In July, 1925, Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial, the highlight of a theological contest that would determine whether it was unlawful to teach human evolution in public schools.
Did the evolutionist Darrow get the best of the creationist Bryan? Most historical accounts, as well as the film Inherit the Wind, portray Darrow as the undisputed victor. Indeed, Bryan's death shortly after the trial left a void that could not be filled. Bryan, after all, was a three-time presidential candidate, and the most prominent fundamentalist in the country. The anti-evolution movement, the story goes, faded away with his passing.
Tell that to the Kansas State Board of Education, which voted in 1999 to remove evolution from state standardized tests and left it up to local school districts whether or not to teach evolution at all. Voters later kicked the Kansas board members out of office who had voted against evolution and the new board, in the words of its chairman, Dr. Bill Wagnon, "returned its curriculum standards to mainstream science."
Nonetheless, reports of the death of creationism and intelligent design are greatly exaggerated. In fact, an increasing number of Americans (46 percent in 2012) believe that "God created humans in present form." Only 32 percent believe that humans evolved without God playing some sort of role.
These are troubling numbers to Bill Nye, a 21st century Clarence Darrow who argued in a Big Think video in 2012 that Americans should absolutely be free to believe whatever they want to believe, but - and this is a big but - they should not deny their children access to the basis of all life science. In short, Nye argued that we need a generation of scientifically literate students in order to be successful in the 21st century.
Over 6 million YouTube views and nearly 400,000 comments later, Nye is set to debate Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, tonight. Not everyone is so enamored of Nye's decision to engage in this debate. Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, argues that "theories of creation can superficially sound right to people without a science background."
The Creation Museum, which is based in Petersburg, Kentucky, promotes the so-called "Young Earth" explanation of the origins of the universe. The physicist Lawrence Krauss argues that this literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is "as much a disservice to religion as it is to science." Indeed, even the televangelist Pat Robertson has rejected the idea that our planet is 6,000 years old and therefore, (as some would have us believe) dinosaur fossils must either be forgeries or, just as preposterously, homo sapiens and dinosaurs cohabitated 6,000 years ago.
In other words, Bill Nye will not only be debating anti-evolutionists, he will be debating an extreme fringe group of creationists. Is he walking into the lion's den?
You can watch the LIVE feed from MSNBC here.
You can watch the feed from the Creation Museum here LIVE at 7PM (ET):