Jeff Conner knew he had to talk to school administrators when he learned his daughter was shown a video in science class that said evolutionary researchers were not scientists, and when she was assigned an essay about her beliefs on evolution and creation.
At his daughter’s middle school in Gull Lake, near Kalamazoo, two seventh-grade science instructors were teaching intelligent design — a belief that the complexity of the universe is evidence of an intelligent cause behind it.
“I wasn’t happy about it because they were teaching this as science and it isn’t,” said Conner, a Michigan State University professor who researches evolutionary science, and believes intelligent design is too close to creationism.
The case was one of several across the country that, 80 years after the Scopes trial, has renewed the passionate debate about what public schools should and should not teach about the origins of life.
Evolution is taught in many public schools, but the U.S. Supreme Court in
1987 made lessons in creationism unconstitutional.
Since then, the intelligent design movement has gained momentum and it, along with other critics of evolution, has caused controversy in public schools in 31 states, including Michigan.
Classroom instruction and textbook usage is under siege as school leaders, scientists, politicians and people of faith continue to debate the origin of life.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit stemming out of the schools in Dover, Pa., is testing a policy approved by the school board that requires teachers to inform students that there are alternative theories to evolution and let them know of an intelligent design reference manual in the school library.
The suit, which is being defended by the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, could land before the changing U.S. Supreme Court.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the public interest law firm that is gaining prominence as a defender of moral causes, said the major attack is on Christians who support the movement.
“Our position is a policy that happens to coincide with a particular religious belief does not make it unconstitutional,” he said.
For now, the fiery debates about life origins continue to erupt, observers say, because the topic cuts so close to the captivating question of where humans came from and some people struggle with the competing lessons they’ve learned in biology and theology.
“The idea of a purposeless universe … is difficult to accept,” said Loring Brace, a University of Michigan professor of anthropology.
Talk of designer avoided
Intelligent design emerged in the late 1970s and suggests there are certain aspects of the universe and nature that are best explained by an intelligent designer. But it avoids discussion of the designer, instead focusing on the complexity of life and the universe.
Proponents say that it is an alternative theory to evolution and has a place in public school classrooms because it fosters critical thinking.
“The theory of evolution has a lot of holes in it, and science students in our public schools should be given as much information to make intelligent decisions on their own to decide on the origin of the universe,” said Rep.
Jack Hoogendyk, R-Texas Township, a gubernatorial candidate who has considered introducing legislation to allow it to be taught in Michigan classrooms.
But critics of intelligent design counter that it is simply repackaged creationism without scientific basis that stays away from discussion of God or religion to avoid being outlawed as unconstitutional.
“They haven’t done anything scientifically to warrant being in the classroom,” said Ed Brayton of Michigan Citizens for Science. “Evolution is beyond a doubt one of the most well-supported theories as a result of a century and a half of painstaking research by literally thousands and thousands of scientists. Yet they are demanding equal time.”
This month marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most famous trials in America, when the state of Tennessee put John Scopes, a teacher, on trial for teaching evolution despite a state law that barred schools from teaching anything other than the biblical account of God’s creation.
Evolution, the theory developed by Charles Darwin in 1859, is widely viewed by scientists to be a robust theory explaining life origins.
Despite the eventual victory for evolution in the Scopes case, the theory continues to be put on trial, said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Since the last presidential election, the center has received more anti-evolution reports than it ever has during a similar time period, a phenomenon she attributes to people of faith feeling empowered after polls showed they helped re-elect President Bush.
“Education is the perfect issue for them because it is local and they are very grassroots-oriented,” Scott said. “This is where they can have a very big bang for their efforts. The schools are where children are socialized, so if you want your values to be passed on to the next generation, target your schools.”
Gull Lake district axed topic
In Gull Lake, the school district put together a task force that spent eight months discussing the role of intelligent design in the curriculum.
It also surveyed school districts and universities across the state to see what they thought about teaching the theory in science classes.
“We couldn’t find a science department in any public university in Michigan that thought it was a good idea,” said Gull Lake Superintendent Richard Ramsey.
The school board decided last month to end teaching intelligent design in science classes, but it may be moved to the social science curriculum in the future.
School officials also are investigating whether intelligent design is being taught in a Rochester Community Schools middle school, where a parent has complained to Michigan Citizens for Science. The parent declined an interview because she wants the matter to be resolved by the administration, according to Robert Pennock, president of the citizens group.
“For them it is not just a matter of legality, but of personal relationships and the school atmosphere,” Pennock said. “It puts one religious view above others among the many religious views of students.”
Rochester Hills school officials declined to discuss the matter, other than to say it was an issue that was being investigated.
Tim Greimel, vice president of the Rochester school board, said he is unaware of intelligent design being taught in the school district or any administrative review. But he said he is opposed to it being taught, despite his Christian views.
“In my view, evolution is a question of empirical science, and the existence of an intelligent designer is a question of faith,” he said.
“Our schools should teach matters of empirical science and leave matters of faith to people’s worship center.”
Means of fostering debate
Ashley Morgan, a 20-year-old student at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, wishes she would have learned more about alternatives to evolution, such as creationism, while she was in public schools.
“The kids deserve to know the truth,” said Morgan, who is working over the summer at Lake Ann Baptist Camp near Traverse City.
Kelly Edwards, 17, went so far as to petition the school board in Grand Blanc, near Flint, to include creation instruction in biology classes two years ago because she thought evolution wasn’t being taught as a theory.
No formal action has been taken on her petition, but she has noticed a few things happened afterward.
“I’m not sure how connected it is, but next fall (the high school) will be offering a Bible as Literature class,” Edwards said in an e-mail from Mexico, where she is on a mission trip. “Also, I took (advanced placement) biology this past school year and the program was already more sensitive to treating evolution as a theory and not a fact. I believe publicity like this is another way God is getting his truth out.”
Many intelligent design theorists differ from creationists in that they say they don’t want public school students to learn about God, and they are not interested in mandating the teaching of intelligent design.
Instead, they are more interested in seeing schools focus on the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a theory, said Seth Cooper, an attorney and policy analyst for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the nation’s leading research organization on intelligent design.
“We recognize that the theory of intelligent design is still an emerging scientific theory,” Cooper said.
For now, the center supports decisions of Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico to adopt standards requiring students to learn about scientific theories critical of evolution.
States like these won’t necessarily pave the way for intelligent design to wind up in the classroom, Cooper said.
“The scientific evidence is what will lead the way,” Cooper said. “It won’t be political maneuvering.”
You can reach Kim Kozlowski at (313) 222-2024 or [email protected]