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Evolution opponents score in Georgia

“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 examined.”
Disclaimer in Cobb County science textbooks

In a Georgia county where the words above appear on stickers at the front of 13 science textbooks for middle school and high school, teachers are now allowed to discuss alternatives to biological evolution in the classroom. The Cobb County school board came to its unanimous decision on Sept. 26 after a 30-day review of its former policy on teaching “theories of origin.”

Just a day before the announcement of the review period on Aug. 22, a Cobb County parent, Jeffrey Selman, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school board for its decision earlier this year to place the disclaimer in science textbooks. Selman now hopes to broaden the scope of the original law suit filed in August in U.S. District Court to include a challenge to the new policy.

In this second largest school district in Georgia, located just northwest of Atlanta, the debate of how to teach evolution in schools is not a new one, nor is it strictly a Georgian issue. In school systems from Kansas and Ohio to Louisiana and Alabama, the past few years have seen increased challenges to the teaching of evolution.

Many school districts have been seeking to give equal time in the classroom to so-called alternative theories on the origin of life, including intelligent design creationism — a view of creationism that emphasizes the role of a creator, the designer, in establishing the rules of the natural world. In Ohio, the state school board is considering including intelligent design creationism in life and earth science curricula for tenth through twelfth grade. While the latest school board policy change in Georgia did not specifically seek to teach students these alternatives, its goal was to give teachers the discretion to discuss alternatives when they feel it is appropriate.

“We do not expect teachers to teach creationism. Our intention is to promote a broad-based science curriculum which will acknowledge that there are differences of opinion about the origin of life, and to encourage students and others to be tolerant and respectful of those who may have different beliefs,” said Curt Johnston, chairman of the Cobb County school board, at the September school board hearing.

The school board’s old policy, adopted in 1995, acknowledged that “some scientific accounts of the origin of human species as taught in public schools are inconsistent with the family teachings of a significant number of Cobb County citizens.” It pledged both respect for those family teachings and separation between church and state.

Just as school board members argued that disclaimers in biology textbooks will promote critical, independent thinking among students, they stressed that the new policy will further encourage a diversity of opinion in the classroom — allowing students to better reach their own conclusions about the origins of life. “Although individual board members, or different families, may have differing views concerning the teaching of evolution, the new policy requires that we acknowledge a diversity of opinion without watering down discussion of factual evidence supporting different scientific theories,” Johnston says.

Critics of the board’s decision, however, say that the decision opens the door for teachers to include faith-based ideas on the origin of life in their biology or earth science classes. Among those critics, the National Science Teachers Association wrote to the Cobb County school board, asking them to reject any policy that allows teachers to promote nonscientific viewpoints related to the origin of life. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President Bruce Alberts also weighed in on the issue, urging the board not to move forward with the new policy. In his letter, he asked 30 Georgian scientists and physicians who are members of NAS and its sister entity, the Institute of Medicine, to urge Cobb school board members to remove the evolution disclaimers from science textbooks. Despite their efforts and those of others, the new policy and the old disclaimers remain, as does passionate debate about the role alternative views on evolution should play in the classroom. The board faced considerable lobbying efforts in favor of the new policy by local chapters of the Christian Coalition and American Family Association.

While science does encourage students to learn through inquiry, the leading alternative theories to evolution, such as intelligent design creationism, have not undergone the scientific review process and do not belong in the classroom, says Ken Miller, a biology professor at Brown University. “Creation science is afraid of the scientific process and so is turning to the government to do an end-run around the scientific method,” he says.

Miller also is author of Prentice Hall Biology, one of the textbooks in which Cobb County placed disclaimers stating that “evolution is a theory and not a fact.” The disclaimers, Miller says, undermine the entire scientific method by improperly communicating the nature of a scientific theory.

Indeed, “theories are the substance of science,” says Keith Miller, a geology professor at Kansas State University. Everything in science is theory, both Millers point out. Facts are merely repeatable, verifiable observations; theories explain facts. The disclaimers will end up confusing students at what might be their first introduction to the scientific method, they say, and will single out evolution as though it is a particularly troublesome area of biology. Both results could harm students’ understanding of science.

Both Keith and Ken Miller say that Cobb County’s struggle mirrors those of Kansas, Alabama and a number of other states, in which a grassroots effort by scientists and local citizens succeeded in maintaining high science standards that include teaching biological evolution, and not alternatives. A similar grassroots effort in Georgia could also end in success, Ken Miller says.

Himself an evangelical Christian, Keith Miller suggests that teachers field questions about alternatives to evolution in the context of the history of science and not science itself. “History can be a very effective way of communicating that there is no conflict between science and religion.” He cites that some of Charles Darwin’s original supporters were fundamentalist Christians. In his own introductory college classes, Keith Miller says that the historical approach has helped bridge the gap between science and religion. This gap, he says, is often needlessly created due to poor communication from both the scientific and theological communities.

But, at least for now, under the new district-wide policy, Cobb County teachers will have the right to teach alternatives to evolution in any context they choose. The debate surrounding teaching evolution in the Georgia county will likely not go away, however; it could continue for months, or even years and ultimately be resolved in court. Indeed, says Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State: “It would be as if Cobb County were putting up a giant ‘sue me’ sign.”

Lisa M. Pinsker

Read the original Web Extra for links to more information about the evolution debate in Cobb County and across the country.


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