Scientists debate evolution’s place in classroom

By Alex Kingsbury
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
March 27, 2001

More than three quarters of a century after the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., the issue of evolution versus creationism is rearing its head in American school boards and classrooms. The American Institute of Biological Sciences held a town meeting last weekend, bringing together biology teachers from across the country to discuss the current debate in many of our schools over the teaching of evolution.

“It is no longer the deep South and the Bible belt — now it is Michigan and it’s Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that works to support the teaching of evolution. “There is an aggressive anti-evolutionary movement out there, it is from the grass-roots level, and now we are seeing it from the top down.”

The event, sponsored by the NCSE, featured a panel of speakers, each of whom had dealt with the evolution versus creationism controversy first hand. Dr. Andrew Petto of the NCSE and Brad Williamson, a high school biology teacher from Kansas, joined her. They spoke on the current state of affairs in the creationism debate and took questions from an audience of teachers representing nearly all of the 50 states.

Despite a 1968 Supreme Court ruling making way for the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms, the debate continues. At the state and local level, where the curriculums of most high schools are decided, evolution is a hot topic.

Scott said that since January of this year, the center has fought for the teaching of evolution in five states.

“That is more states in the past two months than in the past five years,” Scott said.

The argument before educators today is the decision of teaching evolution as a suspect science, highlighting its theoretical nature and also teaching “creation science” or “intelligent design.”

The recent revival of the public debate on the origins of life is due to a new wave of mostly Christian scholars like Michael Behe, Dr. Ken Miller and Phillip Johnson, who have found an audience due to their combination of academic credentials and public support.

Creation science has many forms and is highlighted in numerous books as a possible alternative to evolution. In the recent book “Darwin’s Black Box,” Behe argues for creationism in a radical new way. His theory is that some components of living organisms, such as bacteria flagellum, are so complex that their presence could not result of an evolutionary historical progression, but rather “best explained as the result of deliberate intelligent design.”

Scott argued that such assaults against evolution are dangerous. “We should teach about religion in schools and we should teach about creationism,” she said. “But the proper place for these topics is in a comparative religions classroom, not the biology classroom.”

A 1999 Scientific American survey revealed that only 10 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believed in God. In contrast, Gallup polls showed that 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher power.

Though the scientific community as a whole dismisses ideas like intelligent design, the nation’s schools sometimes consider the arguments.

Last Friday, the Arkansas House of Representatives came six votes away from passing a bill that would prevent state funding for textbooks that described evolution as “fact.” A change to the Pennsylvania curriculum has been proposed that would allow the teaching of material that contradicts the theory of evolution. A similar bill proposed in Michigan would require the teaching of alternate theories to evolution. Kansas recently debated inclusion of evolution questions on standardized testing.

These and numerous other incidents show that the debate over biology is far from resolved.

“The kids are the easy part,” Barry Greenwald, a biology teacher from Minnesota, told U-WIRE. “It is the administrators and the parents who give you problems.”

Greenwald said educators tread a thin line when talking to students about evolution.

“We have to make sure that we understand that we are not insulting their beliefs,” he said.

The panel of speakers worked through strategies on how to deal with school boards, administrators and students.

“What parents have to understand is that by not teaching creationism we are protecting their children,” Greenwald added.

Many religious groups support the teaching of evolution rather than the teaching of one view of creationism. A 1982 resolution by the United Presbyterian Church resolved, “academic freedom of both teachers and students is being further limited by the impositions of the campaign … which limits the teaching about evolution.”

“The student’s job is to learn the material,” Scott said. “They don’t have to believe in evolution.”

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