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Evolving debate.

When the Arizona State Board of Education met in the summer of 1997 to update the state guidelines for science education, there was no reason to believe board members were about to immerse themselves in a bitter and divisive controversy.

Following procedure, the board assembled a group of experts to write and detail the science curriculum for the state. As is generally the case with science education, one of the categories was "life sciences," which dealt with courses such as biology.

But conflict erupted when the guidelines were unveiled and critics noted a glaring omission: the word "evolution" appeared nowhere in the document. It was later revealed that even before the experts could begin deliberations, some board members had made it clear that definitions of how species developed over time could not include term evolution.

Apparently, the omission was the culmination of efforts by members of the board who insisted the science guidelines reflect their personal religious beliefs and a literal interpretation of the Bible. One member, Janet Martin, insisted that "we're Arizona and we do things Arizona's way. I personally do not believe that man was once a cell in the sea."

It wasn't the first time Martin had tried to interject her personal religious beliefs into the public schools. She had previously written that schoolchildren in Arizona are being recruited as part of "Satan's scheme" to eliminate Christianity from our society and opined that Earth Day was to be held suspect because "Mother Earth" is a phrase used by those involved with "paganism and witchcraft."

This summer the controversy was sparked anew when the science standards were revised. In February, professors from Arizona's three state universities told the board that Arizona's students who graduate from public high schools without understanding the significance of biological evolution are at a competitive disadvantage at the university level. They added that people's religion is their own business but science classes must stick to evolutionary biology to best inform students.

In August, at the meeting to discuss possible revisions to the guidelines, the atmosphere bordered on outrageous, as people in attendance brought large stuffed gorillas, drawings of finches, placards and creationist literature. After two heated hours of discussion, the board voted 6-3 to add the word "evolution" to the Arizona academic standards, effectively ending the matter for now.

Recognizing that the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin in 1859 with the publication of Origin of the Species, has been accepted scientific fact in the 20th century, one might perceive the Arizona controversy as an anomaly, more expected in the 1890s then the 1990s. To the contrary, political and judicial arguments over the role of religion in science classes have been a mainstay in America for decades, and those fights continue to rage right now.

By the summer of 1987, the legal part of the controversy seemed to have been settled. The U.S. Supreme Court, hearing Edwards v. Aguillard, ruled 7-2 that a Louisiana statute mandating the teaching of "creation science" alongside evolutionary biology violated the separation of church and state.

Writing for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan, held that the creationism statute violated the First Amendment "because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose."

This decision came 19 years after the high court had ruled unanimously that a 1968 Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools was also unconstitutional.

In that case, Epperson v. Arkansas, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, "Arkansas' law cannot be defended as an act of religious neutrality.... The law's effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth, Amendments to the Constitution."

But those decisions failed to end the controversy over science education in public schools. What began with the 1925 conviction of teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., for violating the state's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible," had culminated in decisive rulings from the Supreme Court. The law was clear: Public school science classes were to teach science, not religion.

Court clarity aside, attacking the teaching of evolution remains high on the agenda of the Religious Right.

As Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) explains, "It was Andrew Jackson who said, `The justices have made their decision, now let them try and enforce it.' Court decisions will not always matter at the classroom level. If a teacher is afraid to teach evolution, that teacher won't teach evolution. If teachers think they can get away with teaching a religiously based `science,' some will try to get away with it."

Increasingly, one of the more common methods for undermining education about evolutionary biology is through state legislatures. In just the last year and a half, at least six state legislatures have considered bills to either promote creationism or denigrate evolution in public schools. Religious Right activists approach the effort to get around court rulings on this issue in different ways, but each is intended to impair lessons on evolution.

In the General Assembly of North Carolina, House Bill 511 would have forced the state Board of Education to "revise the Standard Course of Study in the science curriculum to reflect that evolution is taught as a scientific theory, not as a proven fact."

In Washington State, Senate Bill 6394 mandated that all science textbooks come with a notice stuck to them. This "Message from the Washington State Legislature" would have told students that "any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory, not fact."

In Georgia, the State House considered HB 1210. The bill would have instructed schools, when discussing "any theory of the origin of humans or other living things" to include "both scientific evidence supporting...and scientific evidence problematic for..." the theory being taught.

NCSE' s Scott describes these attempts as little more than creative ways to get around the Constitution. "Some measures actually call for the teaching of `creation science,'" Scott said. "Those are easier to deal with because supporters [of these efforts] are told that they are risking a lawsuit that they are going to lose. But some efforts are done with more savvy, avoiding the `c' word, instead using synonyms."

Scott explained one of the most common methods of attacking science is the seemingly academic approach of evaluating evidence for and evidence against evolution. Supporters of this approach make the argument that their plan is "balanced" and intended to inform students of "both sides" of the issue.

"A closer look at these efforts shows that they are the same as teaching creation science, and they're just pulling the wool over your eyes," Scott said. "They are another way to try and get around Edwards and the First Amendment's Establishment Clause."

Ultimately, legislators usually see through the thin veneer of these legislative attempts, and the bills fail. However, on occasion, creation supporters take their case to local areas where they find more success and their efforts become school board policy.

For example, the Alabama State Board of Education established a policy in the winter of 1995 requiring that an anti-evolution message be inserted in public school biology textbooks. The "Alabama Insert," as it came to be known, told students that "no one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

In pushing these measures, the Religious Right and its allies in state legislatures hope to exploit public confusion that exists in the public mind over the word "theory." Generally, theories involve conjecture and guesswork, and as such, when people hear the phrase "theory of evolution," they perceive it to be less than definitive.

But a theory can also be well proven and scientifically established -- the theory of gravity is an example. In an attempt to assist educators and parents in explaining this and other common misunderstandings of biology, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently published a book titled Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Among the many areas covered by the book, the NAS details the scientific use of the word "theory," and how it differs from general use.

"The theory of evolution explains how life on earth has changed," the book explains. "In scientific terms, `theory' does not mean `guess' or `hunch' as it does in every day usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world.... Scientists can also use the word `fact' to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong."

Despite scientists' attempts to clarify the details of the debate, evidence suggests that the Religious Right' s continued drive to call evolution into question may be working.

In one of the first studies of its kind, University of Cincinnati public opinion researcher George Bishop compared Americans' beliefs about evolution with other countries. In results released in August and published in The Washington Times, Bishop found a plurality of Americans accept creationism over evolution.

His research showed about 45 percent of Americans believe that God created humans "pretty much in [their] present form at one time within the last 10,000 years," 40 percent believed humans evolved but that God guided the process, and 10 percent believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but that God had no part in the process. Bishop noted that respondents in England, Germany, Norway, Russia and the Netherlands all ranked "significant lower" than U.S. respondents in their support for the literal scriptural version of human development.

"We don't stack up very well as a nation," Bishop told The Times. "Religious belief tends to be inversely correlated with what most scientists would say is simple fact."

Perhaps bolstered by these results, Religious Right activists continue to try to force religion into public school science classes -- despite court rulings that would suggest that the cause is a losing one.

From its headquarters in El Cerrito, Calif., the National Center for Science Education tracks and monitors these efforts nationwide. In 1997 the NCSE was consulted or actively involved in 57 incidents in 25 states and two at the national level. The previous year was even higher with 67 incidents in 28 states, plus three at the national level. Scott noted that election years tend to even more active for her organization, because "many politicians have to appeal to a conservative base and can do so with this issue."

1998 would appear to be consistent that trend. According to Molleen Matsumura, the NCSE's network project director, the organization has already monitored 40 incidents through the end of August, which translates to over one controversy every week and suggests that this year will be even worse than last year.

Describing the current state of the controversy, Scott said, "We're running fast as we can just to stay in place. We are running flat out. One doesn't want to sound alarmist, but we may even be slipping back."

Numerous Religious Right leaders have jumped on the anti-evolution bandwagon. Generally, groups such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries all are active in attacks on science. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, a Religious Right group headquartered in Alton, Ill., has also taken a high profile in its anti-evolution efforts.

The Eagle Forum was not only involved with the anti-evolution "warning labels" for Alabama science textbooks but also established a letter writing campaign in Texas to influence the state board of education textbook adoption policy. Eagle Forum activists encouraged the selection of books that had the least amount of information on biological evolution.

Joining these Religious Right groups, a number of right-wing critics of evolution have joined the crusade. They include political pundits such as Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Robert Bork. In particular, Philip Johnson, professor of law at University of California, Berkeley, has perhaps taken on the highest profile and most active schedule of those attempting to advance an anti-evolution agenda. In addition to an appearance on PBS's "Firing Line" alongside Buckley, Johnson has written creationist arguments for Focus on the Family publications and authored two anti-evolution books, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds and Darwin on Trial. In fact, to help persuade members of the Alabama State Board of Education, the Eagle Forum presented each member of the board with a video of Johnson's arguments against the teaching of evolution.

Furthermore, there are organizations that work exclusively to promote creationism and defame evolution in public schools. Groups such as the Institute for Creation Research are extremely active, providing books, filmstrips, and other materials to schools to help raise acceptance of "creation science."

The Institute is a ministry with a specific fundamentalist agenda. Institute President John D. Morris writes in the organization's literature that acceptance of evolution undermines religious belief. "Our world, our church, our schools, our society, need the truth of creation more than ever," Morris explains. "We see the wrong thinking of evolution having produced devastating results in every realm. Our passion at the Institute for Creation Research is to see science return to its rightful God-glorifying position, and see creation recognized as a strength by the body of Christ; supporting Scripture, answering questions, satisfying doubts and removing road blocks to the Gospel."

Additionally, the Institute for Creation Research has founded a graduate school. As ICR activists explain it, the school exists to "train students in scientific research and teaching skills, preparing effective warriors for the faith."

Robert Simonds, who heads Citizens for Excellence in Education, another Religious Right group, has targeted public schools and evolution for aggressive attack. He charges that teaching evolution in science classes will hurt students until their "faith in God is permanently crippled or it dies."

Simonds goes so far as to declare that evolution's existence in school curricula "wears on a child's mind until faith in God and Biblical principles simply breaks down and becomes extinct." Simonds then concludes, "Satan has then won!"

But many defenders of evolution point out that there need be no conflict between science and religion. Religious leaders and groups ranging from Pope John Paul II to practically every mainline Protestant denomination see no inherent contradiction between a divine purpose for the universe and the scientific data for evolution. (Several statements from faith groups supporting evolution appear in the NCSE's book Voices for Evolution.)

Nevertheless, the attack on evolution goes on. The combination of powerful national Religious Right groups working with grassroots activists makes for a dangerous combination.

When asked who represents the single biggest opponent in the continuing evolution controversies, Scott explains, "There's not a single target. We're dealing with a grassroots effort with people who find evolution inherently wrong. Information may be produced at the national level, but it lands on fertile soil.

"The more serious concern is 15 years down the road with people like Philip Johnson who are attempting to present these materials at a university level," Scott continued. "In science departments, these [ideas] are going nowhere. But in social science, philosophy, and humanities, books like Darwin ` s Black Box by [evolution critic] Michael Behe are appearing.

"Professors will teach with these books," she added, "providing a subtext of science, or history of science, but the professors may lack the science background to present all of the information in context, explaining that this may be an interesting social conflict, but not that the science is wrong.

"As a result," Scott concluded, "bright, educated college graduates will leave universities believing that something is wrong with evolution. These people will be voting for school board, or running for school board, or even state or national office because that's what educated people do. If we have our leaders believing that evolution is a `theory in crisis,' then we have an even bigger problem than Bob Simonds and the Religious Right."
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Title Annotation:religion and science
Author:Benen, Steve
Publication:Church & State
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:Educational opportunity or educational scam?
Next Article:Opposing the Religious Right: it's as easy as ABC.

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