Evolution: Is Bill Nye setting up a new Scopes Monkey Trial?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Evolution

Bill Nye the Science Guy via Wikimedia CommonsWho would have guessed that evolution would leap back into top news headlines in early 2014? Already hundreds of TV, magazine and newspaper stories have reported on an upcoming debate—evolution vs. creationism—featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Do you know Bill Nye? The original run of his series actually ended in 1998 after more than 100 episodes. But this lanky, nerdy star continues in reruns and pops up repeatedly in odd corners of popular culture—always publicizing the value of science education. He most recently promoted science while competing on Dancing with the Stars.

According to his web site, Nye’s mission is to “help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work.” And now he’s taking his mission to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where next month he will debate museum founder Ken Ham on evolution versus a literal interpretation of the biblical creation story. The event sold out the first day.

My question today is: Who will win the debate?

Bill will be taking the side of the monkey.

The famous 1925 Scopes Trial was brought by the State of Tennessee against John Scopes, a high school teacher, accused of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. It became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial because Tennessee law forbade teaching that humans descended from the “lower orders,” interpreted to mean monkeys. (For the record, evolutionary theory says that humans have the same common ancestor as apes and chimpanzees, but humans are not directly descended from monkeys.) Clarence Darrow defended Scopes; Nye is taking on Darrow’s role in the upcoming debate. William Jennings Bryan represented the prosecution; Ham is taking on that role. In the end of the real trial, Scopes was found guilty. His conviction was thrown out on appeal, but due only to a technicality.

By now you might be saying: Well, the Scopes trial was a long time ago. Hasn’t the evolution-versus-creation question been settled? Didn’t the monkey win?

A majority of Americans would say yes. But it’s not a large majority, according to a Pew Research Center poll last month. Sixty percent of Americans told Pew that humans (and other living things) have evolved over time; they have not existed in their present form since the beginning of time. One-third (33%) say: No, we reject the idea of evolution. (STAY TUNED: Tomorrow, we’ll look at more of the Pew findings, including a group in America for whom evolution is an increasingly unattractive explanation.)


CLICK ON THE VIDEO SCREEN to watch a short clip of Bill Nye talking about what he sees at stake in Americans’ attitudes toward this issue. (If you don’t see a video screen, try clicking on the headline of this column to reload this page.)

Who do you think will win the debate?

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  1. Bob Bruttell says

    The Creation Debate cannot be won. The Genesis stories are true. The formation of the universe and evolution are also true. The Creation Debate is a debate about authority and not about truth. While I can see the Genesis stories as wonderful poetic metaphors about the hand of the Divine in history written by a pre-scientific people and I can also see evolution as a marvelous way of creating that provides useful ways of explaining reality that also have utility in understanding and combatting disease, others will insist that there is a greater authority whose emphatic prescripts are being ignored. They will argue that my view undermines all moral teaching that is Bible-based. Not only that but they will also feel that their religious identity which forms a large part of their personal identity, is undermined by such teaching. God, and by implication all the other pastors and religious folk who taught them that “God said it, I believe it” lose their authority. In short, it troubles their whole social location.
    Those of us who “believe” in the theory of evolution must nevertheless take these emotions seriously. An argument about correct authority and consequent morality cannot go away.
    That is not to say that the Creationists are not problematic for our society. In an economy so clearly based on applied science we cannot afford to have a dedicated group of people who are too successful in marginalizing evolution. It threatens our children’s knowledge base and threatens funding for science.
    So, what do we do? We need to deal with the emotional-identity basis and honor these feelings. We then need to argue not for “truth” or the absolute authority of our scientific understanding, but for the utility of our science. It is useful. God has provided this very useful science. God is great and somehow can encompass this very useful way of creating and only God knows how Genesis and the usefulness of evolutionary theory will eventually be reconciled.
    It will do no good to mimic Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett et al. These scientific matialists make it worse by turning science into religion wherin the battle lines are sharp. We need to grant instead that thier feelings are important; that morality is an important issue in society; and that the universe, God’s creating power, is marvelous and as mysterious and wonderful to scientists as it is to Creationists. We need to propose that their children will be the losers if they cannot somehow see a God who could create in the way that Genesis lays out and also accomodate in some way a process that looks like evolution.

  2. John Dunham says

    Very well said, Bob. I appreciate your irenic, empathic tone. May your tribe/kingdom/nation-state increase. 🙂

    John Walton has written an intriguing book titled “The Lost World of Genesis One.” I had long been trying to reconcile scientific truth and biblical truth, and it was hard for the reasons you mention. I like to say, if you have a paradox or conundrum, either your frame of reference isn’t large enough or you mind is too small. You pick which sounds less offensive. Walton’s proposal dramatically expanded my view.

    In short, the Genesis poem is a temple inauguration ceremony. What makes a temple a temple? What makes a college a college? There are all manner of criteria you can use, but a grand opening, an inauguration, officially marks the beginning of its existence. So God has a world, and over seven days, he inaugurates it as his temple. He orders its chaos. He lights its darkness. He breathes life into his priests (also images or idols) so they can tend the temple. This goes against pagan ceremonies where the priest fashioned an idol to represent the deity and inspirated it, breathing life into the lifeless idol at the culmination of the ceremony. The Creator then came to rest in his temple on the seventh day, showing that everything was as it should be, that he was reigning over his realm from his temple. This points out why idolatry is so damnable. God already created his “idols.” He doesn’t need us to go creating other ones and worshiping them. We worship him alone by tending his temple creation well and by loving and serving him and one another well.

    This is a view that profoundly respects the Creator, his creation as it has evolved, and the character of the Bible. If we pursued this line of thought as a society, I feel this debate would vanish.

  3. davefossil says

    God is the theory here, not evolution. There is absolutely No proof of a God and Religious creationist just won’t admit that. There is no debate as they have long ago closed their minds and any evidence they reject. So they are not open to debate; waste of time. Let’s get on with reality in this world. There is more evidence of evolution and development of the Universe then there is for God. The Bible is a collection of folktales, Myths and, in some cases, outright hallucinations. The so called Gospels are hundreds of years after the events they describe. Unfortunately the Creationists play right into the hands of big business who are looking to muzzle Science at all levels so their rape of the environment can continue unchecked.