Evolving Dialogue

Can Sharon Sparlin's play get science and religion to stop yelling and start talking?

(L-r) Omid Ghorashi, Kirk German, and Lynn Burnor at play in <i>The E Word</i>
(L-r) Omid Ghorashi, Kirk German, and Lynn Burnor at play in The E Word

Before the March 27 meeting of the Texas State Board of Education, the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning nonprofit organization, held a press conference. The board would be discussing standards for science education in public schools, including how to address the theory of evolution. At one point, a woman interrupted the press conference, shouting, "My grandfather was not a monkey!"

"In fairness, a press conference held by a conservative, anti-evolution group just before ours in the Texas Education Agency lobby was also interrupted by a science supporter," says Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network. "The lobby was crowded with a lot of folks concerned about the issue."

That a press conference would attract such vehemence on both sides of an education issue points to how evolution stirs people on both sides of the debate to anger and passion. It also suggests that many members of the public don't know how to define the terms of their debate. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans said that creationism (the view that the book of Genesis should be read literally) was definitely or probably true, but almost the same number said the same thing about evolution. Within that crossover exists some confusion. So what exactly did the woman at the press conference mean?

"Was she speaking literally or metaphorically?" wonders Austin director and producer Sharon Sparlin, who is staging an original play about the evolution debate. "That's the problem. People don't get taught evolution."

Her play The E Word: A Playground Adaptation opens May 8, during a year that marks both the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, The Origin of Species. It is a year with both widespread celebrations and condemnations of Darwin's work. It is also the year that the Texas State Board of Education chose to ratify language in the Texas Administrative Code that supports teaching what is known as intelligent design (I.D. for short), the idea that a designer or divine entity has been at the helm of evolution all along.

What sets The E Word apart from many other observances of this evolution anniversary is Sparlin's intention to treat both sides of the debate with fairness and understanding rather than advocate for one or the other. The play is a three-actor performance that includes scientific fact, puppetry, Darwin's finches, and the hymn "Amazing Grace" in a story of children on a playground trying to get along. It is in many ways a demonstration of how science and religion can have a conversation that involves listening and not just shouting.

Sparlin, who says she reads science texts for fun, calls herself a "science playwright." She first thought of the project in 2003 when her theatre company Iron Belly Muses disbanded, although at the time the play was only a vague idea involving "asteroids, Sisyphus, and something to do with rocks." Her reading in geology led to reading in biology. When she noted that 2009 would be a major Darwin anniversary year, she began working in earnest on what would become The E Word.

Sparlin has reached out to groups including Texas Freedom Network, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit that promotes "science, reason, and free inquiry." Likewise, she has invited some local churches to participate.

While she hasn't reached out to any conservative churches, she says: "They're welcome to come as long as they behave civilized. Same to my scientist friends. A lot of my militant science friends don't like what I'm doing, don't think we should be exploring how these sides can coexist."

"To be honest, when she first proposed the idea, I was skeptical," says Clare Wuellner, executive director of the Center for Inquiry Austin. "You know, 'I'm not sure I can support it.' At the time, I didn't know [Sparlin] very well. It's a pretty risky thing. I felt the CFI crowd might not even be interested in that kind of thing. Since that time, we've really done a lot of work with religious groups, because there's no point in yelling at each other. It's better if we talk to each other."

Part of talking to each other means establishing just what the conversation is about. In other words, what is evolution? What did Darwin really say? What is a theory? And while we're at it, what is science?

Proponents of evolution see it as the result of the contributions of many scientists, of whom Darwin was only one. Darwin was the first to write on natural selection, which explains how over time a species adapts to its environment. In his introduction to The Origin of Species, he wrote, "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done."

Does this mean evolution is "just a theory," that it is in question? Not among scientists. "In science, they mean something very different than what 'theory' means to a lay person," says Wuellner. "To a lay person, it means a hunch. In science, a theory is a body of knowledge that all points to the same thing." While, technically speaking, a theory is still open to challenge, an established scientist challenging the entire theory of evolution is akin to asking if the Earth really does go around the sun, when the reverse appears to be true.

Furthermore, any discussion of religion must be kept separate from science, as Wuellner sees it: "If you can see it, if you can record it, if you can have data that are reproducible, then it's not supernatural. If science could test the supernatural, then it wouldn't be supernatural." Thus, intelligent design is insupportable because it advocates presenting the supernatural as science. "[I.D. supporters] want nothing more than for evolution to die," she adds.

Many proponents of intelligent design would disagree. While court cases in Kansas and Pennsylvania have linked the I.D. movement to a creationism based in fundamentalist, Protestant Christianity, the two are not equivalent. Unlike creationism, I.D. does not argue that evolution did not take place, merely that a divine hand guides evolution. It focuses on supposed weak links in evolution rather than supplanting the theory with an alternative, scriptural or otherwise.

Likewise, those who advocate for intelligent design are not always the anti-science radicals who shout about phantom monkey-grandfathers at press conferences.

Take Randy Phillips, senior pastor at PromiseLand West, a conservative nondenominational church in Austin. "I am of intelligent design-thinking. In God's creation order, for something as sophisticated and planned as our creation is, an accident is not plausible. I believe God created it, as his word says. I don't look down on anyone who has a different view. I do think both should be taught."

Phillips is an articulate man who thinks as he speaks and speaks carefully. "I take my beliefs directly from the Bible. It interacts with us on a daily basis. It is how I process my hopes, my fears, my lifestyle. If I do that, I am a better citizen, a better father, a better neighbor. If the Bible isn't true, then it doesn't matter. I've lived a great life because of it.But if it is true, it's all that matters."

He acknowledges that in the past, conservative Christians have at times merited a reputation for being close-minded and exclusive. "[Conservatives] haven't been open and accepting, and that's too bad. I think the days of either-or are gone. With the president being who he is, we have an opportunity to open the playing field."

Not every church's leadership is as discussion-minded as that of PromiseLand West, nor are some conservative Christians willing to let evolution stand. (See the $27 million Creation Museum near Cincinnati, showing the biblical account of creation in the manner of a natural history museum, dinosaurs and all.)

It's also true that many Christians view Darwin's work the same way most scientists do: not as a threat but as an important contribution to the field of biology. In 2007, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared that evolution can coexist with faith.

It's within this complicated mess of strong opinions that Sparlin and the creative team behind The E Word set their play – and they mean the word literally. The evening is set up "like a child's activity or coloring book," says Sparlin. Before the show, audience members will have the chance to play games, including dominoes, Battleship, and "Pin the Leg on the Fish," as they browse information provided by participating groups. Her hope is to engage with those who attend in an attitude of playfulness, to ease them into a performance that deals with sticky issues and presents actors who interact directly with the audience.

"Anytime we can speak to each other instead of yelling at each other, that's a good thing," Sparlin says. "If you attend this, maybe you can be in the room with someone who thinks differently than you without walking out."

The E Word runs May 8-23, Wednesday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, call 507-8535 or e-mail [email protected].

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evolution, The E Word, Sharon Sparlin, Texas State Board of Education, Texas Freedom Network, Center for Inquiry, PromiseLand West

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