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God or science?

Ninth-grade biology teachers in Dover, Pa., must include 'intelligent design' in their instruction. Observers say it is a sign of what's to come.

By , / November 23, 2004


In the boldest strike against the teaching of evolution in more than a decade, the school board of this one-stoplight farming town has tilted its textbooks against virtually the entire scientific establishment - and brought home a lesson from this month's presidential election.

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By mandating that ninth-grade biology teachers include "intelligent design" in their instruction, board members set a precedent last month. Never before has a school district decided to offer intelligent design, which suggests that only the action of a higher intelligence can explain the complexities of evolution. Moreover, say observers, it is a sign of what's to come.

Religious conservatives have battled against evolution theory in classrooms since the Scopes trial of 1925. Now, they are finding fresh purpose in the conservative resurgence so evident on Election Day, as well as in a new strategy of attacking evolution without mentioning God. The result is a handful of high-profile cases nationwide that challenge Darwin's place in the curriculum and presage a new offensive in America's culture war.

"We're seeing a growing number of these cases," says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., a group that seeks to protect evolution education. "Certainly, with the greater confidence given to the religious right in the last election, we see no end in sight."

Near Atlanta, in suburban Cobb County, the local school board demanded that teachers put stickers inside the front cover of middle and high school science books. They read, in part: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." In rural Wisconsin, the Grantsburg school board voted last month to allow teachers to discuss various theories of creation in their classrooms, opening the door to intelligent design.

Together with the decision by the Dover school board, the flare-ups point to an emerging trend - an escalating batttle against the teaching of evolution which has been building slowly for nearly two decades.

Since the United States Supreme Court in 1987 outlawed the teaching of creationism in public schools on the grounds of separation of church and state, anti-evolution activists have all but dropped divine creation and instead focused solely on discrediting Darwin.

That they are finding traction - especially in places like Dover - is not surprising.

In Pennsylvania, a state where Red and Blue teeter in an almost perfect equilibrium, Dover is clearly on the Red end of the seesaw. While Sen. John Kerry scratched out a narrow victory in Pennsylvania in the Nov. 2 election, York County - which includes Dover - gave President Bush 65 percent of its votes.

Traditionally agrarian, traditionally Republican, this is a town of small brick and clapboard houses, framed by autumnal arrangements of pumpkins and hay bales, and set amid rolling hills. It is a slice of the Midwest in the mid-Atlantic - the image of wheat-waving countryside perched on the edge of York's suburban sprawl.

And today, a text known around here simply as the "panda book" has made Dover the local stage for a national drama.

The book's full name is "Of Pandas and People," and it is the newest addition to the Dover science curriculum.

It is not mandatory reading, says district superintendent Richard Nilsen, adding: "The teachers have a [different] biology book, and when they get to the origins of life, they state that if anyone wants to look at another book, they give them the 'panda' book."

Those who take it will learn about intelligent design. Intelligent design steers clear of the claims made by creationists: that the world is roughly 6,000 years old and that life was created in its present form by God. Intelligent design accepts an ancient Earth and even embraces evolution.