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Creationists and crayfish

| Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The First Amendment to the Constitution opens with a dual pledge of religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first part of this provision has come to be known as the Establishment Clause. While the “free exercise” of religion promised in the rest of the sentence has been taken by many to trump the Establishment Clause, those first 10 words have been heavily litigated and generally interpreted by courts as supporting Thomas Jefferson’s intent to erect a “wall of separation between Church and State.”

To be clear, the prohibition regarding an establishment of religion only limits the actions of the government (federal and state, by virtue of the 14th Amendment) in supporting a specific religion. While government buildings may be restricted from displaying Nativity scenes or the oft-neglected Ten Commandments, individuals are free to display signs and symbols of their faith, and to proselytize within established norms of time, place and methodology.

They are also free within religious institutions of learning to teach religion and to infuse every course in the curriculum with religious content, if they choose to do so. But in schools supported by the government, teaching should not favor or endorse the views of one religion over another. This tension between the constitutional dictates of the Establishment Clause and the usually well-intentioned efforts of proponents of religious education in public schools is most vividly displayed in disputes over the teaching of creationism.

Teaching “creation science” in public schools has been outlawed since the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case of Edwards vs. Aguillard. The biblically-based creation science was easy to refute: Creation was attributed to the God of Genesis, the universe was pulled together in seven days and any evidence to the contrary (e.g., fossils and millions of years of sediments) was also God’s doing. The clearest indication of the religious roots of creationism was its reference to God as the creator. In the following years, creationists regrouped, evolved and challenged the teaching of evolution with the concept of “intelligent design,” prudently stripped of references to God and religion. The dogma of intelligent design holds that the existence of this universe, and life as we know it, are too complex to be attributed to evolution and must be the purposeful work of an intelligent designer.

Relabeling God as the intelligent designer gained some proponents, including schoolboards that were emboldened to attempt another assault on the Establishment Clause. The Dover, Pennsylvania, school district required ninth-grade biology students to be told that the theory of evolution was flawed and that intelligent design was an alternative. The strategy was not to remove evolution from the science curriculum (indeed, it was needed for standardized competency testing for high school students), but rather to proffer intelligent design as an alternative “scientific” approach to encourage critical thinking. While this may seem reasonable on its face, this approach ignores the nature of science as a rigorous, fact-based, data-driven discipline, and elevated the untestable body of work supporting intelligent design as being co-equal to science.

The school board’s approach was challenged in court, and in 2005 the federal district court reviewing the matter held that intelligent design was not science, but a matter of religion. The presiding judge stated that the doctrine had “utterly no place in science curriculum.” In addition to losing the case, the school board in Dover was voted out as the trial wound down, but efforts to revive intelligent design sprang up in other states, such as Kansas. There, the state board of education supported teaching intelligent design by endorsing language suggesting that key concepts such as a common origin for all life on Earth and for species change were seen as controversial by the scientific community (they’re not), and rewriting the definition of science as merely a search for rational explanations of what occurs in the universe. To its credit, Kansas reversed this effort just two years later, reviving Jefferson’s intent.

More support for evolution comes from a surprising source — a crayfish born of a virgin. Dealers introduced a marbled crayfish into the German aquarium trade in the mid-1990s. Apparently it evolved from a species known as the slough crayfish, Procambarus fallax, which originated in Florida and Georgia. Unlike other members of the fallax species — or for that matter, any other crayfish — the new crayfish, which did not exist 25 years ago, has three sets of chromosomes and is capable of unisexual reproduction (parthenogenesis). Apparently a drastic mutation in one crayfish (perhaps caused by the extreme change in environments) produced the new marbled crayfish, Procambarus virginalis.  

The virginalis crayfish are clones of a single parent, each of which is capable of reproducing without a mate. Environmentalists are concerned that the new species will breed rapidly and displace other less-fit species. Ironically, these recently-evolved virgin clones likely carry the seeds of their own ultimate demise. They are identical copies of each other, and accordingly are susceptible to species-wide disease or parasites that might otherwise cause but a ripple in a more genetically-diverse population. Whether in 10 years or 10,000, they probably will cede their place to other more robust species. For crayfish and creationists alike, the inexorable and astonishing grind of evolution will continue apace, whether one chooses to believe it or not.

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

Contact Raymond