I live on a patch of land that once belonged to an archipelago of volcanic islands known as Avalonia off the coast of the ancient continent Gondwana. After breaking away from Gondwana roughly 425,000,000 years ago, these islands collided with and were crushed into the Old Red Sandstone Continent, as the supercontinent Pangaea was forming during the late Paleozoic era some 300,000,000 years ago. Of course, today, it’s simply eastern Massachusetts, U.S.A., North America. Although our address might have been in northern Europe, possibly somewhere in Great Britain, if the continent had completely split open along what is now a rift valley while the crust was stretching and thinning approximately 200,000,000 years ago. But the Earth’s crust held fast and the Connecticut River flows through this great valley where dinosaurs once walked in the mud, for 410 miles from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound, a beautiful result of monumental forces at work deep within our planet, and we are part of the United States of America rather than the United Kingdom.
A remnant of more recent events, a huge boulder sits alone like a sentinel on my neighbor’s front lawn just up the hill. Most likely a glacial erratic, it was deposited here as the last North American ice sheet retreated from this area fifteen to sixteen thousand years ago.
The Earth’s geology fascinates me, particularly that portion of it right under my feet, because to an untrained, less obsessed eye, it looks pretty darned ordinary around here. It’s lovely, make no mistake, but the hundreds of millions of years of cataclysms and tumult that have shaped the land into what we know today took place over eons. The rocks may look cold, gray (or pink or white or green or purple depending on where you look) and still, but they tell a story of an earth ancient and ever-changing. Even now, the Atlantic Ocean continues to widen along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge giving rise to volcanic eruptions in Iceland that can bring plane travel in Europe to a standstill. The whole world watched in horror and awe as Japan felt the might of one plate subducting under another in March.
I’m not a geologist. I’m a lawyer. Rocks and plate tectonics fascinate me, so I read about them. I highly recommend Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) which delves into the geological history of North America in manner at once scholarly and lyrical. For bringing it all little closer to home, Written in Stone by Chet Raymo and Maureen E. Raymo (Black Dome Press Corp.,2007) is a must-read, and Roadside Geology of Massachusetts by James W. Skehan (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2001) is part of a terrific series of guides that brings local geological history into much sharper focus.
I’m crazy about rocks. And evolution. The development of life over hundreds of millions of years is integrally related to the geological history of the planet on which it evolved. In his wonderful Your Inner Fish (Vintage Books, 2009), paleontologist Neil Shubin describes the quest for and discovery of the predecessor of life on land. Tiktaalik, or the “fish with hands” was found after years of painstaking work across several scientific fields including paleobotany, anatomy, paleontology and geology. Its discovery has contributed to our understanding of our own evolution. It’s all connected.
Now, as riveting as this is, and despite vast quantities of scientific research documenting our geological and evolutionary history, there are people for whom this is heresy. In the religious, God-will-strike-me-down-and-send-me-to-Hell-if-I-believe-this-or-even-think-about-learning-it sense. I don’t make light of a belief system that apparently prohibits its adherents from sharing my amazement at rocks and how they and we came to be, the environment, and the Earth on which we make our home, and requires that our natural, nagging, but for some, troublesome, intellectual curiosity be ignored. Religious creeds are a highly personal matter of choice, one we make freely in this country. If your religion mandates that you subscribe to the myth that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, go in peace. What you may not do, however, is force your fear of science, learning and knowledge on the rest of us.
Those who insist that Creationism be taught in public schools, under whatever name they choose to cloak their efforts, would also interfere with the teaching of our geological history. If I live on the remnants of a 500,000,000 year old volcanic island, how could the Earth possibly be only 6,000 years old? But through repeated efforts in public schools across the country, religious fundamentalists have attempted to undermine the teaching of science by introducing their creation myth into the curriculum. That’s where the First Amendment to the United States Constitution comes in. The Establishment Clause reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion…
Followed by the Free Exercise Clause:
…nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The Creationists run afoul of the Establishment Clause by arguing that exposure to science violates their free exercise of a religion that prohibits exposure to anything that threatens their worldview. Their religion requires that they proselytize in the public schools by undermining the science curriculum.
Fortunately, the courts have consistently rejected these religious assaults on our public schools. In Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968), the Supreme Court struck down Arkansas’ law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools made famous in the Scopes trial. A Federal district court, again in Arkansas, ruled a law requiring equal time for the teaching of creation science and evolution was unconstitutional (McLean v. Arkansas, 529 F.Supp. 1255 (E.D. La. 1982); the ruling was never appealed. When Louisiana passed its own equal-time law, the Supreme Court upheld the federal district and court of appeals rulings holding it unconstitutional. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). A Louisiana school district’s attempt to circumvent the equal-time prohibitions by instituting an anti-evolution, pro-creation science disclaimer to be read by teachers prior to teaching any evolution lessons was struck down by the federal district court, whose ruling was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 975 F.Supp. 819 (E.D. La. 1997). The Supreme Court denied certiorari allowing the lower court ruling to stand. In Pennsylvania, an attempt by Christian Fundamentalists on the school board to introduce both a disclaimer and instructional materials relating to Intelligent Design, the renamed version of creationism/ creation science, was ruled unconstitutional after a bench trial. In his thoughtful, extensive decision, Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones, III, proclaimed the school board’s decision to teach Intelligent Design to be one of “breathtaking inanity,” and an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp. 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).The Court’s ruling was not appealed. In 2006, a special education teacher’s attempt to run a 4-week creation science course between semesters in a southern California public school district failed when the district settled the lawsuit against it out of court, effectively cutting the course short. Hurst v. Newman, No. 1:06-CV-00036 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 2006). At the moment it remains safe to learn about ancient volcanoes, supercontinents, plate tectonics and evolution without interference from religious fundamentalists.
In my blog, I will discuss legal, scientific and religious developments, particularly when they intertwine. It’s a busy intersection. Sometimes there are messy collisions. Walk with me. And stay vigilant.