AT a time when the children of the United States need to learn how to compete with India, Ireland and other countries to which we are rapidly losing jobs, some Americans would rather fret about whether man evolved from apes.

That's what I imagine the master lawyer Clarence Darrow would be saying if he were around to re-defend Charles Darwin's theory of evolution against today's new version of creationism.

I'm sure Darrow would be amazed and amused at last week's events in Topeka. Eighty years after his famous defendant John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools, the Kansas state school board opened hearings in Topeka to hear new challenges to the teachings of Darwin.

School boards in at least a dozen states are grappling with this new movement, even though a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ended the forced teaching of creationism in tandem with evolution.

In keeping with the modern age of media spin, creationists reframed their arguments under a new-fangled banner: "intelligent design." The label sounds about as elegantly nonthreatening as a Volvo ad, but beware before you buy into it.

Instead of insisting the Bible's version of Creation be taught in schools, the ID argument merely asks schools be required to mention there are alternative theories to Darwin's. ID movement icons such as biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University argue the Earth must have been created through guided, intelligent events, because everything in the universe is just too complicated to have been created through random chance.


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Because their theory only questions and does not actually state who the intelligent designer is, proponents of ID theory insist their movement is not like the old-style creationists who cited the Bible to explain everything.

That's their story and they're sticking to it. As long as kids are taught an "intelligent design" is behind Creation, you might think the ID movement is completely, objectively and dispassionately neutral on whether schoolkids learn about the Creator-God of the Old Testament or some unseen, unnamed "force" such as the one that empowers the Jedi Knights in "Star Wars."

But it usually does not take long for ID proponents to reveal their inner urges to crack the wall of separation between church and state. "Part of our overall goal," William Harris of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network told the British Broadcasting Corp., "is to remove the bias against religion that is currently in schools."

Of course, when people talk about removing the "bias against religion" in schools or anyplace else, it almost always means they want to impose their religious values on schools and everybody else.

But it is important to note that the scientific community does not reject religion. Many scientists are quite religious. Unfortunately, the theories and evidence put forth by the ID theorists have not held up under the rigor of peer review, publication in scientific journals and other standards by which the scientific establishment operates.

What, then, is the best way to deal with the teaching of ID? Most national and state science organizations boycotted the Topeka hearings in the belief they were rigged against the teaching of evolution. But many other voices in the scientific community say scientists need to understand the appeal of ID theory and help students sort out questions it raises.

"For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research," says an editorial in the respected British journal Nature. "Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science. . . . When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs."

Indeed, sometimes the old ways are best. When I was growing up back in the 1950s, my teachers never seemed to have much trouble reconciling science with our personal religious views. Science and religion were ways for us to understand the universe, they said. The questions rational science could not explain, we answered with our faith.

We also learned that governments caused trouble when they used science as an excuse to trespass on the faith — or lack of faith — on others. That was not "the American way," we learned. I hope it does not become the American way now.

Clarence Page (cpage@tribune.com) writes for the Chicago

Tribune.