Fierce debate over how evolution is taught in public schools is brewing once again in courtrooms and school boards across the country.
School administrators in Arizona say an open dialogue with parents and a willingness to answer questions from students concerning the theory of evolution are key to avoiding conflict.
In the past, Arizona’s Board of Education wrestled with how to approach the subject of evolution in the state’s science standards, which led to heated debates in 1998. Those who supported teaching evolution argued against those who wanted requirements in the state’s science standards that called for a critical analysis of evidence for and against evolution.
In the end, the board sided with evolution proponents.
Now the debate has reignited in school districts from Georgia to California, where the courts are being asked to settle the debate. Requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act that call for states to reassess their science standards have helped fuel the controversy.
The national debate has given new life to the idea of “intelligent design,” the belief that a higher power must have created the universe. It’s being supported by a small but vocal group of scientists who believe that characteristics of the universe and the complexity of living things point to an intelligent force at work.
In May, Arizona’s State Board of Education adopted revised science standards, which do not significantly differ from those approved in 1998, educators say. The standards mandate the teaching of the Big-Bang Theory and evolution, primarily in high school, while allowing for critical analysis of all scientific theories.
“If a student says, ‘Well, I think intelligent design is a better theory,’ then the teacher is obligated to treat that in a respectful way,” Arizona Superintendent of Education Tom Horne said. “Those kind of discussions can make the study of evolution itself more interesting if students know that there is a controversy going on.”
But Walt Brown, director of the Phoenix-based Center for Scientific Creation, said such discussions are highly unlikely because the state’s science standards do not explicitly call for teachers to address the evidence for and against evolution.
Brown, who sat on a panel that advised the board of education in 1998 concerning science standards and evolution, said he does not endorse the teaching of religion in public school classrooms. But he is critical of Arizona’s science standards because he said they take a one-sided view of the evidence for evolutionary processes and the Big-Bang Theory.
“I don’t want either side of the story taught dogmatically,” Brown said. “I want the students to be given the evidence for and against evolution.”
Before the state board of education adopted new science standards, parents were allowed to review drafts and participate in open forums to discuss the standards.
“Our state has done a nice job of making sure the community at large has been in the loop throughout the whole process,” said Suzie DePrez, who oversees science curriculum and other subjects for Mesa Public Schools.
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, chairman of the K-12 Education Committee in the Arizona House of Representatives and Peter Gentala, an attorney with the Center for Arizona Policy, a non-profit organization that promotes socially conservative values, both said they’re unaware of any organized resistance to the science standards.
Gentala added that his organization will monitor how the standards are implemented in the classroom with respect to evolution.
Debates around the U.S.
Elsewhere in the country, the debate over evolution and intelligent design has stirred up school districts and drawn the attention of scientists.
Earlier this month in Georgia, a U.S. district judge ordered the removal of disclaimers placed on science textbooks by the Cobb County Board of Education, which is appealing the decision.
The disclaimers read: “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.”
In California, a man is suing the school district where his children attend because he says he was threatened and mistreated for trying to convince the district to change its guidelines for teaching evolution.
In other states, legislatures have mandated that teachers critically analyze evolution in the classroom. There’s an ongoing dispute over how evolution is taught in Kansas and a school district in Dover, Pa., where the school board was commended in a newspaper editorial by prominent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum “for taking a stand and refusing to ignore the controversy.”
While the majority of scientists claim evolution to be the bedrock of modern biology, others are questioning the theory’s reliability.
“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life,” reads a statement signed by over 300 college professors and scientists, primarily from the United States. “Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
The signatures have been compiled since 2001 by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that endorses objective discussions in public school classrooms over controversies involving evolution, but discourages the teaching of intelligent design prior to college, said John West, associate director of the institute’s Center for Science & Culture.
Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at California State University-Long Beach, says the vast majority of scientists disregard skepticism of evolution’s legitimacy as non- sense.
“Every biologist will tell you that evolution is the general organizing principle of life science,” said Lerner, who has played a significant role in science education as an author and consultant on science standards in a number of states, including Arizona.
But Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University and leading proponent of intelligent design, disagrees with Lerner and said many scientists make large assumptions based on “very low standards of evidence” when they determine how organisms supposedly evolved.
Behe, also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, argues for the idea of “irreducible complexity,” meaning certain aspects of living organisms, such as the mechanism for blood clotting or the development of the human eye, are too complex to evolve.