FAITH VERSUS SCIENCE.
In the last school year before the new millennium, students in Kansas are at odds over a controversy left over from the 19th century. Just before school opened this year, the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete any mention of the theory of evolution from the state's science curriculum.
"It's such a basic concept of science," exclaims Jocelyn Nichols, 16, of Topeka. "It was completely unnecessary, and it created a very negative image [of Kansas] for the rest of the United States."
But to students like Arin Turvey, 16, the state's decision squares with her belief that God created the world. "There's no more proof for evolution than for creation," she says. "So they should either teach them both or don't teach any of it."
The Kansas ruling, which removes evolution from the state's recommended curriculum and its standardized tests, was the latest victory for a growing conservative religious movement in the U.S. that has pressed school boards to give religious beliefs equal status with science. Alabama, Illinois, and New Mexico are among several states that have also recently adopted standards that weaken the teaching of evolution.
AN ATTACK ON SCIENCE
But while creationists applaud these decisions, scientists are protesting what they call an attack on a cornerstone of natural science. "If you take away evolution because it's a theory, you can't teach science," says Steve Angel, a chemistry professor who is president of the Auburn-Washburn school board in Topeka. "All of science is theory."
The debate over evolution has been raging since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. The theory holds that life began with single-cell organisms 4.5 billion years ago, then gradually evolved into more complex plants and animals. Some 4 to 6 million years ago, scientists say, apes and human beings branched off the same family tree.
This battle has been fought on schoolhouse grounds before. At the beginning of the century, several states forbade the teaching of evolution, a trend that resulted in the famous Scopes trial of 1925 (see article, page 21). In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that such laws were unconstitutional on the basis of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.
In the 1970s, Arkansas and Louisiana required that schools teaching evolution must also teach the biblical story of creation. The Supreme Court rejected those laws in 1987, because they violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
So instead of banning evolution or forcing science teachers to teach religion, the Kansas school board simply left the subject out altogether. The Kansas science standards no longer demand that students learn anything about the origins of the universe or how species appeared on the planet.
Many Kansas religious leaders, politicians, and parents endorse the decision. The Topeka Capital-Journal editorialized that creationism "is as good an explanation as any" for the origin of the universe. And creationists have been quick to emphasize that evolution is just a theory. After all, nobody saw it happen.
THEORIES AT RISK
Scientists counter that evolution is a theory backed by mounds of evidence, including fossils and genetic research. They worry that if you dismiss science you can't see, other theories, such as those concerning atoms and gravity, could be deleted next.
But such concerns don't bother Willa Beth Mills, president of the Pratt, Kansas, school board. "If you present the material to students with critical thinking, and they come to you with a paper supporting creationism, or arguing against evolutionary theory from a creationist point of view, you should accept that," she says.
The state leaves it up to each district to decide what to teach, and many teachers say they will continue to teach evolution. "They'll get evolution here," says Elaine Pardee, a teacher at Washburn Rural High in Topeka. "We're not going to cheat our kids."
Kevin Bordewick, a biology teacher at Washburn, says he won't discuss creationism in his class, believing it better suited to a humanities class or the home. "It's between them, their parents and whatever God they believe in, if any," he says.
RELATED ARTICLE: SNAPSHOT: THE DEBATE
WHAT CREATIONISTS SAY
Evolution is just a theory and not fact. Some creationists insist that there must have been an "intelligent design" by an "intelligent agent" (generally considered to be God) to arrive at complex organisms such as human beings. Others take biblical history as literal truth, believing that the Earth is only 10,000 to 2 million years old--not the 4 billion years held by scientists.
HOW SCIENTISTS RESPOND
Evolution is indeed theory, but for scientists a theory is an idea about nature based on a large body of established fact. Scientists say creationism is not scientific theory because there is no way to scientifically confirm or deny the existence of God. The "young Earth" view of creationists contradicts basic scientific knowledge in biology, geology, and physics.
WHAT SCIENTISTS SAY
Life arose from matter, some 3 billion years ago, and then evolved by a process of "natural selection," which eventually led to the emergence of humans. Evolutionary theorists take no position on the existence of God.
HOW CREATIONISTS RESPOND
While "natural selection" may explain small changes in organisms, it cannot account for the remarkable complexity of adaptations such as the brain. Some creationists believe scientists who oppose the idea of God ignore evidence that contradicts evolution.
RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT WE KNOW
As the debate over teaching evolution rolls students and educators in Kansas, scientists have been making several unprecedented discoveries that are overturning long-held assumptions about how life evolved. Here are a few:
* Life is more complex than previously thought. Scientists used to divide the living world into two kingdoms, plant and animal. Recent advances in genetics have expanded the list to five: red algae, green plants, animals, fungi, and stamenopiles (which look like plants but don't do photosynthesis).
* Genetics suggests that people are much more closely related to plants than was previously believed, and are closer still to fungi.
* The chimp genome project will map chimpanzee genes in the same way the human genome project will decode human genetics. Comparing the two, scientists expect to find that only about 50 genes account for the human leap forward in brain power.
* Computer genetic models suggest that genes have a natural tendency to mutate and reorganize themselves.
* Decoding a strip of DNA taken from the bones of a Neanderthal man, researchers found that Neanderthals, a subspecies of humans, coexisted with modern humans about 50,000 years ago, but probably never mated. The research raises the possibility that humans may have slaughtered the Neanderthals, a particularly cruel and horrifying example of natural selection in operation.
JACQUES STEINBERG covers education for The New York Times.
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|Title Annotation:||debate over teaching of evolution|
|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Oct 4, 1999|
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