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On 'Darwin Day,' many Americans beg to differ

The latest tactic by evolution opponents – 'academic freedom' laws – recently scored its first major victory.

By Jeremy KutnerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2009

CHARLES DARWIN: Naturalist founded theory of evolution.


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This Thursday, celebrations are under way worldwide to mark Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. From Argentina to Australia, people are gathering for film screenings, quiz contests, and museum exhibits on "Darwin Day" – along with at least one "survival of the fittest" cake-eating contest.

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In the US, though, Darwin remains a controversial figure. Two centuries after the famed naturalist's birth, more than 40 percent of Americans believe human beings were created by God in their present form, according to recent polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center – a view impossible to reconcile with evolution propelled by natural selection.

Such creationist beliefs lack scientific merit, educators say, and in classrooms evolution reigns supreme. Opponents have tried an array of challenges over the decades, and the latest tactic recently scored its first major victory. It's a tack that is changing the way the cultural battle over evolution is fought.

In June of last year, Louisiana became the first state to pass what has become known as an "academic freedom" law. In the past, fights over evolution took place at the local school board level, but academic freedom proponents specifically target state legislatures.

Such laws back away from outright calls for alternative theories to evolution, electing instead to legislate support for teachers who discuss the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of issues such as evolution in the name of protecting the freedom of speech of instructors and students alike.

In 2009, bills have been introduced in Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, and New Mexico. Their likelihood of success is uncertain: In the wake of the Louisiana result last year, similar bills were introduced in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina, all of which failed.

But it's a strategy shift, opponents say, which is disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst.