IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania school board adopted a new policy for its ninth-grade biology classes. At the beginning of a section on evolution, the students would be read a prepared statement, which said: Darwin's theory is still being tested and that, quote, "the theory is not a fact." The statement also said intelligent design is an explanation for the origin of life that differs from Darwin's theory.
That statement set off a debate in Dover that tore the tiny town apart and resulted in a fair number of its residents - parents, teachers, school board members - battling it out in federal court, many of them actually testifying in a court case.
Now at the end of the testimony, Judge John E. Jones - a U.S. district judge who's a federal judge in Pennsylvania - ruled that the Dover Area School board policy violates both the Constitution of the U.S. and that of Pennsylvania, and that the board had violated the rights of Dover citizens. Judge Jones' ruling came a little over a year ago, but it has hardly put to rest the issue of whether alternatives to the theory of evolution - and we're talking here mainly creationism in the guise of intelligent design - should be taught in public school science class.
This hour, we're going to look back at the trial, how it affected debates around the country, where that debate is today, what's happening in school boards and other places. We're also going to talk with a director of the film, "A Flock of Dodos". He says scientists have only themselves to blame when it comes to convincing Americans about evolution.
Lots to talk about - our number is 1-800-989-8255. Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He's the author of eight nonfiction books. His latest book is "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul." He joins us from KUSC in Los Angeles. Thanks for being with us today.
Mr. EDWARD HUMES (Pulitzer Prize Winner; Author, "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul"): Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: Hi, there. Randy Olson is a former evolutionary biologist turned filmmaker. His latest creation is called "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus". He joins us from the studios at the University of California, San Diego. Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Olson.
Dr. RANDY OLSON (Evolutionary Biologist, Filmmaker): Great to be here. Thanks.
FLATOW: Nick Matzke is public information project director for the National Center for Science Education. He joins us by phone from Oakland, California. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Nick.
Mr. NICK MATZKE (Public Information Project Director, National Center for Science Education): Thanks for having me again.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Ed Humes, before the controversy in the Dover school system got going, how much evolution was taught there, anyhow, in biology classes?
Mr. HUMES: Well that's one of the ironies that came out in the trial that the lessons had already been so watered down that it was likely that half the students or so didn't even remember being taught evolution. There had been so much controversy about the subject that the tendency of the teachers to downplay it a great deal.
FLATOW: Hmm. So, Nick, give us a little bit of the background on what happened in Dover. How did the controversy there get started?
Mr. MATZKE: Well, that's what - we at National Center for Science Education, we track these things. And there's always a fight going about evolutionary somewhere in the country, and it's often at the school board level. Typically, what happens is that if a really ideological school board gets in charge, they will have fights over a number of these sorts of culture war issues like the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance or abortion or sex education.
And so, Dover - it had fights over these sorts of issues. And eventually, they got to evolution. And they started turning the screws on the teachers. Basically, they received some information from the Discovery Institute that reinforced some of their prior ideas about, you know, they were young-earth creationists. And they started telling the teachers, well, we don't want you guys to teach what they call the origin of life - and by that they meant the origin of species. They meant any significant amount of evolution.
And so first, they started calling the teachers into meetings and things, showing them videos from this anti-evolution group called the Discovery Institute. And that didn't work, and so eventually, they passed this policy requiring the teachers to read the statement endorsing intelligent design and referring students to a book called "Of Pandas and People", which was an intelligent design textbook.
And then the teachers protested and said they wouldn't do it. They actually wrote a letter that said in capital letters, intelligence design is not science. We won't teach this. And then the school administrators read this statement at the beginning of every evolution section in the biology classes. And then this is what led to the lawsuit.
FLATOW: Randy Olson, you go through a lot of this in your film, "Flock of Dodos". You actually have a section where the paragraphs are read. You talk to some of the teachers there. What made you decide to do this film and call it "Flock of Dodos"?
Dr. OLSON: My mother said I should do it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Always blame mom, huh?
Dr. OLSON: Absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MATZKE: She's a major character.
Dr. OLSON: Actually we got such a bad echo here. I can't hear what I'm saying.
FLATOW: All right. Well, turn off your headphones and just talk to me. Tell us as to why you decided to do the film.
Dr. OLSON: You know, I've been working on filmmaking for about 15 years or so. And I have a background as a scientist. So I was interested in the subject of science communication. And throughout the last four or five years, I have been working on ocean conservation and actually built up a fair amount of frustration with a lot the kind of progressive, left-wing, liberal side of our society that is involved in environmental movement and their lack of understanding of the power and value of mass communication.
And when I began looking at this issue a little more closely in 2005 - thanks to my mother calling attention to it because she lives in Kansas - I began to see a lot of the same dynamics, which was basically a failure to do effective job of communicating.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you went - actually went out to Kansas and investigated the Kansas school board.
Dr. OLSON: Well, yeah. The main reason I went to Kansas, for starters, was because my mother lives right next door to the biggest lawyer for intelligence design in Kansas, John Calvert. So that was kind of the funny hook that we used as the beginning of the whole project, and one of the major parts in the film was when I finally sit down with him to have a discussion about this whole issue.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Ed Humes, it seems like one of the great heroes of this whole Dover school board trial is the judge - Judge Jones.
Mr. HUMES: Yes, absolutely. He - when he was assigned to the case, I have to say that the supporters of intelligent design were basically rubbing their hands with glee over his selection, because he's a lifelong Republican. He had been recommended by the conservative, former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum - appointee of the current President Bush.
So it seemed to the folks on the intelligent design side of the argument that they had a welcoming audience in Judge Jones. And there was trepidations on the other side. But as it happened, he really opened up the whole trial process to bring in - not only the constitutional questions and what the motivations of the school board had been - but the whole science of evolution.
The experts on both sides were invited to testify and take their best shot at who had the best argument.
FLATOW: And he really paid attention - obviously, he wrote this scathing, scathing - what was it, 160 pages, something like that - opinion.
Mr. HUMES: Yes. And he addressed two important questions. And one of them was what was the school board up to? Did they have a religious motive? Or did they genuinely want to improve science education by doing what they considered to be balancing the theory of evolution with an alternative they found more pleasing - intelligent design. So there was that question.
And then there was the larger question about what is the definition of science? Does it necessarily conflict with people's religious beliefs, or is that a misnomer?
FLATOW: Right. Right.
Mr. HUMES: So there was some pretty amazing philosophical questions and scientific ones being tackled in that courtroom.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Randy Olson, when you went out and talked to these people, it sort of reminded me a little of what Michael Moore might have done if he made a film about evolution and creationism and intelligent design. Did you find that anybody's mind could be changed? Many of these people's minds have been made -was there anything you could tell them, any amount of evolutionary fact that might have changed their minds?
Dr. OLSON: Nobody at the extremes of the issue are likely to change their mind. But I think that, you know, it's much more about all those people in the middle.
And the fascinating thing with our film is the role of my mother, which was - she was never intended to be in this movie. I had to have one little shot of her pointing to her neighbor's house to set up the scene with John Calvert. But as soon as we put the one scene of her dancing on her front porch, doing her little pointing job to him, everybody thought that that was so funny that they wanted to hear her speak. So I did a short interview with her, and the more we put in there, the more everybody watching the film said we want to hear more from her.
And what eventually developed is that she became a third voice in this film. So we have three voices: the evolution, the intelligent design voices, and then this third voice: Muffy Moose, my 83-year-old mother. And it ends up now when we have screenings of the film that invariably, somebody stands up at the end of the film and says, great film, but your mother was the best thing in it.
And that says a lot about where we are with this whole controversy right now.
FLATOW: Why do you say that?
Dr. OLSON: Because she voices, first off, the voice of can't we all just get along, to some extent. But also, one thing we realized after the fact - once we put the film together - is that of the three voices, she's the only one that's really searching. The evolutionists know exactly how it all works. The intelligent designers know exactly how it all works, and Muffy Moose just keeps saying, I got no idea how this all works. I'm looking for some answers. And I think a lot of the general public agrees with that.
FLATOW: Nick, tell us what's happening in Kansas now? What is the shape of the school board?
Mr. MATZKE: Well, in the last election - actually in the Republican primary for the last state board of education election, two of the creationists were replaced by pro-science candidates, and so this shifted the board majority. It's been seesawing every two years or so, but it's back to a 6-4 majority for pro-science candidates. And just a week or two ago, they voted to remove the intelligent - the pro-intelligent design standards that had been passed in 2005, and they had put back in mainstream standards. So everyone was quite encouraged by that.
However, what everyone's saying is, you know, is history going to repeat a third time? Because what just happened in Kansas was really the second. In Randy's movie, there's actually a humorous line. They say, there was Evolution War I, EW I, in Kansas in about the year 2000. And then in 2004 there was EW II, Evolution War II, where the creationists got in charge of the board again. So that's just concluded. And, you know, we may have EW III coming up in a couple of years.
FLATOW: It all depends on what the vote swings next time.
Mr. MATZKE: Yeah, it shows you that the politicians matter. You know, who gets elected really matters. And in Kansas, it's been a clear pattern, which is when the creationists get a majority, they will pass stuff in the science standards. They've done it twice now, so.
FLATOW: Well, what do the kids make of this? This back and forth and back and forth?
Mr. MATZKE: Well, I think in these two cases, the standards would get passed, but then in two years the people would get voted out, and so the standards haven't actually been implemented. So there's this war that goes on ahead of time, and then these things haven't quite gotten down to the school because they haven't been - you know, you have to pass the standards, and then the individual school districts have to write the curricula. And then that actually has to get to the classrooms, and that process takes a couple years. So they haven't been able to establish that yet.
Now you can say, more generally, how does this impact the issue of students and what they're reading in the newspapers and that kind of thing?
FLATOW: Well, hang onto that thought, because we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Ed Humes, Randy Olson and Nick Matske about evolution - where it stands, and not only in Kansas, other parts of the country and hear a few excerpts from the film, "Flock of Dodos".
So stay with us we'll be right back after this short break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the struggle over teaching evolution and creationism in public schools - public school science classes around the country.
Our guests are Ed Humes, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of the new book, "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and Battle for America's Soul", Nick Matzke, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education, Randy Olson, filmmaker and director of "Flock of Dodos".
Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Randy, let me go right to your film. I saw the film, and I think it's a terrific film. If I had to sum up the main premise of your movie, I'd sum it up by saying that the intelligent design people are nice and friendly. They have good talking points, while the scientists are condescending, long-winded and at times annoying. And that's why they're losing the public relations war over teaching evolution. Would that be correct?
Dr. OLSON: Imagine that: scientists that are condescending and annoying? How could that happen?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, actually, I have a clip. I have two clips I want to play from the film that actually illustrates that. And in the first clip, you're talking with Kathy Martin. Tell us who Kathy Martin is.
Dr. OLSON: She's one of the school board members there in the Kansas School board. She is a conservative Christian who lives out in the center of Kansas.
FLATOW: All right. And she gives us her impression of - she's being interviewed by you on this film.
(Soundbite of movie, "Flock of Dodos")
Dr. OLSON: Do you believe George Washington was the first president in the United States?
Ms. KATHY MARTIN (Kansas School board): I think so. Sure.
Dr. OLSON: And what's that belief based on?
Ms. MARTIN: Evidence in the history books. Writings, historical writings.
Dr. OLSON: Different from the evidence of fossils that we see? Where we can see transitional stages and progressions?
Ms. MARTIN: We're not seeing transitional stages. Not enough. There's not enough transitional stages yet. They haven't found them. At least that's why I - the information I've received.
FLATOW: Now that's illustrative of what drives the scientists crazy, right? That kind of knowledge?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. OLSON: Absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Now you juxtapose that soft-spoken, nice woman there with this clip. You have organized - in which you have visited a poker game that was organized with lots of evolutionary biologists - even Stephen J. Gould's poker game. He's no longer alive, but the game still goes on, right?
Dr. OLSON: Absolutely. And it's not so much that I visited. I organized it myself and I was part of the game and I'm one of those condescending arrogant voices in there.
FLATOW: Yeah, and then we're going to…
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: We're going to listen to Tom Givnish of the University of Wisconsin, one of those arrogant scientists.
(Soundbite of movie, "Flock of Dodos")
Professor TOM GIVNISH (University of Wisconsin): One should never mock people's religious beliefs, and I certainly don't believe in doing that. It's not my position to persuade people you shouldn't believe in God or you should believe in God. But when they come into the scientific arena and they start saying things that are manifestly wrong, that are manifestly ignorant, I think people have to stand up and say, you know, you're an idiot.
FLATOW: Not very diplomatic, is it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. OLSON: But certainly powerful.
FLATOW: But certainly powerful. Do they recognize how nondiplomatic they sound, and do they care?
Dr. OLSON: Yeah, to some extent. I think the whole world of science is facing major dilemmas these days. There is a change that is in progress that's been going on for 30 to 40 to 50 years.
Now once upon a time, the world of science was put up on a pedestal and allowed to be very objectivist and detached from society, but things are changing. And there are things underway - for example, Chris Mooney and his wonderful book "The Republican War on Science" itemizes so many of these agendas that are being carried out against the world of science by society.
And the world of science now faces this question of are you going to integrate yourself with society and deal with these things, or are you going to try and still maintain this high road and be detached?
FLATOW: Ed Humes, do you agree?
Mr. HUMES: Well, I think Randy's got a fabulous film, but I've seen a little bit of a different side of this. In Dover, when the school board was considering beginning its program to criticize evolution and to tell students about intelligent design, you had people urging against that because they felt it was a religious idea in a public school being shouted down - who in your family is related to monkeys? And another board member was told by her board president - she testified about this when she opposed this idea - well, you're just going to hell. I mean, you're going to burn.
And this was a friend of hers, someone she had campaigned with.
And you see this vilification going on on the side that is attacking evolution as well. When Judge Jones delivered his opinion in which he said, you know, intelligent design, maybe it's right. It's just not science.
He received death threats within days and had to be placed under 24-hour bodyguards. So this idea that one side is all nice and sweet, I kind of have to take exception to that.
FLATOW: Well, in fact, in your book, you say Judge Jones was especially impressed by the cross-examination of Michael Behe, sort of the guru of the intelligent design movement. Describe that cross-examination.
Mr. HUMES: Well, the - up until the moment that Michael Behe - who's really the one with the greatest scientific credentials among the leaders of the intelligent design movement - until he had testified, it was really pretty much one-sided on behalf of the parents who were suing the school district to stop the intelligent design policy.
And then Professor Behe came in, and he's a personable guy. He's very convincing. On his direct examination, he had folks sitting in the courtroom watching who thought, well, maybe this isn't so one-sided after all.
And then came the cross-examination, and as the judge later told me, it was -as far as he's concerned - it's one for the law books. That if you remember anything from this trial in terms of studying the law, it would be this cross-examination.
Professor Behe was - there's no other way to put it - he was just taken apart on the witness stand. And ideas he had represented to support intelligent design were, in fact, showed to support evolutionary theory. His peer review of his book, "Darwin's Black Box", was shown to have consisted of a 10-minute telephone conversation with a professor of veterinary medicine, and it went on and on. And he did not survive that cross-examination with his credibility intact, at least in the judge's mind and most of the folks that saw it.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Dan in Overland Park, Kansas. Hi, Dan.
DAN (Caller): Hi. I'm a Kansas voter and there's been talk now that it's flip-flopped again that some are proposing that we take this vote away from the people and have the State Board of Education appointed by the governor or the legislature. And my comment is that I think that's a bad idea, because every time we have to re-debate this issue publicly, there's another mountain of evidence to sort of add to this rocky mountain chain of evidence indicating natural selection is correct.
Like in 2000, when we voted, we didn't have Judge Jones' decision, which is a very strong statement. That's the only comment I have.
FLATOW: And any comment from Nick?
Mr. MATZKE: Well, I was just going to think, there has been a suggestion in Kansas that the governor appoint the board, and maybe that would avoid this problem. But honestly, that all depends on who the governor is. Right now, the governor is, I believe, a Democrat who has been strongly supporting science, but bets can change. And other places have had appointed state boards of education, and if the governor wants to appoint people who will take the creationist view, then you have this same problem again. So there isn't going to be any simple solution.
We have a phrase that democracy can get you into these problems, but democracy also gets you out. And so that's really you're only solution. And like Randy said, scientists have got to make the effort. I think that's the most important part. They've got to make the effort to go out and try and communicate their message, and they have to work a little bit at talking to people.
That was - In the Kitzmiller case, we spent kind of a year working up a case to present to a judge who wasn't a scientist, you know, taking the evidence and boiling it down to the bare essentials as was commonly said at the trial. The lawyer asked again and again, he would ask the scientists: Explain this like you would explain it to your mother. You know, don't explain it like you would explain it to another scientist. Explain it somebody who hasn't, you know, had biology, maybe, since high school. And that's really the level you have to pitch these things at. And it worked very well, but it took a lot of people, you know, a huge amount of time.
And so I think that's really the message scientists - they should put some more time into it, and they should be really rewarded for doing that. Because currently, scientists are only rewarded really for technical articles that they publish and a few other things.
FLATOW: But you talk about all the work that went into this and the work and the time and the money that went into the Dover trial. Would that not have a chilling effect on other school boards who look at Dover and say, we haven't got that kind of money to put - you know, to mount a defense if we, you know, if we change our textbooks and teachers don't like it.
Mr. MATZKE: Yeah, well that was - that is, honestly, part of the way the law works, which is that if a school board or any governmental body loses a case on a violation of constitutional rights, then they have to pay the lawyer's fees for the party that brought this case alleging a constitutional violation.
And in the case of Dover, this ended up being $1 million and change that the school board had to pay to the plaintiff's attorneys. Now that didn't entirely compensate the attorneys who spent probably more than $2 million on the case. And Eric Rothchild, who was the lead attorney and the guy who did the Behe cross-examination, he, you know - after the case was concluded, he went and negotiated with the school board to reach the $1 million. But that number was widely reported, and it's certain that school boards have paid attention to that.
And we've seen in 2006, we saw a number of reversals of pro-creationist, pro-ID policies. So people, you know, people who think, who used to think, well, maybe we could be the guinea pig for this and maybe we'll be famous for taking this issue to Supreme Court, after they saw the Dover results and the consequences, I think they were less likely to take that.
Dr. OLSON: And I believe that's exactly what happened in Darby, Montana, where a few board members began to introduce intelligent design, and a few months later they had an election, and the local community just rose up quickly and voted them out of office so that that wouldn't happen.
FLATOW: Let's talk about the role the Discovery Institute played in these battles trying to get intelligent design in here. Randy, you talk about it in your movie. And also, we've talked about it with Ed and Nick that they started - they started the process down the road here in Pennsylvania and then pulled out. Is that correct?
Dr. OLSON: Pretty much. But I've got a question for you. Why isn't there somebody from the Discovery Institute on this show right now?
FLATOW: Because we're not - we're not debating intelligent design.
Dr. OLSON: But what about discussing it?
FLATOW: We have this - we've discussed it for two years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. OLSON: Okey-dokey.
Mr. MANSKI: I think Michael Behe was on this show.
Mr. MANSKI: Several years ago.
FLATOW: …yeah, he has been on. And, you know, we just - as you point out in your movie and in the book, if a victory is to teach the controversy, then if we talk about their being a controversy it's a victory for the Discovery people, isn't it?
Dr. OLSON: That's one way to look at it. But I don't know - don't know that I agree with that. You know, the whole philosophy I pursued in the film - the film opens with the phrase res ipsa loquitur: it speaks for itself.
FLATOW: My favorite Latin phrase.
Dr. OLSON: Excellent. All right, my feeling is just bring this stuff out in the light of day and let everybody examine it and see what general public thinks. I think the world of evolution has nothing to fear, nothing to hide, and it's just a matter of standing up and communicating evolution effectively and powerfully. And I think the public will begin to follow that.
FLATOW: So why don't the scientists do that?
Mr. MANSKI: (unintelligible) scientists.
Dr. OLSON: Well, it's the scientists and it's more importantly the science communicators. And there's a lack of, I think, understanding of broad communication when it comes to the science communicators.
You get things like PBS that really, I think, understand how to communicate academically very effectively, but they don't know how to reach a broader audience.
FLATOW: You pointed out in the film - you talked about the Wedge Document, about the tree of the where the Wedge Document should start taking on some of these issues. Is it possible that intelligent design will sort of be moved into other areas besides evolution?
In other words, possibly with geology classes and things like that where if you, you know, if you don't agree that the earth is four billion years old, then you can't talk about rocks.
Dr. OLSON: Well, I think that's probably their stronghold at the moment, if they have any sort of stronghold. When you look at their conferences, it's not evolutionary biologists that show up and give talks - not genuine, credentialed evolutionary biologists.
It tends to be mathematicians and geologists and chemists and people like that. And that's part of why, scientifically, their movement continues to be way out on the fringes.
I should add that in terms of the Discovery Institute, right now, they are trying to stage an attack on my film. And they've opened up a Web site called Hoaxofdodos.com.
But, in fact, what they're trying to do is go after little pieces of trivia. And the big elements that are in the film are - there's nothing investigative in the film. It's just what was already out there in the public record that I cobbled together into a story.
And they don't take issue with any of the big things, such as - as you mentioned - the Wedge Document and the PR firms that they've been hiring, and, you know, just - and their sources of funding which come from these religious foundations.
They don't seem to have any qualms about those things. Those are established.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do we have any idea where the next battleground may be? Let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Mr. MANSKI: Yeah. One - you know, we've actually seen a decline in some of the anti-evolutionism. But there's always something going on. So this year, New Mexico, Oklahoma have both had bills before the state legislature that they - instead of calling them intelligent design bills, they called them often academic freedom bills now.
So the academic freedom terminology has been adopted. And again, it's a very clever PR move. And they'll say, let's just have academic freedom to teach both sides of this issue. And that's a very, you know, slick kind of propaganda. You know, what it actually means is teach the same old sorts of bogus arguments that the creationists have been using for decades.
But that's the sort of thing we're seeing. Just last week in Texas, at the Texas legislature, a memo was distributed. This was - this got some news in Texas. And the memo was based on material from a Web site called fixedearth.com. And it asserted that evolution was a Jewish Kabbalah conspiracy, you know, that had been invented thousands of years ago.
And it's just the most bizarre thing you've ever read. And yet some Texas legislator got this from a legislator in Georgia, took it seriously and distributed this memo to everyone in the Texas legislature.
Now since then, he's backed down. But, you know, if you've got these sorts of people in office, it's just - sometimes it's just like a bomb waiting to go off. They'll - you know, they have no kind of filter that will filter out this sort of stuff.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Ed Humes, you talk about a debate between Phillip Johnson - one of the founders of intelligent design - and Stephen J. Gould. Are we missing Stephen these days to get him into this debate? Is not having a spokesperson like him around?
Mr. HUMES: Well, you know, I think the big-name spokesmen are far less important than what's going on in our schools - particularly in our high schools - because this subject has become so controversial that many science teachers in this country just shy away from it. Dover's just one example.
I talked to a high school science teacher out here in the L.A. area. She's said I'm the only one out of five science teachers who even mentions evolution because they just don't want the headache. They don't want to hear the complaints from parents.
And so what happens is - this is the great irony. Here you have a theory that the vast majority of scientists in America say, this is solid. It's one of the most important scientific theories. There's an abundance of evidence.
And then you have two-thirds of the American population who have serious reservations about it or reject it entirely. Why the disconnect?
There's a much bigger issue here than simply the niceties of intelligent design versus evolutionary theory. It really has to do with how we are defining religious freedom in America and the first amendment, and what we ought to teach our kids about where we come from.
And this mythic, sort of cartoon version of evolution - in the absence of robust teaching of the real science of it - has taken hold. And you have all kinds of myths out there that people think are part of evolutionary theory that really have nothing to do with it.
And in my experience, that is often what people end up being objecting to. We had the spectacle of the Dover school board members who reject evolution and embrace intelligent design getting on the witness stand and under cross examination reveal to be unable to explain either idea in a coherent fashion. They just knew they didn't like one, and they liked the other.
FLATOW: All right. Stay with us. We have to take a break. We'll be back to talk some more about evolution, intelligent design, future of the debates and your phone calls.
Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow. A brief program note: coming up on Monday, the day after the Academy Awards, Neal Conan looks back at the international guilty pleasure of Oscar night: the gossip, the dresses, the red carpet, the speeches - the Oscar went to…Well, we'll find out on Monday's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We're talking this hour about evolution. My guests are Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of the new book, "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul", Randy Olson, filmmaker and director of, "Flock of Dodos", Nick Manski, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education.
Randy, where can we see "Flock of Dodos" if we want to see it?
Dr. OLSON: We're doing - still doing screenings. We had the premier at Tribeca Film Festival last May, and have been going around to various museums and universities for the past year. And then in this May, it'll be on Showtime and then be released on home DVD on August 28th.
Now it's also available right now from our educational distributor at DER.org.
FLATOW: You're selling it through schools, then?
Dr. OLSON: Yeah. For universities and libraries.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Dennis in Tucson. Hi, Dennis.
DENNIS (Caller): Hello there, from Tucson. Well, I find it interesting that Randy's mother told him to do this, because that sort of fits in with my comment.
I think it's always going to be difficult to change the religion versus science issues, because in early life, religion is handed to us by our parents. And that's a tough one to undo until parents learn to value a child's ability to find their own truth and accept that a child's thinking, you know, they'll find their own way in religious thought if indeed they choose a religion.
And, of course, I think we can see that religion is capable of creating tremendous blindness in some people. I have some friends that are as secularly educated as I am, who grew up with me in many parallel ways who buy into creationism.
Some of the difference lies in the parents. What do your guests think today?
FLATOW: OK. Let me start with Randy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. OLSON: Uh-oh.
FLATOW: Your mother was brought in again, Randy. So I thought I would - I would start with…
Dr. OLSON: She is the puppet master behind all this, pulling the strings. God, I don't know what to say about that. I grew up with a religious upbringing and went to church all those years. And I still - I have a lot of respect for religion.
That's the whole tone of the film. I don't feel any need to attack religion. That's part of the whole ethic of being a mid-Westerner.
FLATOW: You write - in fact, in your movie, you present some good reasons why religious people shouldn't like intelligent design, either.
Dr. OLSON: Yeah. Absolutely. That's - Dr. Steve Case, who's head of the writing committee in Kansas at the University of Kansas. And he really has the best sound by the entire film that I think made all of us kind of open our eyes and say we get it.
And what he talks about is it's called the God of the gaps, which is that this idea that intelligent design presents is that we have all this knowledge and then there are these gaps that we are unable to explain right now. And what they say is that that is where God rests. You know, God - the designer explains what happens in those gaps.
If we look at a series of fossils and they're slowing changing form and then all of a sudden there's a big jump where they change form, that's where the designer stepped in and accounts for that.
And the logical problem of all of that is that it ends up teaching kids that the smarter we get, the smaller those gaps will get. And the smaller those gaps get the smaller your God becomes. And that's simply not a sort of philosophy that you want to be teaching kids.
And that's why you don't bring science and religion into direct conflict like that.
FLATOW: I would also think that if you don't want your kid to debate whether God exists or not and have him question or not, you wouldn't want to talk about that in the classroom, anyhow.
Dr. OLSON: Exactly.
FLATOW: You know, if you didn't send him to school to learn something that you're not in agreement with, certainly about God.
Dr. OLSON: Absolutely. And I think that this ruling in Dover is very important, and that for the broad audience they only need to know the simple conclusion that was arrived at by a Republican Bush appointee federal judge who simply said that intelligent design - as of the moment - is not science. End of story. Maybe someday they'll advance it further. But for now, that's all you need to know.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to David in Michigan. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Happy Science Friday.
FLATOW: Thank you.
DAVID: The interesting thing about the people that are against evolution and for intelligent design is they actually practice evolution science. All you have to do is ask them if there isn't any such thing as evolution, then you don't need to take a flu shot each year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Gentlemen? But they - but that's sort of different than what the intelligent design people are - they're admitting that evolution occurs everywhere else except one in particular person.
DAVID: Well that's the thing, you know. I mean, evolution…
FLATOW: Oop. I lost him.
Mr. MANSKI: I was just going to say, it's a little bit complex because you can often say, well, this proves evolution - and for example, the evolution of the flu virus. And it's true the flu virus evolves.
The intelligent design people, though, are pretty clever. And what they will say is, oh, we accept that form of evolution. And they'll put it in a category that they call microevolution.
And they say, oh, we have no problem with microevolution. We have no problem, for example, with dogs evolving from a common ancestor with the wolf or something like that. And they'll say the evolution we don't accept is macroevolution. And microevolution and macroevolution are legitimate scientific terms, but when creationists use them, what they're actually talking about is the difference between created kinds of the book of Genesis.
So in the book of Genesis, it says, God, you know, commands organisms to reproduce after their kind, and this phrase is used again and again. So for people who believe in biblical inerrancy, they will say well, things can evolve within the kind - for example maybe dogs and wolves or within the flu virus -but for example, human and chimps sharing a common ancestor, that's right out.
And so, you know, if you really want to make an argument that addresses what's been going on in the creationists' heads, you have to look at these kind of macroevolution arguments, these large-scale things.
So, you know, one way we did this in the Kitzmiller case was with the immune system. Michael Behe had said there's - the scientific literature has no answers on the evolutionary origin of the immune system. He had said this flat out in 1996 in his book. And so one thing I did as a researchers on the case was I went and looked up all the articles and books that had been published on the evolutionary origin of the immune system, and, in fact, a number of tests had been done and published in journals like Science and Nature, the top journals, that established the main explanation for how the immune system arose.
And then all of these were stacked on Michael Behe's bench, on his, you know, on his witness stand in court, right there in front of the judge. And then Behe was asked, well, doesn't this have some answers to the evolutionary origin of the immune system? And Behe, he would never admit that he'd been wrong in 1996, that there were no answers.
So that's the kind of thing that you can do if you have, you know, a courtroom situation, where you have rules of evidence and you can introduce things. But it's not a simple matter to communicate, you know, if you don't have this kind of background on how creationists are thinking about it.
Dr. OLSON: Well and that's - one thing I find fascinating is the divide between creationists and intelligent designers, and how they aren't one and the same. And I think a lot of the general public doesn't quite understand that.
FLATOW: Nick, the book "Of Pandas and People" played a significant part in the Dover case, and you get credit, actually, for unearthing some fossil copies of the book - old copies where the word creationism is actually used instead of intelligent design.
Mr. MATZKE: Right. Well, this was a key point in the case, because you can establish that intelligent design isn't science in a courtroom, and that gets you part of the way. That rebuts the other side's argument. But for something to be unconstitutional, it has to be ruled to be a specific religious view, because what the Constitution prohibits isn't bad science.
It doesn't prohibit somebody teaching about Bigfoot. You know, Bigfoot might be silly, but it's not unconstitutional. What the Constitution says is that the government shall not favor any particular religious view. So part of the way this was established - there were a lot of lines of evidence, but one was that the actual first book to use the term intelligent design in a systematic way was this "Pandas and People" book.
It was published in 1989, and I had done some research on the origins of this book, and it turns out that the book had descended from an explicitly creationist book that used the terms creation science, creationism, creation. And in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling against what was called creation science and said no, creation science isn't science. It's a religious view.
And so the people who were working on this book, they had a creationism book that they wouldn't be able to use in the schools, and they systematically switched out the word creation and put in the word intelligent design like hundreds of times in this book.
And so during the discovery process in the case, these drafts were subpoenaed. We got a hold of copies of this book, and it was just - as I said in Ed Humes' book - it was the smoking gun that established the link between creationism and intelligent design.
And it's true you can find some differences between these two views, but really, I view intelligent design as just a subset of creationism. It's a particular legal strategy that the creationists invented, you know, in 1987 to get around the Supreme Court's ruling against teaching creationism in public schools. And it really is about as simple as that.
And so, you know, all the sort of details about what are the intelligent design views, the key thing is it's really a legal strategy for a previously discredited view.
FLATOW: Ed Humes, you write about a pretty interesting irony in Dover, and it's actually a goldmine for paleontologists, you say - home to some of the richest fossil finds in Pennsylvania.
Mr. HUMES: Yes, it's true. Right under the feet of the folks who were talking about a young Earth being only 6,000 years old were incredible marine fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years. And, in fact, the Pennsylvania state fossil is found in abundance in that area - the trilobite. So yeah, that was ironic.
I talked to a fellow who conducts this park service time walk, he calls it. He brings visitors to the area on these walks through time, and he explains the geographic and paleontological evidence in the area of a very old earth. And he talks about it being hundreds of millions of years old, but when certain folks with certain religious beliefs are in his group, he doesn't use the terms millions of years old. He just says a long time ago to avoid the same kind of conflicts that end up playing out in our schools.
FLATOW: Well, Randy Olson actually shows an episode at that poker where a scientist doesn't even want to use the word evolution in his research paper.
Dr. OLSON: Not his research paper. That was a mention about the program officers at the National Science Foundation suggesting that you not mention in the paragraph that goes out to Congress, to the broad public about what your research is about. You avoid the word evolution.
And at least three major scientists have verified what that scientist said at the poker table, so it's not just an anecdote. But it's not likely there's any sort of scandal or conspiracy. It's simply a program officer offering up some friendly advice, saying look, do yourself a favor and just don't put the word evolution in there because all you're doing is sending up a red flag, and it's not like you can't put it in there.
But that's more of that low level avoiding evolution as was being talked about earlier among teachers. And that, I think, is a serious concern.
FLATOW: So their scientists are running scared.
Dr. OLSON: That's exactly, I mean, at all different levels - and, you know, in making the film, we got no cooperation from The Smithsonian Institution. They seemed to be absolutely terrified on this subject. They wouldn't allow me to interview one of their scientists that I had all lined up for an interview. And then just a couple weeks ago, their communication director gave a quote to the Seattle P-I newspaper where he said we didn't want to have anything to do with the film.
He said that we didn't like the lighthearted tone of it, and he said we tend to take our science very seriously here at The Smithsonian, which is I think a lot of problem.
FLATOW: Talking about evolution and creationism this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. How many other instances did you have like that?
Dr. OLSON: Well, it's interesting at those high levels of organization, at the two extremes, we had The Smithsonian refusing to cooperate, and then we had The Discovery Institute who simply wouldn't communicate with me for six weeks while we were in the thick of making the film.
And it was a shame, because Michael Behe and I had a really great two-hour discussion that I think was very civilized, and at the end of it, he sent an e-mail to them asking them to take some time to meet with me and do an interview. And for six weeks, they ignored me. And finally, after six weeks, they sent an e-mail, kind of the communications director apologizing.
But he knew all during that time. I sent them numerous e-mails and phone messages saying that, look, we're running out of production time. We're not going to be able to do anything. And so it's as if they waited until I was done with it all, and now they're angry about that. They feel like I distorted things, but I didn't. I sent them the e-mail and said, look, you know it's all factual. It's all in the film, and there's just not much that they have to attack with, so they're frustrated.
FLATOW: Now in the film at that famous poker table you have, were you protecting the scientists there, because you didn't name any of them sitting around the table. Were you fearful of that also, that they would be…
Dr. OLSON: No, no, there are several factors. First off, I wanted them to function almost like a Greek chorus, you know, just a single body, a single voice that represented that. Secondly, we did try identifying all of them, and it took a lot of time to identify eight individuals, and there just wasn't any need for that.
So there's nothing top secret about them, but I do think that they're all very brave to take part in this thing. Everybody that takes part in my films are brave to trust me and know that they'll hopefully work towards something constructive in the end, and particularly Tom Givnish, who I've known for almost 30 years.
He was on my thesis committee when I was a graduate student long ago. And he was very brave, and he is the humanized voice of the world of science. When you watch the film, he's the guy that says the one line that gets a response from the evolution crowd - when he says that line about I think we need to stand up and tell these people they're idiots - that's more humanized, and that's more effective communication than the standard, sterile, kind of cautious voice that comes out of the world of science.
FLATOW: I think we need more of that.
Dr. OLSON: I think it needs to be carefully thought through, but absolutely. If you're going to try and connect with human beings, you've got to be a little more human.
FLATOW: Well, is that something that, Nick, you're going to take now? A little more of that kind of attitude?
Mr. MATZKE: Yeah, it's - you know, it's a difficult thing, communicating science. Because on the one hand, you've got very complex, technical science, and anyone who learns a lot of science, when you get trained, you don't get trained to talk to the public. You don't get trained in media relations. You get trained in statistics and data analysis and technical terminology, and you get judged based on that. You get your jobs based on that. And then, you know, then you become a scientist, and then you're put in the position - somebody asks you to talk to the public.
And there's a few people who are really good at this. You know, Kenneth Miller - who was one of the expert witnesses at the Dover trial - he is just phenomenal, and he's really good at this sort of communication thing. He's been on a debate team and all sorts of things.
FLATOW: Well, Randy Olson points out in the film that the intelligent design people actually hired big, fancy public relations firms to come up with sound bite answers.
Dr. OLSON: Absolutely.
Mr. MATZKE: Oh, sure. Well, and that's what they do full time. They come up with sound bites. So they end up being very good at it, and you get this kind of asymmetric relationship. So it's a tough problem.
You know I think, like I said, it takes a lot of work. And it takes people actually putting some thought into it before they…
FLATOW: Last words, Randy?
Dr. OLSON: Yeah. There's a new variable in this whole equation, and that is time. And time has never been much of a variable in previous decades, but our communication environment has changed drastically in the last 10 years. You know, you can read about it a month ago in Newsweek magazine. They're talking about the problem the U.S. military is facing in Iraq now, where their communication strategy is so slow, and the people out on the street shooting cell phones and posting them on YouTube are spinning circles around them.
That's a lot of what happened here, was that the science world is moving very slowly and deliberately with their communications, and places like the Discovery Institute very bravely and boldly jump in there and do things very quickly, and they have an advantage when it comes to communication.
FLATOW: Well, I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us. Randy Olson, filmmaker and director of "Flock of Dodos", Nick Matzke, Public Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education, Edward Humes, author of a new book - terrific book - "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul." Between that and "Flock of Dodos", you've got some read good viewing and reading to take up your weekend.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.