Montana Creationism Bid Evolves Into Unusual Fight
By JAMES GLANZ, New York Times - Feb 29, 2004 - Original
DARBY, Mont., Feb. 26 — In early December, a local Baptist minister, Curtis Brickley, put up handbills inviting residents of this town, population 754, to a meeting in the junior high school gym. The topic was the teaching of evolution in the Darby schools.
Two hundred people from Darby and surrounding Ravalli County, which nurtures a deep vein of conservative religious sentiment, filed into the gym on Dec. 10. There, the well-spoken minister delivered an elaborate PowerPoint presentation challenging Charles Darwin's theories.
There was nothing particularly unusual about Mr. Brickley's message. For years, opponents of evolutionary theory have been pressing their case, with similar arguments, in statehouses and school systems around the country. What was unusual was the response.
Within days, a group of parents, business people, teachers, students and other residents mobilized to defend Darwin against Mr. Brickley's challenge. The group, Ravalli County Citizens for Science, phoned a biotechnology firm in nearby Hamilton asking for help and was connected with Dr. Jay Evans, a research immunologist. He began looking into Mr. Brickley's claims, which were drawn in part from materials from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization affiliated with many conservative causes.
Refuting Mr. Brickley's claims, Dr. Evans said, "took me one afternoon." As soon as he had the information, it went to the rest of the citizens' committee, and from there to the wider community.
Partly because of the contentious dynamics of an election year, partly because of the coast-to-coast influence of the Discovery Institute, local disputes on the teaching of evolution are simmering in states from Alabama to Ohio to California. But with the help of the Internet, defenders like the group in Ravalli County are springing up all over the nation.
Some arise spontaneously, in response to challenges like the one here. (The Ravalli County group was organized by Rod Miner, co-manager of a Darby company that builds bicycles for handicapped people.) Others have been around for years. The rise of the Internet has helped like-minded groups exchange information.
"We do get a bit of a jump start, as you get more of these citizens' groups building on previous experience," said Patricia Princehouse, who teaches evolutionary biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and who was a founder of the group Ohio Citizens for Science.
Some of the groups take their leads from umbrella organizations like the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which tracks the disputes and supports the teaching of mainstream evolution. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the center, said it was fair to compare the swift formation and seemingly spontaneous organization of many of those groups to the young, Internet-driven base of support that drove the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean — with one difference.
"The Dean supporters are messianic in their zeal to change the world," she said. "We aren't. There's no salvation in evolution."
Perhaps the major reason for the outbreak of challenges to mainstream evolution is the widespread influence and activism of the Discovery Institute, said Paul R. Gross, an emeritus professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia. The institute's officials, fellows and followers have been involved in towns, cities and states across the nation.
Among the institute's signature claims is the theory of intelligent design: that certain biochemical structures in cells are too complex to have been a result of natural selection alone, and therefore must have been designed by something or someone.
Both sides agree that there have been a remarkable number of challenges in recent months to the way that evolution is taught in the schools.
"We've never seen this much activity at one time before," said a Discovery spokesman, Rob Crowther, adding that much of the activity had come about because many states were revising their teaching standards.
Dr. John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture, said defenders of evolution want "to do anything but actually talk about the science; that's their public relations strategy."
Whatever the institute's precise role, the counterattack by the citizens groups has been wide-ranging.
In Ohio, state science standards and model lesson plans are being revised under pressure from critics of evolutionary theory. Among the successes of the Ohio citizens' group and its Web site, Dr. Princehouse said, is a collection of 3,000 signatures on a petition to keep intelligent design out of the standards. And in a recent fight over certifying biology textbooks in Texas, the groups brought in researchers to testify during hearings.
"I'm going to tend to listen to the person who has credentials and is teaching at a university," said Mary Helen Berlanga, a Texas school board member in Corpus Christi. "I think they're getting involved early enough to do some damage control."
Here in Darby, where the aging neon sign at Bud & Shirley's Motel glows only with the letters "MOT" at night, but a drive-through espresso stand called Brewed Awakening offers its wares across from the high school, the cultural and political battle is far from over. It has pitted "neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend," as a resident, Sarah Southwell, put it in the contentious school board hearings that are still going on.
Larry Rose, the local marshal, who gained brief fame in 1998 for issuing David Letterman a ticket for speeding in Darby, patiently explains what he believes is scientific evidence that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, not the billions of years determined by mainstream science.
"I believe exactly what the Bible does," Mr. Rose said. "Like the flood — 4,400 years ago."
Mary Lovejoy, a member of the school board who also belongs to the Ravalli County Citizens for Science, said the fight had been bruising.
"Kids are harrassed," said Mrs. Lovejoy, who has a daughter in the high school. "There's been hideous name calling. I'm not a bastard child, I'm not narrow-minded, and I'm not an atheist."
Others see the battle as a classic case of small-town democracy grappling with cosmic questions in a state where local communities are given wide latitude to set their own school curriculums.
On Tuesday, there was yet another confrontation at the board meeting, and on Wednesday, about 50 Darby High School students staged a walkout carrying signs with slogans like "Don't spread the gospel into school" and "Strike against creation science." There are 39 students in this year's graduating class.
"We decided to create this group to figure out what was going on," said Aaron Lebowitz, a senior who was a founder of Citizens for Science and the chief organizer of the walkout. Partly as a result of the group, he said, "awareness has been awesome."
In a town where not just the marshal but also the mayor, the state representative, the library director and at least two of the five school board members say they have strong creationist beliefs, the Darwin defenders have had to fight to gain political traction. But even some of their staunchest opponents give them credit.
"As a group, I think they've helped focus the other perspective, which I'm thankful for," said Doug Banks, a general contractor and school board member who has favored curriculum changes that could lead to criticisms of evolution. "As much as that's concerned, they've had a positive impact."
The reaction to Mr. Brickley's presentation on Dec. 10 was predictably divided. Dixie Stark, a local resident who manages nonprofit programs for adult literacy, called it polished but scientifically superficial.
Mr. Brickley, who conceded in an interview that he had no training in science, said he believed that life science should allow for the possibility of supernatural influences, which he said evolution did not. "In my opinion, you have to allow for natural causes and not-natural causes," he said.
He said that he received little or no direct coaching from the Discovery Institute before his talk, but that he had gathered their materials and used them because he found the arguments compelling, and compatible with his own views.
Many scientists, including Dr. Evans, the researcher in Hamilton, have said that evolution is compatible with their faith.
By Jan. 21, the Citizens for Science had arranged for its own professionally produced talk in the gym, featuring Dr. Alan Gishlick, a paleontologist at the National Center for Science Education. Mr. Lebowitz, the high school senior, said he was relieved when nearly as many people showed up as for Mr. Brickley's talk.
Still, after three long evenings of often anguished public comment in late January and early February, a preliminary vote of the school board was 3-2 to add a revision to school policy suggested by Mr. Brickley.
The revision specifies that teachers "assess evidence for and against" the theory of evolution. Gina Schallenberger, the board's chairwoman, said the change was needed because evolution is "not two plus two equals four," that reputable scientists themselves disagree over whether the theory is correct.
Dr. Evans, who has since joined Citizens for Science, said the vast majority of scientists accepted evolution as correct. A final vote on the proposal is expected next month.