Evolution: Just teach it
Evolution: Just teach it
By Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch - USA Today, 8/14/2005 - original
In the beginning, creationists tried to ban the teaching of evolution altogether. Most famously, 80 years ago, John Scopes was tried for breaking a Tennessee law outlawing such instruction. He was found guilty, and evolution effectively disappeared from the high school curriculum shortly thereafter, though it continued to be taught in universities. (Related: Debate evolution) But when university scientists began writing high school biology textbooks in the late 1950s and early '60s, evolution returned to the curriculum, provoking a second outbreak of anti-evolutionism during the '70s and '80s.

Creationism was repackaged as "creation science" in the hope that it would be taught along with evolution.

In the '70s and '80s, at least 26 states tried to legislate equal time for creation science with evolution, bringing the courts back in. The 1982 U.S. district court decision in McLean v. Arkansas Scopes II showed that such laws violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by promoting a sectarian religious idea inappropriate for the public school science classrooms. In 1987, the Supreme Court reached the same decision in Edwards v. Aguillard.

Such decisions doomed creation science in the public schools, but they opened a niche for a repackaging of creationism: "intelligent design" (ID).

Like creation science, ID was presented as a scientific "alternative" to evolution, though its scientific content was intentionally vague. Its proponents claimed to have a method to identify natural phenomena that are, supposedly, incapable of being explained by evolution. ID advocates contend that "irreducibly complex" structures such as the bacterial flagellum can only be explained by appealing to the action of an intelligent agent.

To secure a wide base of creationist supporters, ID advocates are coy about when and how such actions occurred. Because creation science, which insists on a 6,000-year-old Earth, is still the dominant form of anti-evolutionism, ID can't afford to take a stand to the contrary. Nonetheless, the mainstream of the ID movement is sympathetic to what theologians call progressive creationism, where God creates in fits and starts over time, rather than in six days. It's still creationism, and so is ID

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THE EVOLUTION DEBATE

Neo-Darwinism - The modern version of the theory of evolution. It affirms that all living organisms descended from original common ancestors, but it includes the infusion of newer molecular genetic and developmental theory.

Theory of evolution - The theory that all species of plants and animals descended from a common ancestor. It also asserts that the process of natural selection plays a large role in the diversification of life over time.

Intelligent design - A new and developing theory that says certain features of living systems are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected mechanism. While ID does not reject evolution as change over time, or common ancestry, it does challenge the idea that life arose by undirected processes of natural selection.

Creationism - The religious concept that a supernatural creator produced the universe and life directly. It's often based upon the Bible's Book of Genesis.

Source: Webster's New World College Dictionary, John Angus Campbell, Stephen C. Meyer, Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch.

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All signs point to 'God'

To avoid this accusation, and thus circumvent the Establishment Clause, ID advocates are also coy about the identity of the designer, claiming that it doesn't have to be God. But, token allusions to the possibility of extraterrestrial or time-traveling biochemists notwithstanding, no one is fooled into thinking that the designer is not the Designer: God. (Related: Curriculum battles across the USA)

Initially, ID proponents encouraged the teaching of ID in the public schools, but lately they've had second thoughts. They likely have figured out that if a school district required the teaching of ID, a judge would inevitably ask, "By the way, who's the 'intelligent designer'? Sounds a lot like God." And the jig will be up.

To avoid this legal predicament, the ID movement's leaders have shifted strategy, encouraging school districts and teachers not to teach ID but to teach "evidence against evolution" or "the controversy." This message comes too late for Dover, Pa., where last fall the school board passed a policy requiring the teaching of ID. In September, Dover's ID policy will go on trial, in what might aptly be called Scopes III.

Elsewhere in Kansas, for example, where a creationist majority on the State Board of Education is monkeying with the state's science standards "teach the controversy" is the new rallying cry of creationists. The hope is that if students are taught that evolution is suspect, they will automatically embrace creationism. But "teach the controversy" is not a pedagogical device that will help them in college: Evolution is taught matter-of-factly at the nation's most prestigious universities, including religious institutions such as Brigham Young, Baylor and Notre Dame.

The propaganda that evolution is a theory in crisis is hardly new. In 1925, William Jennings Bryan falsely contended that evolutionary science was on the verge of collapse, as his heirs argue today. Yet the evidence for evolution is stronger than ever.

Historically, improvements in the teaching of evolution are inevitably followed by a backlash. When anti-evolutionists couldn't ban evolution, they tried to get creationism taught alongside it. When the courts said creationism couldn't be taught in public schools, anti-evolutionists called for teaching spurious "evidence against evolution" in the hope that students would come to mistrust evolution and accept creationism by default.

What's happening in classrooms

What ought to be taught in high school science class? The basic methods and results of the consensus view of the scientific community. Evolution is part, and a vital part, of this consensus; creation science and intelligent design are not. Students should understand evolution, both if they are going on to college and for general scientific literacy. But in too many places across the country, students are not learning it.

And that's a problem, because it is widely recognized that the 21st century will be the century of biology, in which genomic, medical and biotechnological discoveries are bound to revolutionize our economy and our lives and those of our children. America needs to produce the scientists who will pioneer in these fields, which means maintaining and improving the quality of science education including a healthy dose of evolution, uncompromised by sectarian dogma, bad science and fake "critical analysis." Because those high school kids in India, China, Korea and Singapore are learning evolution, even if ours aren't.

Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch are executive director and deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

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