NEW YORK — After considerable study and reflection, biology teacher Rodney LeVake last year changed what he taught students about the origin of life on earth.
Not only did he question the veracity of evolution, but the high school teacher also introduced his class to "intelligent design theory" - the notion that the complexity of the physical universe is in itself proof of the existence of an intelligent creator.
By edict of the local school board, Mr. LeVake won't be teaching biology this year.
This case, being fought out in a middle-size Minnesota city, illustrates the tenacity of a 75-year dispute over what public schools should teach about the genesis of human life. It also indicates that, if anything, the fight has only intensified over the past decade, with anti-evolution forces gaining some clear victories in their efforts to cast doubt on Charles Darwin's widely accepted theory.
The fight against evolution "is very much a grass-roots movement and very much increasing," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif., a group that battles to keep evolution at the center of science teaching in America.
The most recent win for evolution opponents came last week in Kansas, when the state Board of Education voted to remove any mention of evolution from the science curriculum. Teaching evolution is not prohibited, but standardized state tests will include no questions on the topic - removing teacher motivation to explain the theory.
The decision has touched off a brouhaha not seen since the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, when a Tennessee school teacher named John Thomas Scopes stood trial for teaching what was then seen as the "heretical" theory of evolution. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, has characterized the decision as an embarrassment "so out of sync with reality" as to jeopardize the education board's credibility. The American Civil Liberties Union and even TV's "Science Guy," Bill Nye, have registered their disapproval.
A state by state battle
While Kansas is currently on the front lines of the fight, other states have also changed how they present Darwin's theory in the classroom.
In Nebraska and New Mexico, evolution is still taught in classrooms, but it is presented as a theory, not a fact. In Texas, the state school board cut references to evolution from a standard biology textbook. In Alabama, every biology textbook includes a sticker that characterizes evolution as an unproven theory.
In other states - Washington, Ohio, Tennessee, and New Hampshire - anti-evolution legislation was defeated. But the theory's defenders warn that the most intense fights are at the local level, such as the case in Faribault, Minn., over LeVake's teaching.
"They were afraid I'd turn my class into a Sunday School class, but that was never my intention," says LeVake, who plans to appeal his reassignment in court. "I just didn't want to teach evolution as a dogmatic fact when there's a lot of recent evidence that points to the opposite fact."
People involved in the debate cite several reasons for the recent gains by evolution-theory foes.
For one, opponents have altered their strategy, no longer insisting that schools abandon evolution in favor of creationism - the doctrine that ascribes the origin of matter and life to acts of creation by God. Instead, they aim to discredit evolution, arguing that, in the interest of free scientific discourse, it should be presented as just one theory about creation - and enlisting a corps of like-minded scientists to help them.
For another, Christian fundamentalist groups, a driving force behind the anti-evolution movement, have put much emphasis on electing evolution foes to local school boards - a strategy that may be paying off for them now.
A theological agenda?
Those who say evolution should be taught as the prevailing theory of creation are dismayed by what they see as a theological agenda of the other side. Presenting the debate as a question of intellectual freedom is a smoke screen, some observers say.
"The overwhelming impulse against [the teaching of evolution] is religious," says Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "And it's just plain bad science."
Even if the Kansas decision is eventually rolled back or modified, as some in the academic community believe it will be, the rise of anti-evolutionism is nonetheless cause for dismay for many in education circles.
"It's just flat-out embarrassing that this would happen in one of our states," says Paul Sniegowski, a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania. High school graduates in Kansas, he frets, will now go on to college "unaware of what we consider the central unifying idea of biology."
The dismay in academia is not unanimous, however. Indeed, an increasingly high caliber of intellectual has joined in the debate to argue for the need to downplay evolution. Perhaps best known is Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who says evolution should not be taught as established fact.
Those who insist on doing so "are fundamentalists who have a basic belief system they impose on the facts," he says. When it comes to the important question of how living organisms came into existence, "the scientific community ought to be able to concede that they don't know."
Professor Johnson has been joined by Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, and William Dembski, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, both well-regarded thinkers who have written recent books questioning evolution.
In fact, it was after reading the works of Johnson and Behe that LeVake decided to raise questions about evolution in his biology class.
LeVake is a fundamentalist Christian, but he insists his religious views had no bearing on his teaching. "I put aside my religious convictions and disagreed as a scientist," he says.
No end in sight
But Professor Numbers has trouble believing that claims like LeVake's are true. What's really going on, he says, is that anti-evolutionists have tired of losing court battles that forbid them to bring religion into the classroom, and they are now focusing instead on discrediting evolution.
The entire dispute, he fears, will only damage science education in the US.
"I don't want to see time in the curriculum wasted on this kind of stuff," he says.
Watchdog groups, such as the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, say the debate over evolution is far from over, and, if anything, is only likely to escalate with the dawn of a new millennium.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society