A who's who of players in the battle of biology class

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the long battle over the teaching of evolution in American public schools, activists Eugenie Scott and Bruce Chapman both like to claim the role of underdog.

Ms. Scott feels outgunned by the hefty financial resources of her opponents and worries about "frightening" budget cuts on her own front. Mr. Chapman, meanwhile, argues that his troops are vastly outnumbered in some important areas. "We're up against a whole ... establishment," he says.

Two peas in a pod? Not quite. While they both claim to face entrenched and powerful foes, Scott and Chapman are on the opposite sides of the evolution debate. Scott is the country's leading advocate for the teaching of evolution in the classroom, while Chapman's Seattle-based institute promotes an "intelligent design" theory that suggests that only an all-powerful force - not the randomness of natural selection - could have created the incredible complexity of life.

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Besides a desire to be seen as soldiers in a challenging and important war, the two leaders and other activists on various sides of the debate over evolution in public schools share other similarities: They're fully committed and, in some cases, well-funded.

Armed with millions of dollars in donations, dozens of people are devoting their lives to ensuring that their beliefs are the ones kids learn in school. As a series of new battles over evolution erupts in the South, Midwest, and Northeast, just about everyone claims to be dedicated to the principles of science.

Adherents of the theory of evolution, of course, include many scientists, possibly the wide majority of them. Proponents of teaching biblical creation and intelligent design boast their own scientists, too, some at prestigious universities and others at places like the Institute for Creation Research, which runs a museum and center in the San Diego suburb of Santee, Calif. "I'm a scientist, and I love science," says its president, John Morris, a geologic engineer. "But I'm also truth-driven. If I see error that needs to be confronted, truth needs to be taught and spread."

Mr. Morris and others are watching closely as public schools in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Wisconsin wrangle over the teaching of evolution.

In perhaps the most far-ranging move, a tiny, one-high-school district in southern Pennsylvania mandated instruction in the theory of intelligent design, which has appeared over the last couple of decades as an alternative to both Darwinian evolution and a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. The theory doesn't specify the identity of the creator of the universe, and its proponents include people of faiths other than Christianity.

The budgets of the evolution critics are large, according to recent financial documents.

The Creation Research Institute reported spending $4.5 million in the fiscal year ending in 2003; three-year-old figures for the Discovery Institute, a think tank that tackles a variety of issues beyond evolution, show that it spent $2.2 million. Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky-based ministry that promotes creationism, reported expenditures of $5.8 million as of 2002.

By contrast, the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., the only group of its kind in the US, spent $606,000 in the fiscal year ending in 2003. Funding is so limited that Scott, its executive director, once responded to a critic who said evolution is a religion by suggesting that her organization would have a lot more money if that were true.

Now, Scott - whose small staff provides resources to teachers and parents - worries that her budget will shrivel because donors are tapped out after the presidential election.

The Discovery Institute's Chapman scoffs at Scott's "preposterous" claims of underfunding. "There's huge bucks in evolution studies at every major university in the country," says Chapman, former director of the US Census Bureau. "We're not up against the National Center for Science Education. We're up against a whole Darwinist establishment."

Outside their common interests in funding and the principles of science, the opposing sides share one more thing: a belief that the battle over evolution isn't just about what goes on in the classroom.

To many supporters of Darwinian evolution and the principles of natural selection, the debate boils down to church versus state. They feel science must defend itself against religion in the form of creationism and what they consider to be its newest guise - intelligent design.

The debate is a "symptom of a much bigger problem in this country," says Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, who battled efforts to change the teaching of evolution in her local school district and now studies the national controversy. She says the debate revolves around "the religious right's dislike of secular education and secular society."

Scott adds that society's understanding of science itself is in danger. "Science is the quintessential example of critical thinking. It has to do with testing explanations rather than just accepting them because they sound good or because they suit your prejudices."

Critics of evolution, for their part, also see bigger issues at play. Chapman contends that his opponents promote an unwarranted belief in the concrete - "unless you can see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, it doesn't exist."

"There's all sorts of things that remain mysterious in life," he says, "and one of them is the origin of life itself."

Adds Morris, at the Institute for Creation Research: "Evolution reaches its tentacles into every area of society," he says. "If we are mutated fish, that means something. If we're created in the image of God, that means something else."

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