Evolution via natural selection is the great unifying idea of biology, so explaining it to students is part of a day’s work for Jerry Coyne, who teaches in the University of Chicago’s department of ecology and evolution. Coyne also spends a good amount of time speaking to nonstudents–the Alaska Bar Association, North Shore businesspeople, and the Graham School of General Studies, to name a few–on the overwhelming evidence that life developed pretty much as Darwin says, not as the Bible says. Coyne’s colleagues in other disciplines don’t have to go around explaining that matter really is made up of atoms, or that the earth really is round and travels around the sun. But many Americans haven’t even heard the evidence for evolution. Coyne reports that his students at the U. of C. “have barely been exposed to Darwin.”

This kind of public education doesn’t pay well, doesn’t advance Coyne’s professional research into the mechanisms of speciation, doesn’t get him tenure (because he’s already got it), and exposes him to abuse from creationists, but he feels it needs to be done: according to research published in Science last August, only about 40 percent of Americans agree that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” a percentage similar to the ones found in Turkey and Latvia. By contrast, 70 to 80 percent of Icelanders and Swedes and French people get it. A June Gallup poll conducted in the U.S. (pollingreport.com/science.htm) reported a 53-44 proevolution split among its respondents, but those who believed it was “definitely true” trailed those who believed it was “definitely false” by 18 to 28 percent.

The U.S. is more religious than most developed countries, and Darwinian evolution can be seen as striking at two common religious beliefs: that human beings are literally created in God’s image, and that that’s why humans can understand good and evil and choose between them. Thus, the Darwinian idea that we simply evolved might seem to undermine the moral order. “I’ve had people ask me in tears, ‘How can I believe in evolution and still be a moral human being?'” says Coyne. He has plenty of answers, but says people don’t like to hear them. He himself believes people make their own meanings and morality, but he doesn’t play clergyman to the distraught. “I refer them to their priest or minister–I don’t want to take their religion away.” In his writings (in Nature, in the New Republic, and on edge.org, among other places), he calls attention to prominent evolutionists who are believers, such as Ken Miller of Brown University. Coyne knows that out in the real world, unlike academia, evidence will only get you so far.

Meanwhile, in what seems like an odd move, creationists have chosen to play on Coyne’s home court by claiming to be scientists themselves, and presenting “intelligent design” as an alternative scientific hypothesis to Darwinian evolution (though its advocates put forth no testable predictions). Last year in the case Kitzmiller v. Dover, Pennsylvania federal judge John E. Jones III ruled against that claim after a lengthy trial, but the efforts continue. Coyne’s latest New Republic article (June 18) takes on the new book by intelligent-design advocate Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. “IDers never produce their own ‘scientific’ explanation of life,” Coyne concludes. “They just carp about evolution. And as evolutionists explain one thing after another, IDers simply ignore these successes and move on to the ever-dwindling set of unsolved problems in which they continue to see the hand of God.” IDer William Dembski’s response at his blog uncommondescent.com followed this pattern precisely, but also offered his readers specific evidence: that Coyne bears a passing resemblance to Herman Munster!

When Coyne tried to treat ID as a serious hypothesis in a 2005 New Republic article, he found himself posing hard questions to its advocates: What “intelligent designer” would have devised the nonfunctional and inflammation-prone human appendix? What intelligent designer would have given human embryos a temporary coat of fur in the seventh month of pregnancy, just like the ones our primate relatives get and keep? What intelligent designer would have created transitional organisms–between fish and amphibians, dinosaurs and birds, reptiles and mammals, land mammals and whales–that occur in the fossil record exactly when they would have appeared in the course of evolution driven by natural selection among random mutations? ID advocate Behe has a response to uestions like these: “Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, to show off, for some as-yet-undetectable practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.” But as Coyne points out, this amounts to declaring intellectual bankruptcy: if no imaginable evidence would contradict ID theory, it’s not a scientific theory at all. (By contrast, it’s easy to imagine evidence that would contradict Darwinism, such as fossil evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.)

Complaining about “missing links” that are no longer missing won’t fool the knowledgeable, but Coyne sees another agenda here. “Creationism (and its gussied-up descendant ‘Intelligent Design’) is not just a campaign against evolution–it’s a campaign against science itself and the scientific method,” he writes at edge.org. “By pretending that evolution is on shaky ground, and asserting that religion can contribute to our understanding of nature, creationists confuse people about the very form and character of scientific evidence. This confusion can only hurt our ability to make rational judgments about important social issues, like global warming, that involve science.”

Would-be president Sam Brownback recently wrote in the New York Times that any scientific findings conflicting with his faith should be “firmly rejected.” In the same vein, Jonathan Wells–a senior fellow of the ID advocacy group Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute–recently wrote, “The vast majority of Americans reject Darwinism for good reasons: it doesn’t fit the scientific evidence, and it contradicts a central tenet of Christianity.” (Wells leaves no doubt as to which reason matters more to him: at tparents.org, he writes that Reverend Moon persuaded him to “devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism.”)

Earlier in his career, Coyne worked with public defenders on DNA cases, and he likens his combat with creationists to serving as an expert witness and being cross-examined by a prosecutor. “I learned how to do science a long time ago, but it’s a completely different ball game to face the challenge of a prosecuting attorney or a creationist who’s out to destroy me and impugn my credibility. . . . It’s taught me how to write for the public and made me a better teacher.”

Coyne won’t criticize colleagues who don’t speak out in public. “You have to enjoy it in a way, and not just be pissed off–‘Oh, I have to do this again.'” But he does wish more would speak out, join the proevolution clearinghouse the National Center for Science Education (natcenscied.org), and make themselves available as resources in local controversies. When you’re playing defense, you have to be everywhere. “The creationists are now trying to work on the school board level, and there need to be scientists nearby to take them on.”

For more by Harold Henderson, see his blog, Daily Harold, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerry Coyne photo by Paul L. Merideth.