Almost a century ago, Dayton, Tenn., became a worldwide laughingstock because that town's "Scopes monkey trial" punished a public school teacher for the crime of teaching evolution.
Today, most educated, modern, scientific-minded people accept overwhelming evidence that complex creatures evolved from simpler animals eons ago. This premise has become a cornerstone of biology. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has a mammoth hall, visited by multitudes of schoolchildren, tracking the ancient development of various species. Nearly all advanced nations affirm evolution.
However, it's disturbing that one-third of Americans -- especially Republicans -- still reject the scientific principle, because they mistakenly think it contradicts poetic passages of Genesis.
A new Pew Research Center poll found that 67 percent of Democrats, but only 43 percent of Republicans, agree with a statement that "humans and other living things have evolved over time." Some in this group say God guided evolution, but a larger segment thinks evolution stemmed from purely natural processes.
Rejection of evolution was highest, 64 percent, among white evangelicals, who agreed with a statement that "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."
White evangelicals have become the heart of the GOP and its tea party wing -- while secular young Americans who rarely attend church are becoming a major element of the Democratic Party base.
It's ironic that America's political lineup seems to split partly over whether a person accepts scientific evidence of evolution, or dismisses it. It's dismal that so many conservatives turn their backs on science.
Lower education means lower comprehension. Pew pollsters found that 72 percent of Americans with college degrees trust evolution evidence -- but only 51 percent of high school graduates and dropouts do. Also, younger Americans have greater acceptance of this bulwark of biology, which means that doubt may fade as the older generation dies off. One scientist predicts that aging evolution-deniers will "go the way of the dinosaurs."
A 2005 international study published in the journal Science found that people in other developed countries accept evolution to a higher degree than Americans do. Out of 34 nations surveyed, America ranked 33rd -- ahead of just Muslim Turkey.
If more U.S. Republicans begin to believe in science, America may catch up with educated people in other lands.