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Web Extra Friday, October 21, 2005

Evolution battles continue

The battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools in the United States reached a fever pitch this week, as a number of prominent scientists testified in an ongoing court trial that pits evolution against intelligent design (the idea that evolution was guided by an "intelligent being") in Dover, Pa. At the same time, geoscientists meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, discussed how to combat the mounting attacks on evolution. In both places, the scientific concern was the same — that teaching intelligent design in the science classroom or not teaching the theory of evolution will harm students in the long run.

On Nov. 19, 2004, the Dover school district issued a statement to be read in biology classes which says, in part:

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

The Dover case pits parents of students in the Dover school district against the district, which last October voted to require school officials to read a statement supporting intelligent design when biology classes undertook discussions on evolution (see Geotimes Web Extra, Nov. 12, 2004). The parents, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in December against the school district, which is backed by the Thomas More Law Center, a religiously grounded nonprofit law firm. The bench trial began Sept. 26, in Harrisburg, Pa., with testimony from a virtual "who's who" on both sides of the evolution debate.

Just this week, Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who supports intelligent design, testified that evolution simply cannot explain all the complexities of life, suggesting the work of an intelligent designer. Countering these arguments, Kevin Padian, a paleontologist and integrative biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, testified as an expert on the scientific evidence for evolution, saying that intelligent design is simply an excuse to get God into science classrooms.

Padian offered evidence of the links between birds and dinosaurs as an example of evolution, as well as explaining the Cambrian explosion,during which life massively diversified some 530 million years ago and evolved into life today. Padian disputed the assertion in the intelligent design-based book Of Pandas and People (which was donated to the school district and offered as counter-evidence to evolution-based biology textbooks) that there is no evidence of a Precambrian fossil record. He showed slides of Precambrian fossils to solidify his point.

The trial is set to conclude on Nov. 4 in Harrisburg, but proponents and opponents of evolution have both been gearing up for a longer battle. At the Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, called the current Dover case "Scopes III," referring to the original 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. It was not until an Arkansas case, which Scott refers to as "Scopes II," over whether "creation science" could be legally taught to "balance" evolution in public schools, that such rules were overturned. The Arkansas court ruled against creationism, as did the Supreme Court in 1987, in support of the lower court's decision. The Dover case, Scott said, will test whether intelligent design can legally be taught in schools, and she said that she thinks that the court will rule against intelligent design.

However, the challenge ahead, Scott said, will be countering anti-evolutionists' attempts to teach "evidence against" the scientific theory in school curriculum, as well as "alternatives" to evolution, not just intelligent design. She hopes, she said, that the Dover judge will rule against the science-class presentation of "evidence against evolution arguments" as a way to interject creationism into schools. However, if the judge were to rule for the defendant school board, she said, "one can anticipate an enthusiastic imposition of [intelligent design] into district curricula around the country."

The "intelligent design challenge to teaching evolution" in Kansas and elsewhere is a "well-funded, long-term, subtle and sophisticated political effort with implications for science everywhere," said Lee Allison, of the Kansas Geological Survey at the Geological Society of America annual meeting this week in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the State Board of Education (which hosted its own "trial" last May during which proponents of intelligent design openly criticized evolution and science) has revised its statewide education standards to include skepticism on evolutionary theory. The board will vote on the final standards at their November meeting, said Lee Allison of the Kansas Geological Survey at the GSA meeting. "In the short term," he said, "we've lost this battle," as the revised, and evolution-weak, standards will almost surely pass. "But in the long term, we remain cautiously optimistic," he said, considering four of the five school board members who are up for reelection next year are "creationists," and the last time this happened, evolutionists won. In 1999, the Kansas state school board revised the standards to weaken evolution. Following public outcry, the "creationists" were voted off the board, and the newly elected board members overturned the previous decision.

The intelligent-design challenge to teaching evolution in Kansas and elsewhere is a "well-funded, long-term, subtle and sophisticated political effort with implications for science everywhere," Allison said. People must realize, he said, that this is a political fight, not a scientific debate, and scientists must respond accordingly.

Part of that response, said Donald Wise, a geologist with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the GSA meeting, should be to quit engaging in polite "Sunday-school" philosophical or religious discussions and instead "start playing political hardball," using the "rules of rough-and-tumble politics." He suggested that instead of defending evolution, scientists focus on evidence that "demonstrates a clear lack of intelligent design," such as that "the human pelvis is tipped forward for convenient knuckle-dragging at such an angle that only by extreme spinal curvature can humans stand erect, a design defect that would flunk any first-year engineering student."

All humor aside, the evolution debate is not one that's likely to go away anytime soon, said Judy Scotchmoor of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, who convened one of several GSA sessions on evolution and intelligent design. Other evolution presentations at GSA illustrated the interdisciplinary nature of the topic, ranging from a biologist's concerns about microbes' evolving resistance to antiobiotics, to a theologian's concerns about misinterpretations of the Bible, and a high school science teacher's concerns about education, among many others. And the fact that in addition to GSA, three other scientific meetings this month also held sessions on the evolution debate, shows that this interdisciplinary topic is and will likely remain readily on the minds of scientists, Scotchmoor said.

Megan Sever

"Evolution and Intelligent Design: Understanding Public Opinion," Geotimes September 2005
"More challenges to evolution," Geotimes Web Extra, Nov. 12, 2004
"Kansas rejects evolution," Geotimes October 1999

National Center for Science Education (NCSE)
NCSE Dover Trial coverage (with links to news stories)
Geological Society of America press release on evolution

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