In April, when Tucker Carlson stirred up controversy by announcing that he didn’t believe in evolution, it felt like a nostalgic throwback to the politics of my high-school years. Today, it isn’t uncommon to find atheists and religious conservatives on the same side, especially when it comes to conflicts over sex and gender. But during the George W. Bush administration, when religion still formed the main faultline of the culture war, such an alliance would have been unthinkable. As a budding leftist and secularist myself at the time, I remember bristling when a 10th-grade classmate gave a presentation in support of so-called Intelligent Design, the claim that the complexity of nature was better explained by the existence of a creator than the workings of natural selection. This wasn’t because I was particularly knowledgeable about evolutionary biology, but because I knew that for members of my political tribe, Charles Darwin’s theory was sacrosanct.

The first year of Bush’s second term was arguably the high-water mark for evolution as a political issue. This was the year of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which concerned a requirement imposed by the school board of Dover, Pa., that high-school biology students be read a statement suggesting that Intelligent Design, or ID, was a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. In response, a group of Dover citizens sued the board for violating the separation of church and state by inserting religious views into science class. The case attracted national media attention, including a cover story in Time magazine on “The Evolution Wars.” In August of the same year, Bush said in a news conference in Texas that he believed children should be taught both sides of the debate. To his many detractors, this confirmed that the president was an ignorant fundamentalist trying to turn America into a theocracy.

The controversy around teaching evolution had been building for years leading up to the Dover trial. In 2003, the National Science Teachers Association had issued a statement promoting the theory of evolution as a necessary part of the K-12 science curriculum. The same statement declared that creationism and Intelligent Design had no place in the classroom. The NSTA was just one of several professional societies publishing this sort of declaration at the time. The pro-evolution consensus among educators and scientists appeared to be stable and well-founded. 

However, in 2004, the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published a paper contending that Darwinian evolution couldn’t account for the appearance of new animals about 538 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion. Instead, the paper argued, the sudden proliferation of new life forms was more plausibly attributed to the work of an intelligent agent. 

For those who maintained that evolution was settled science, the publication of a peer-reviewed article arguing for Intelligent Design was an alarming development that threatened to lend credibility to their opponents. The editor of the journal, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, quickly came under fire. Scientists associated with the Smithsonian Institution, with which the journal was affiliated, made critical statements to the media, putting pressure on Sternberg to resign. 

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