On 'Darwin Day,' many Americans beg to differ
The latest tactic by evolution opponents – 'academic freedom' laws – recently scored its first major victory.
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Academic freedom arguments echo a long history of defeated attempts to challenge evolution's primacy in the classroom. Calls for equal classroom time for "creation science" gave way to less overtly religious support for "intelligent design." But in 2005, a federal court rejected the teaching of intelligent design in public-school classrooms.Skip to next paragraph
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The US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded its ruling by saying: "We have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."
"It was a shot across the bow nationally," says Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. "The case was really noticed by school boards." Merely mentioning intelligent design or religious alternatives to evolution became anathema.
Academic freedom laws specifically mention that they should not be seen as supporting a religious viewpoint. Language began to focus on "scientific" objections to evolution itself, something most evolutionary biologists say don't exist in the way such language implies.
"I wish everyone could understand the profound degree to which we understand evolutionary biology," says Elena Kramer, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Professor Kramer says she is often disappointed with the rhetoric of evolution supporters who often dismiss those with religious viewpoints, but adds, "There is no legitimate scientific evidence that evolution has not occurred."
But putting questions about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution at the heart of the debate makes issues of religious intrusion into science classrooms difficult to evaluate.
Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved its new guidelines based on the law in mid-January, allowing teachers to introduce "supplementary materials" into classroom discussions, though the review process for determining which materials were nonreligious in nature remains unclear.
"This is very, very, watered down from the earlier generation of strategies, and it's harder to deal with that on legal level because it's not about the legislation" but rather about how individual teachers choose to interpret the legislation, says Joshua Rosenau, spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, a leading critic of such legislation.
It's a debate that's currently being played out in Texas. There, the State Board of Education recently voted to excise "strengths and weaknesses" language from the state's science standards, which had been on the books for two decades. But the Board's chairman then succeeded in getting language approved supporting discussion of the "sufficiency and insufficiency" of certain evolutionary principles.
"That shocked a lot of people," says the chairman, Don McLeroy, a self-identified "young earth creationist." But Mr. McLeroy insists such efforts are well within the law. "It's certainly not a religious standard.... People are probably opposed to [the new language] for ideological reasons." Voting on the final wording will take place in March.
Yet activists on both sides acknowledge that, while the debate over science education is far from resolved, school boards have far more pressing issues at hand. "When schools are not worried about laying off a huge percentage of school staff this may loom larger," says Mr. Hutton of the National School Boards Association. "It's taken some of the wind out of the sails."