In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans considers the current fight in the US over evolution, which spreads from classrooms to courtrooms.
President Bush is down on his ranch in Crawford doing what he likes best for relaxation - attacking timber with a chainsaw. As a warm-up, just before he decamped to the Texas White House for the rest of the summer, he sawed into a leafy, living branch of science - Darwinian evolution.
He did it with his usual nonchalance, in an off-the-cuff response to a reporter, by coming out on the side of religious activists who are campaigning for public schools to retreat from Darwin and teach something called "intelligent design" or ID.
In a nutshell, the ID activists maintain that many forms of life are too complex to have been the result of any random - indeed mindless - natural selection. A highly intelligent supernatural force must have designed, say, the human eye or the neurology of the brain.
One of the first apes to walk upright
Yet, as Charles Darwin demonstrated in his book Origin of Species in 1859, we weren't designed by any hidden hand in a single brilliant moment, but have all evolved from lower orders - ape to man - over hundreds of millions of years.
Bush didn't saw through the Darwinian branch entirely. He said that ID should be taught alongside evolution "because part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought".
That may sound harmless enough - free speech and all that - but coming from a president already known for his disdain for scientific research, notably on global warming and stem cells, it has further dismayed the scientific community and many others.
They see that phrase "different schools of thought" as putting faith and science on equal footing. But to the scientists, ID is no more than a priest in lab workers' clothing. After Bush has finished pronouncing on science expect to see headlines like Opinions on Shape of Earth Differ, said the columnist Paul Krugman in the New York Times.
Of course, a president can't ordain what is taught in the public schools. That is a matter for the states and their elected boards of education, but he could encourage the Justice Department to support challenges to Darwin.
Certainly his words have given impetus to a motley collection of anti-Darwinians who are laying siege to the boards in at least 20 states.
They have already won a first round in the small Republican farm town of Dover in Pennsylvania, where last October the school board ruled that ID should be given equal status with evolution. Eleven parents and the American Civil Liberties Union are now challenging the Dover board in a federal lawsuit - about time someone made a fight of it.
Science teachers and scientists in the state of Kansas made the mistake of boycotting similar school board hearings, saying they didn't want to dignify ID with serious rebuttal. As a consequence, it looks as if Kansas is also on the brink of opening its classrooms to ID.
More epithets are sure to fly because the president's apparently innocuous few words are seen as another shot in the culture wars in America, where the frontier between religion and politics is jealously contended.
The founding fathers thought they had settled the question of the role of religion in a free and plural society by enacting the First Amendment. It says: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".
They were godly men but were determined not to confuse religious authority with earthly power as was the case, they felt, in the England they had left behind.
All men are equal before God, wrote John Adams. So all men should be free to worship God as they pleased, be they the original Puritans or those who followed to create the world's most diverse religious community - Dutch Mennonites, Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots and so on through the alphabet of American denominations produced by waves of immigration.
But with succeeding waves of foreigners crowding the big cities there were immense social changes and with the changes immense anxiety among the settled population. Few peoples have had to adjust as much and as rapidly as generations of Americans.
One can sympathise with how evangelical Protestants reacted to what they saw as assaults on their traditional values from cultural turmoil. They clung to the certainties of the bible as the only expression of man's hope of salvation. Theirs is a touching and simple faith. Lark Myers, a shop owner in Dover, says: "I definitely would prefer that God created men than that I'm the 50th cousin of a silverback ape."
The sentiments are not very different from the hot July 80 years ago when there was a classic collision between science and religion in the small mountain settlement of Dayton, Tennessee.
Farmers and their families, in overalls and gingham, flocked in from miles around agog to hear the brilliant orator William Jennings Bryan. The three times Democratic presidential candidate defended their bible against the new fangled notion that everyone's great-grandpappy was a monkey.
This was the famous trial which is often regarded as a defeat for Darwin when it was nothing of the kind. John Thomas Scopes - the schoolteacher who had given lessons in evolution - had clearly broken the new law of the state, but the real issue was how Bryan would fare under cross-examination by the great criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Darrow, as we know, succeeded in making a fool of Bryan - and Creationism.
One exchange gives you the tenor of the disaster for the fundamentalists: Did Bryan really believe that the serpent is compelled to crawl on its belly because the Lord punished it for tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden? "I believe that," said Bryan. Had he any idea, mocked Darrow, how the snake got around before it was cursed. Did it perhaps walk on its tail? The huge crowd laughed at Bryan and, in a way, their own credulity.
What would Darwin have made of Bush?
Darrow won public opinion. The bigotry and ignorance associated with the cause rallied liberal Christians, who believed that there was no necessary conflict between the teachings of Christianity and the findings of science.
But biblical fundamentalism has itself been evolving. By the 60s it had mutated into "scientific creationism". The movement's leader, a civil engineer and writer by name of Henry Morris, declared: "Evolution has served effectively as the pseudo-scientific basis of atheism, agnosticism, socialism, fascism, and numerous other false and dangerous philosophies over the past century."
Now "scientific creation" comes to us in a subtler guise. The well-funded leading propagators of ID have learned from the monkey trial, from the rhetoric of scientific creationism and the subsequent defeats right up to the last Supreme Court hearing in 1987. They say they don't want to outlaw Darwin, just have a discussion of unanswered questions.
The leaders are sophisticates - a biochemist, a mathematician and an emeritus professor of law. They are determined not to invite ridicule by arguing about Adam and Eve and the serpent. They don't even invoke the Almighty, but an anonymous designer whom they forbear to name.
They do accept some evidence of evolution, but challenge evolutionists to explain how the cell, now recognized as astonishingly complex, could ever possibly have emerged from random mutation. Lark Myers, the shopkeeper in Dover, has picked up the theme: "What's wrong with wanting our children to hear about all the holes in the theory of evolution."
Once this argument is really joined - by the scientific, education and legal establishments in America - I'm sure Darwin will continue to prevail in court and classroom. But science altogether is in trouble with the Bush administration. Indeed, of rather more concern to thinking Americans than where we came from is where we're going to. I'll report on this next week.
"Intelligent design" isn't a scientific theory at all: it's an unfalsifiable conjecture, and is therefore not susceptible to enquiry via the scientific method. To dignify it with the status of "scientific rival" to evolution is to fundamentally (and deliberately) misunderstand the nature of science itself. ID isn't just wrong: in scientific terms, it's meaningless, because it asks no testable question.
Rog Patterson, Nottingham, England
Many consider evolution to be scientific fact. However, scientific facts require the direct observation of the processes in question. No-one has ever observed the evolution of one species into another, therefore both evolution and creationism must be considered as only theories and accepted on faith. The question people need to ask themselves is why do they want evolution to be true?
Peter Cross, Ash Grove, Missouri, USA
I am totally perplexed at why it is that folks cannot see that "Intelligent Design" and "Evolutionary Theory" are not comparable in terms of the well-established scientific method. The former should remain as a topic in religious education and not presented as science. How can it be an "alternative" theory when the "evidence" is, apparently, the unerring word of God?
Dr Paul Spencer, Bristol, United Kingdom
Evolution can only help explain how different species developed. Evolution cannot prove or disprove the existence of a Guiding Hand. The chance factor that even such small organs like the eye have evolved into what they are today is so mind-boggling small, that many see the need for a Guiding Hand. But whether or not Evolution was guided by the hand of a creator is not a question for Science; and therefore shouldn't be legislated for one way or another.
Steve Blunden, Reading, UK
It scares me to think how far Bush and the fundamentalist christians can take this. If we turn our backs on science, all the progress we have made over the years will be wasted. Religion is good, it has it's place in our society and it can make make people and their lives richer and better. But so has science. Without it, we would be no more advanced than the Neanderthals.
DAVID, DALLAS, TEXAS USA
There is a disturbing lack of critical thinking when it comes to evolution. Any religious credulity of 80 years ago has been eclipsed by today's mindless assent to the scientific version of events. It's been drummed into society so hard that there are normal intelligent people who believe that evolution has the same status as the experimentally repeatable law of gravity. In my opinion some scientists hold evolution as something akin to a faith system. Lets remember the scientific process; put forward a theory, let everyone shoot as many holes in it as they can, see what's left. And no sacred cows, religious or otherwise!
Martin, London, UK
We need to remember that there are Christian people in America who are as 'fanatical' about their religion as any other fanatic around the world. I see the 'Church', to use a very general term for all religions, going through something of a renaissance at the moment, it seems to be flexing it's muscles ready to take on the establishment! Perhaps we are witnessing the start of the next crusades?
Ade Sinclair, Hampshire, UK
Surely the "intelligent design" crusaders do not want Bush associating with their cause, he can only act as proof of evolution, and the odd mutations it results in. If there is an unknown intelligence (Aliens???) directing the growth of the Human race how is ID going to explain him, as a joke?
Redmond O'Hanlon, Dublin, Ireland
As a Kansan, I find this whole situation utterly humiliating. As an atheist, I feel that belief in any God or any other supernatural entity is no more legitimate than belief in leprechauns and magic-fairies. The fact that a few ignorant rabble-rousers think they have the right to force their ridiculous religious teachings disguised as legitimate science, and to do so in schools that MY tax dollars pay for, is an abomination to all human knowledge and dignity.
Tom Wilhauk, Kansas, USA
The way to deal with the 'holes in the theory of evolution' is to use science to plug those holes, not primitive superstition. Science may not "yet" have all the answers, but at least it knows what most of the questions are.
russ, cornwall uk
Does this mean that they are going to teach all creation theories such as The universe was dreamed into existence as the Australian Aborigines believe or is it going to be just the Christian view?
So who, may I ask, designed the designer?
Roger Hyam, Lauder, Scotland, UK