On 'Darwin Day,' many Americans beg to differ

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.

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.

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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.

"Quite honestly, there aren't any strengths and weaknesses to evolution in the way they say. It's the hook they use to introduce nonscientific explanations," says Robert Gropp, director of public policy for the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington. "You have to give [evolution opponents] credit: They've gotten crafty about arguments they make. 'Academic freedom' sounds very all-American, but the problem is it sets aside the way science is done, the way we teach science."

Supporters of such legislation, like Oklahoma state Sen. Randy Brogdon (R), who introduced The Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act 10 days ago, wonder how people who claim evolution is iron-clad could object to open debate.

"It befuddles me," Senator Brogdon says. "It's amazing that people who believe in human secularism don't want to have an open discussion.... My gosh, what kind of system do we have if we only teach one set of information, one piece of the puzzle?"

Model legislation is currently being promoted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that had supported the teaching of "intelligent design," which claims that life is too complex to have simply evolved without the hand of an intelligent designer. The Institute is offering an alternative to Darwin Day that it is calling "Academic Freedom Day." "We're doing sort of a counter to Darwin Day, which has become a sort of quasi-religious celebration," says John West, a senior fellow at the Institute.

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.

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."

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