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
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."
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.
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
"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
"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.
that his organization will monitor how the standards are implemented
in the classroom with respect to evolution.
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
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,
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.
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.