Scientists Defend School Board's Use of Evolution Disclaimer Sticker

Professors say evolution disclaimer is 'reasonable'
R. Robin McDonald and Greg Bluestein
Law.com, Fulton County Daily Report
November 12, 2004
Print ArticleCalling evolution "a theory in crisis," more than two-dozen scientists have come to the defense of the Cobb County, Ga., Board of Education. The scientists, all Ph.D.'s, portray evolution as "a live and growing scientific controversy."

Among them are professors of microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics, who have filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the school board's 2002 decision to place a disclaimer about evolution in the front of its high-school biology textbooks. At the board's direction, a sticker placed in every Cobb biology textbook warns students that evolution is "a theory, not a fact," and should be "critically considered."

The sticker is being challenged this we! ek in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. A group of Cobb parents and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have the sticker declared unconstitutional. Selman v. Cobb County School District, No. 1:02CV2325 (N.D. Ga. filed Aug. 21, 2002). The parents, led by Cobb resident Jeffrey Selman, say that the sticker is an implicit endorsement of religion because most alternative explanations of creation are based on religious concepts rather than science.

The school board's attorney has said the sticker isn't meant to promote discussions of faith-based concepts of the origin of life, but is simply an accommodation to families who don't believe in evolution.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper is hearing the case in a bench trial. Cooper has said in pre-trial rulings that the trial is being held to examine whether the sticker has a religious purpose, but in the first two days of testimony it appears that witnesses on both sides are interested in validating or questi! oning the scientific evidence for evolution.

A SCIENTIFIC CHALLENGE

The amicus brief, submitted last week, is a direct challenge to Tuesday's testimony by Emory University assistant professor Carlos S. Moreno, a cancer researcher in the medical school's department of pathology and laboratory medicine. In September 2002, Moreno and 120 other Emory faculty members signed a petition in support of Selman's suit.

"We feel that it is our duty as scientists, educators, and citizens to ensure that secondary level science classes teach science and not religion," the letter accompanying the petition said.

The letter also argued, "To put evolutionary theory onto the same level as faith-based creationism and 'intelligent design' would disregard mountains of evidence carefully gathered by thousands of scientists over the past 160 years. ... All biological evidence supports the concept of descent from an original common ancestor, and all of biology makes sens! e only in the framework of evolutionary theory. To suggest to middle- and high-school students that there is any type of debate within the scientific community on the validity of evolution would be completely untrue and a disservice to those children."

Moreno said Tuesday that placing the sticker in the biology textbooks was like "putting a sticker about gravity on a physics book."

Not according to the academics who signed the amicus brief, among them 12 Ph.D.s who teach at the University of Georgia and six at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They say in their brief that there is growing skepticism that evolution as first elucidated by Charles Darwin in his "On the Origin of the Species" can "account for the complexity of life we see today."

Most of the amici are scientists with doctoral degrees in fields such as biology, biochemistry and other scientific fields.

They include Russell W. Carlson, technical director of the Complex Carbohydrate Resear! ch Center at UGA; Henry F. Schaefer, director of UGA's Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry; Eugene C. Ashby, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Leon L. Combs, chair of Kennesaw State University's department of chemistry and biochemistry; and Dr. James A. Tumlin, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University.

The brief was written by Atlanta attorneys George M. Weaver and Kevin T. McMurry of Hollberg & Weaver, and Seth L. Cooper for the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash. The Discovery Institute is one of the major proponents of intelligent design, the idea that a divine being orchestrated the evolutionary process.

The brief notes that its signatories "represent a sampling of a growing number of scientists who are skeptical of neo-Darwinism's claim that the undirected mechanisms of natural selection and random genetic variations can account for the complexity of life. Amici also represent a number of scientists who! are skeptical of chemical evolutionary theory's ability to account for the origin of life."

'FULLY INFORMED' STUDENTS

The brief states, "[S]tandard high-school and college biology textbooks routinely ignore scientific data challenging neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories. ... Furthermore, many textbooks contain purported evidence for neo-Darwinian theory that have long been discredited by scientists, including neo-Darwinists."

The brief acknowledges that this view represents "a minority position within the scientific community." However, it suggests that when debates such as the one over evolution "are raging, students need to know about them," and school boards "should be able to take reasonable steps to ensure that students are fully informed." In that light, the brief's signatories found Cobb's disclaimer to be "entirely reasonable."

One of the authors of the Cobb textbook, Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown Univer! sity, said in testimony Monday that the sticker was far from "reasonable." He called it "very weird. ... The only place I see warnings is cigarette packs."

Miller took the witness stand to defend his textbook. He conceded that evolutionary theory doesn't explain everything about the origin of life, but he added, "There are elements of the Battle of Gettysburg we can't explain. Does that mean it didn't take place? Of course not."

He also challenged the disclaimer's statement that evolution is theory rather than fact.

"The popular feeling is a theory is just a hunch," he explained. "In science, you don't use the word 'theory' for a hunch or a stupid guess. Theories explain facts. They tie them together."

Miller, who also has authored a book called "Finding Darwin's God," devoted to how religion and biology intermingle, said he views religion and science as "complementary." "The purpose of education is not to compel belief but to promote understanding! ," he said. "If you understand why the scientific community finds evolution so compelling, I really don't care what you believe."