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Loosening Darwin’s Grip

Original Story

Larry Taylor had run his volunteers through public-speaking drills, and now he was seeing the fruit of his labor.

Parents favoring a new science education policy in Cobb County, Ga., a policy that would allow evidence against evolution into classrooms long dominated by Darwin’s flawed theory, were gaining the upper hand at the county’s September board meeting. The parents were offering coherent and compelling arguments, each of them concluding their remarks within the board-imposed time limit. The other side wasn’t nearly as impressive.

“The opposition was disorganized,” Taylor recalled. “They kept making the same baseless charges and never got much beyond introducing themselves before their time was up.”

The Cobb board must have noted the difference, because it voted unanimously for “teaching the controversy” permitting teachers to discuss with their students the growing number of studies and reports contradicting evolutionary theory.

The media misreported what Cobb County board members had voted to do, though, claiming the school board had mandated creationism. No matter. The idea of allowing greater freedom in science education, encouraged by language attached to President Bush’s 2002 education act, is emboldening parents and school board members across the nation.

“It is time for defenders of Darwin to engage in serious dialogue and debate with their scientific critics,” said Jed Macosko, a research molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Science can’t grow where institutional gatekeepers try to prevent new challengers from being heard.”

The List Keeps Growing

The seeds for the Cobb County success were sown in September 2001, when the Seattle-based Discovery Institute compiled a list of 100 U.S. scientists who said they were skeptical that the cornerstones of evolution, random mutation and natural selection, could account for the complexity of life. The list included professors and researchers at Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and the National Laboratories at Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M.

Chemist Henry “Fritz” Schaefer of the University of Georgia, a five-time Nobel nominee, commented, “Some defenders of Darwinism embrace standards of evidence for evolution that as scientists they would never accept in other circumstances.”

In 2001, the voices of dissent finally caught the attention of congressional leaders.

When the U.S. Senate considered Bush’s education reform bills education reform bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., offered a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” amendment spelling out how science teachers should approach the subject of the origin and diversity of life.

The amendment read in part: “A quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy(such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

In other words, science classes should be free to teach the controversies surrounding the evidence for evolution.

The paragraph was not included in the final bill but inserted instead in the conference report accompanying the legislation. Conference reports offer a guide to understanding Congress’ intent in passing specific legislation.

“A number of scholars are now raising scientific challenges to the usual Darwinian account of the origins of life,” Santorum said after the bill passed. “Thus, it is entirely appropriate that the scientific evidence behind them is examined in science classrooms. Efforts to shut down scientific debates, as such, only serve to thwart the true purposes of education, science and law.”

Santorum’s paragraph gave further impetus to an ever-expanding movement.

Ohio Firestorm

In June 2001, a team of 41 teachers and scientists began writing standards to serve as the basis for science education curriculum throughout Ohio. These would become the foundation for new state-mandated achievement tests kids would have to pass to graduate high school. There was a lot on the line.

Bob Lattimer, a research chemist from Hudson, Ohio, and a member of the science writing team, noticed the proposed instruction on biological origins would require students to learn Darwin’s theory but not the debate surrounding it. He offered changes to the policy that would allow teaching alternative explanations only to have them repeatedly rejected.

Then, on Jan. 11, 2002, just a few days after the education reform act became federal law, the Ohio school board’s standards committee heard from John Calvert, managing director of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network. Calvert explained that the state’s science standards shut out competing theories about the origin of life and censored legitimate criticism.

That presentation spurred a debate drawing more than 1,500 spectators. Among the speakers was Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller, who searched his laptop’s hard drive for the text of the education bill and projected it onto a screen. He argued that Santorum’s paragraph is not law, and therefore irrelevant to Ohio science standards.

On his Web site, Miller blasted the intelligent design camp for misleading the public: “The fact that the anti-evolutionists eagerly misrepresent both the content of the education bill and the language in the new education act is at once distressing and instructive.”

The Discovery Institute was quick to correct Miller’s assertions.

“While the Santorum statement may not have the ‘force of law,’ it is a powerful statement of federal education policy, and it provides authoritative guidance on how the statutory provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are to be carried out,” a Web site news release noted.

The board also heard from two Ohio congressmen, Republicans John Boehner and Steve Chabot. Their March 15 letter to the state board said, “The Santorum language clarifies that public school students are entitled to learn that there are differing scientific views on issues such as biological evolution.”

Meanwhile, most of the public feedback sided with the Discovery Institute. A poll released in May 2002 by Zogby International found that nearly eight out of every 10 Ohioans supported the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms where Darwinian evolution also is taught. A survey by The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland offered similar findings: 74 percent of Ohioans said evidence for and against evolution should be taught in science classrooms, while 59 percent said intelligent design should be included in origins study.

Altogether, 20,000 people contacted the state board, urging it to allow classrooms to “teach the controversy.”

That swayed the state board, which voted in December to adopt a teach-the-controversy policy.

“The Santorum language gave impetus to the board that if they did move in this direction they would have support from federal legislators,” said spokesperson Jody Sjogren of Science Excellence for All Ohioans.

Board member Debbie Owen Fink agreed.

“The Santorum language strengthened the case for Ohio to be bold in dealing with controversial areas of the curriculum, in a very up front and fair manner. Santorum helped us frame the issue.”

Cobb Controversy

Meanwhile, another school board was warring over the origin of life.

The Cobb County debate began quietly in 2001, when attorney and parent Marjorie Rogers of Marietta learned the school district was preparing to adopt new science textbooks. When she reviewed the proposed textbooks at a public meeting in early 2002, Rogers noticed they presented evolution as a fact, not a theory. She rallied her neighbors and friends and circulated a petition urging the school board to use disclaimer language similar to what’s used in Alabama:

“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

The board voted to apply disclaimer stickers to the books. But pro-family groups, such as the local chapters of the American Family Association (AFA), Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition, wanted more, a new policy for science education.

“The proposal of the Cobb School Board is to approach [evolution] objectively without bias or intellectual prejudice,” wrote Steve Shasteen, executive director of AFA’s North Georgia chapter, in a news release. “Objectivity does not censor evidence because of its religious or nonreligious implications. It simply calls for critical thinking and open mindedness that will allow objective consideration of the full range of scientific views about our origin. We are not asking to teach a theology class in the public schools but to allow critical thinking.”

Larry Taylor, a construction manager and father of three schoolchildren, organized Parents for Truth in Cobb (PTC) to support the proposed policy. He put together a list of talking points for the Cobb County board’s September meeting, covering everything from gaps in the fossil record to the list of prestigious scientists questioning macroevolution. A group of 20 to 30 parents divvied up the topics, put together one-minute presentations and critiqued each others’ speeches.

Taylor even played reporter.

“I asked them some of the trick questions I’d been hit with,” he told Citizen. “Some handled it well, others got angry and defensive. But it gave us a chance to work through that and know what to expect.”

When the meeting rolled around, the PTC and its supporters, about 80 in all, showed up in force on a rainy day, wearing buttons that said, “Evolution: A Leap of Faith.” They crowded into the lobby of the board offices, shoulder to shoulder with pro-evolutionists, engaging in mini-debates as they waited to speak.

“I had one man come up to me and say my button was offensive to him,” Taylor said. “He was wearing a black T-shirt with the Christian fish on it, but with feet coming out the bottom and “Darwin” written inside. I told him his shirt was a desecration of a holy religious symbol. He didn’t have any comment.”

About 20 PTC members spoke. “We kept bringing it back to the central message ‘this is not a religious issue, but an academic freedom issue,'” Taylor said.

PTC member Preston Hobby spoke at the meeting and was shocked by the opposition. “They didn’t say anything more than, ‘This is what we’ve always taught; this is accepted science; they only want to put God in the classroom,'” he said. “We won the day.”

The board adopted a new policy that did not address creationism or intelligent design but encouraged “objective” classroom discussion of origin.

Board member Gordon O’Neill said the policy is a step in the right direction.

“If an origin theory is written in a book, whether it’s a Bible or a science book, critical thinkers need to review it from different angles,” he said. “This issue is steeped in principles of free speech, freedom of religion and free thought. Political correctness pushes freedom of thought out of the classroom.”

O’Neill added that Santorum’s paragraph gave the board extra confidence. “The senator’s language sent the message we’d be within the boundaries of the Constitution and the laws of the United States with this policy,” he said. “It increased our comfort level.”

The Big Mo

The Discovery Institute said it is getting calls from across the country from state legislators and school board members who want to follow Cobb County’s lead. Calvert of the Intelligent Design Network said the next battlefront likely will be New Mexico, where state standards will be developed this year. Calvert already has set up a branch operation there in anticipation.

Mark Hartwig, Ph.D., the religion and society analyst for Focus on the Family, expects teaching-the-controversy policies to spread. And Focus on the Family, as it did in Ohio, is prepared to assist those willing to take the lead.

“In March and April, we sent out a letter to 128,000 constituents in Ohio letting them know what was happening,” Hartwig said. “We encouraged people to contact the state board of education.”

Hartwig expects the movement will ultimately have a life of its own.

“Cobb and Ohio gave it a lot of momentum,” he said. “This isn’t some kind of fringe idea, promoted by fanatics, but a view supported by the public.”

Lattimer, the Ohio science team member, said the victory in his state was a “cooperative venture.”

“The unprecedented response could not have happened without many people getting on board, and we believe that the real credit goes to God.”
Religion in disguise?

To hear the mainstream media tell it, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are the same thing. Scientifically speaking, though, their main tenets are vastly different:

Creation science is defined by the following six tenets, taken together:
-The universe, energy and life were created from nothing.
-Mutations and natural selection cannot bring about the development of all living things from a single organism.
-The Earth is young in the range of 10,000 years or so.
-Created kinds of plants and organisms can vary only within fixed limits.
-Humans and apes have different ancestries.
-Earth’s geology can be explained by catastrophic events, primarily a worldwide flood.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, involves only two basic assumptions:
-Intelligent causes exist for the creation of life.
-These causes can be empirically detected.

[DI Correction: ID really rests on no assumptions but only starts with the question “Can intelligent causes be empirically detected?” Since they can, the final statement of ID is that there is evidence that intelligent causes are the best explanation for the origins of certain natural systems.]
What they did right:

What did the parents in Cobb County, Ga., say about teaching the controversy surrounding Darwinism that proved so persuasive? Larry Taylor, head of Parents for Truth in Cobb, put together a list of topics that became the basis for parents’ testimony at a crucial public meeting last year:

Parents want objective instruction: This is not an effort to get religion in the classroom, but to make sure all information for and against evolutionary theory is presented so students can decide.

Irreducible complexity: Darwin wrote if any complex organ existed which could not have been formed by numerous, slight modifications, his theory would break down. Biochemist Michael Behe contends the basic cell meets this criterion.

The No Child Left Behind Act: The Santorum conference report language advises schools that origins science should expose students to “the full range of scientific views that exists.” Icons of evolution: Various “proofs” of Darwinian macroevolution, many treated as fact in the Cobb County seventh-grade science textbook, have been shown to be false.

Scientists who doubt Darwinism: A list of 160 Georgia scientists who question Darwin’s theory was presented, proving “this is not a debate between science and religion; it’s a debate between science and science.” [DI Correction: This list had 28 scientists from Georgia and 132 nationally]

The Zogby poll: A nationwide poll in 2002 found that 71 percent of Americans want biology teachers to teach Darwin’s theory but also to include the evidence against it. From the same poll, 78 percent said that where Darwin’s theory is taught, evidence for an intelligent designer should also be allowed.

Missing links: According to science experts, there are significant holes in the fossil record, indicating a lack of evidence for transitions between species, a major Darwinian tenet.

Clem Boyd is a freelance writer in Ohio.