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Web Extra Friday, November 12, 2004

More challenges to evolution

In three states this week, battles rage on about the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools. In Georgia, the case over textbook disclaimers in a major suburban school district has reached a federal court. In small rural school districts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the cases are still at the local level, but mark the first true victory for intelligent-design enthusiasts, who say that evolution happened through the hand of a greater being, not mutation and natural selection. The situation in Pennsylvania marks the first time intelligent design has been explicitly included in school curricula.

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In Cobb County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, a lawsuit brought by six parents and supported by the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union claims that a disclaimer placed inside the covers of middle and high school science texts is contrary to the separation of church and state. They say that the singling out of evolution is the school system's attempt to inject religion into science class.

The disclaimer stickers 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 considered." The school board voted to place the stickers in science textbooks in 2002, after a local citizen who considers herself a creationist brought in a petition with 2,300 signatures (see Geotimes, November 2002).

Ongoing battles over the disclaimers since 2002 have led to a trial in federal court that began on Monday. Testimony concluded on Wednesday, and the judge will hear closing statements today. He has not set a timetable for when he will issue a decision on the case, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

During the trial, scientists, teachers, parents and school board members all testified. Brown University biologist and high school textbook author Kenneth Miller and North Cobb High School science teacher Wes McCoy both testified that they view the disclaimers as a warning to students that diminishes the status of evolution among all scientific theories, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They also raised the worry that college admission boards would think less of Cobb County's students if they hadn't been taught evolution. On the other side, the school board members said that they knew that the disclaimers opened the possibility that religion would be brought up in a science class, but they wanted the students to feel comfortable voicing their own beliefs, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creationism was a religious belief that could not be taught in public schools along with evolution. However, the court has never ruled about intelligent design or any other alternative theories of origin. The issue for the judge to decide in this case is whether or not the school board intended for other theories to be taught alongside evolution when they put the disclaimers in place, says Nick Matzke with the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif. If the board intended other theories such as creationism to be taught, he says, it would run contrary to the Supreme Court's earlier ruling.

Farther north, in Dover, Pa., the local school board voted on Oct. 18 to revise its science curriculum to include intelligent design. The curriculum revision they agreed upon in a 6-3 vote reads: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught."

This revision is the culmination of a months-long bitter debate in the district about how evolution should be handled in the district's science classrooms, says Nick Matzke with the National Center for Science Education. "The statement including intelligent design in the curriculum is blatant." More recently, he says, creationism in schools has been more "vague and sneaky," couched in terms like "teaching the children to think critically." This is the first school district in the nation to openly require the teaching of intelligent design, he says.

The controversy began this summer when the board selected the biology textbook to be used for this school year, and one board member vociferously complained that the text was too focused on Darwin's theory of evolution. The board member had been pushing to include Of Pandas and People, an intelligent design text, as supplemental material, Matzke says — a proposal the board narrowly defeated. On Oct. 4, however, an anonymous donor proposed to donate 50 copies of the book for reference materials to be placed in the classroom. The superintendent of schools approved the donation as a compromise of sorts, Matzke says.

But on Oct. 18, the issue resurfaced in a heated debate, after which the board voted to revise the curriculum, despite the challenges of nearly a dozen community members, according to the York Daily Record. Following the vote, a board member resigned, saying she had been asked on more than one occasion what her religious beliefs were and that her beliefs should not be a part of serving on a board, as reported by the York Daily Record. Two other members also resigned. A school board election will be held in December to replace the empty seats. In the meantime, people on both sides of the debate are gearing up for a possible legal battle.

In northwestern Wisconsin last June, a small school board serving 1,000 students voted unanimously to direct the district's science departments to teach all theories of origin. Parents and citizens in the Grantsburg district grew concerned about the meaning and purpose of the motion and raised questions to the board about whether they intend that educators teach creationism and intelligent design as well as evolution, says Susan Spath with the National Center for Science Education. On Oct. 12, after meeting with parents and citizens, the board revised the policy to read: "When theories of origin are taught, students will study various scientific models or theories of origin and identify the scientific data supporting each." What exactly that means, Spath says, remains to be seen.

Following the decision, 43 deans in the University of Wisconsin system sent a letter to the Grantsburg school board and superintendent of schools urging that the board withdraw this policy. More than 300 biology and religious studies faculty from private and public universities across the state sent another letter to the board, also suggesting thatthe policy was counterproductive to the education of Grantsburg's students, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"Here in Wisconsin, we care about education," said Don Waller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of botany, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The School Board and superintendent in Grantsburg have a responsibility to promote, not restrict, education," he told the paper. And insisting that teachers teach alternative theories of origins "takes time away from real learning, confuses some students and is a misuse of limited class time and public funds," he said.

The president of the school board is a Baptist minister, whose congregation recently hosted a talk by an avowed creationist whose Web site says he travels and lectures on the "Christian biblical response" to evolution, Spath says. The school board and superintendent are defending the policy, saying that it is meant to foster critical thinking, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the concern is whether they are trying to insert religious doctrine into the science class. Many parents are trying to get the motion withdrawn, Spath says, and it's possible that this situation will come to litigation.

In other news, a member on the Kansas state board of education recently proposed that the board establish curriculum standards for a course on comparative religions, according to the Kansas City Star. This year, the board will be revising the science curriculum standards, and proponents of evolution worry that the newly elected board will try to promote creationism or intelligent design in the science curriculum (see Geotimes, October 2004). The board member, a Democrat, was hoping to sidestep the teaching of any religious aspects in science class, by suggesting a separate religion class. The board has yet to consider the proposal.

Megan Sever


"Evolution opponents score in Georgia," Geotimes, November 2002
"The evolving debate over evolution" in "The Geoscience Vote," Geotimes, October 2004
Atlanta Journal-Constitution coverage of Cobb County case
York Daily Record coverage of Pennsylvania case
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel coverage of Wisconsin case
Kansas City Star coverage of Kansas case
National Center for Science Education

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