of the dominant theory being taught with the acknowledgement of what hasn’t been proven.”

Such proposed flaws or holes in the theory of evolution are often utilized by creationists and the intelligent design set as a primary argument. By nature, though, science will always have questions, and theories will never be “proven.” Thus, debate within the scientific community is necessary. “[That debate] is often exploited by creationists,” says Kramer. “It’s a pivotal tactic that’s used by creationists and intelligent design proponents to point out some debate within science and say, ‘Look, if they can’t even agree on this, then listen to us.”

In the bowels of Neyland Stadium where the anthropology department resides, Kramer is unflustered in reflecting on the subject and the arguments against evolution. He grew up in Los Angeles in a Jewish community, went to school at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, and then took a position at UT 17 years ago. Though he classifies himself as agnostic, Kramer and his family attend synagogue. “Knoxville’s the most religious place I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “When I was growing up, being a Jew wasn’t all that different, but here it is, so to prevent my kids from feeling isolated, it was important for us to get them involved in the Jewish community.”

Though he stresses that science and religion are disparate entities, Kramer delicately entertains questions regarding his faith. “When I perceive my religious connection, it’s a historic, ethnic and cultural one. The religious aspect, of course, is what binds a religious people together, but I’m not a believer. I don’t believe in God.”

In teaching a course called Evolution and Society, Kramer treads the rocky terrain of evolution’s interactions with cultural phenomena, namely religion. “I think belief has to be separate from science, because the way science is done, it relies on evidence that has to have a natural basis,” he says. “Now belief is something that is a perfectly legitimate human emotion that scientists and non-scientists may have…so religious explanations that invoke a creator are perfectly legitimate explanations, but they are not science.”

Therein lies what Kramer and many scientists see as the fatal flaw of intelligent design: that, despite its anonymity, a supernatural creator is implied, and therefore the idea is beyond the realm of science. “Ultimately, like creationism, intelligent design fails in that realm because they are not testable and all scientific theories must be potentially falsifiable, or wrong, and there’s no way you can prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural being,” says Kramer. “Of course the intelligent design people are very clever in not invoking God and that’s how they distinguish themselves from former creationist thought, but when push comes to shove, I think they’re invoking a Western god.”

Johnson allows that there’s truth in that suggestion. “The intelligent design movement as well as the writing I’ve done merely point to an intelligence, but it’s fair to say that the intelligence is God—that’s the obvious candidate,” he says. “That’s why these judges jump to the conclusion that teaching it is teaching religion.”

While some opponents of evolution attempt to insert alternate views into society and school curriculums by avoiding invocations of a particular god, others simply think that since Christians make up the vast majority of the American population, those values shouldn’t be banned from schools, even public ones. Dr. Bob Bevington, pastor at Knoxville’s Baptist Tabernacle Church, has been outspoken on the issue of creationism in the past. “I’m to the right of intelligent design, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “There’s been this push to have only one theory taught in schools, and that’s unfair. I think the majority of people in the U.S. believe in God.”

An elderly gentleman, Bevington’s recovering from hip surgery at home, but there’s an ornery echo in his voice over the phone line despite his ailment. “I believe that in the beginning God created all of this and there is no transmutation between species…Darwinism has never been proven, that’s why they still call it a theory. They have no evidence—there’s no instance where a cat has turned into a dog.”

Even if such arguments—commonly-fired ammo from opponents of evolution—are non sequiturs, Bevington’s zealous delivery emboldens his statements. “The human body to me absolutely debunks their theory [of evolution],” says Bevington. “It has a creator!”

That idea that the world and the human form itself is so exceedingly complex that there must be a creator is a key argument of intelligent design, and perhaps the most persuasive. In fact, Kramer points out that the idea of a designer is an extremely old one. “All the terrific adaptations of nature do cry out for a designer, but Darwin, with his ideas of natural selection, showed that we don’t need to invoke a designer to explain these wondrous adaptations of nature—that they could happen naturally through this mechanism. So that idea of a designer was discarded,” he says.

Despite the fact that such comments are loaded with religious undertones, Kramer says he’s glad the issues are at the forefront of the public eye. “I like the public debate that’s been generated, and I think most of it has been pretty well-informed,” he says. It’s important that landmark cases like the one in Dover support evolution, he says, because “Most of the world accepts evolution and it’s interesting to me that here in America it gets the most resistance. That often makes us the laughingstock among other countries in the context of science education.”

In essence, though, the rift between belief and science will probably always be a point of contention in America. Laughingstock or not, we tend to stand strong in our collective ambivalence on the big moral issues. Johnson holds out hope that the sector of the public that disputes evolution will one day overturn the dominant status of the theory. “There’s a lot of individual dissent underneath the individual discussion,” he says. “I think America’s public schools aren’t able to have any earnest teaching of this subject right now, but eventually the level of public dissent will force the scientific community to address it.”

Can public dissent overpower science? Normally, we think of dissent as rising out of an oppressed people, usually supported by those with more of a liberal persuasion. Here, however, it’s mostly right-wing fundamentalists that are trying to challenge the status quo, and we all know that population is not a powerless minority in America. For now, the court system is upholding evolution, but who knows what the future may hold, as religious nuances increasingly make their way into the public realm.

Though the line can sometimes be blurry, religion and science are distinctly different. But Kramer’s message is that people can have room in their lives for both, as long as that line is straightened and brought into focus. He says it’s also necessary for scientists to respect that boundary. “It’s important to recognize the community you live in, and some scientists give themselves a bad rap because they don’t recognize that the majority of people are believers,” he says. “Some scientists elevate their work to a sort of personal religion, because they conclude that there is no evidence for a supernatural entity and so no gods exist. What they’re doing is what I see as taking inappropriate extrapolations of science and applying it to the belief realm.”

That line can also be boiled down to how and why. How is answered by the theory of evolution. But why is another question altogether. It’s natural for humans to search for an ultimate purpose in life. “I think the reason it’s such a need for people to believe in something higher than themselves is that if there isn’t anything higher, then we’re alone on this rock, in the middle of space, so what’s the point?” he says. Then, in a humorous turn, Kramer lightens the mood of the debate, intimating that belief, if arbitrary at times, can make life more interesting. “The universe can be a pretty lonely place—at least we haven’t found anyone out there yet. Of course, there’s believers in that too, but that’s a whole other story.”