A t the end of “A Brief History of Time,” his 1988 best-seller about the latest scientific thinking on the cosmos, the British physicist Stephen W. Hawking posed a tough question in deceptively simple terms. “Why,” he asked, “does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

Musing on the answer, he pointed out that in the last couple of centuries most scientists had been too busy with new theories about what the universe is to ask the question why it is. But, he wrote, it was not always that way. Philosophers — the people who ask why — used to take all of human knowledge for their field, admitting no division between scientific questions and religious ones.

Flexible thinker that he is, professor Hawking famously concluded his book with a thought that may have surprised his colleagues. “If we do discover a complete theory [of the universe],” he wrote, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of “why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”

Since then, many ordinary people have jumped the gun on that discussion, particularly in the United States, where a debate has raged over what should and should not be taught in public schools on the great “why” question. More accurately, sizable segments of the American population have conflated “how” and “what” with “why,” in effect arguing that a science course — especially a biology course — should start, not end, with the mind of God. Most scientists and teachers feel, with professor Hawking, that it should be the other way round.

This fractious debate appeared to have been resolved in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively barred the teaching of “creationism” in public schools to balance the teaching of evolution — the near-universally accepted theory that Earth is billions of years old, that life forms have developed gradually over millions of years and that the question of ultimate origins is an open one. The court argued that creationism — the belief that a deity created Earth and living things some 6,000 years ago, as recounted in the Bible — was an attempt to promote religion and as such violated the constitutional wall between church and state. It was a split decision, but in the end the justices chose to opine that a scientific theory did not have to be “balanced” by a folk tale.

Since then, however, states have chipped away at the substance and scope of that ruling, culminating in a new case now being heard in Pennsylvania in which the folk tale seems to have returned to the fray in the guise of an antitheory. Parents from the town of Dover, Pa., are suing to block a local school board requirement that biology teachers read a statement casting doubt on Darwin’s theory of evolution. The statement also proposes an alternative scenario, known as intelligent design, which says life is too complex to have arisen spontaneously, without the intervention of an undefined higher being.

The case has drawn enormous attention, and polls show the American public — but not the scientific community — as more or less evenly divided on it. Both sides agree, though, that it will probably end up back in the Supreme Court. Thus, 106 years after Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published, evolution is still controversial.

Except that it is not, on the whole — not among the overwhelming majority of scientists and not outside the United States. Scientists testified at the Pennsylvania trial last week that intelligent design, the latest weapon in the anti-Darwin war, is not a scientific theory at all, since, like creationism, it is untestable. On that ground, it is simply a negative argument, not an alternative one.

Observers from other countries often have trouble understanding the vehemence of American anti-evolutionists, since so many religious people around the world see no contradiction between Darwin’s theory and belief in a deity. There are even many scientists who, as the Australian physicist Paul Davies once put it, “do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident.” Darwin himself never said it was.

The American debate is therefore a bit of a curiosity. Much about it is comical — remember the joke about intelligent design being disproved by the existence of the Kansas school board? But much of it is alarming, too, particularly the hints that a form of anti-intellectual brainwashing may be taking place in large swaths of the rural U.S. The world will be watching the outcome of the Pennsylvania case with interest — and trepidation.

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