73 years after Scopes, evolution still a classroom issue Teachers find ways to teach Darwin's theory

November 29, 1998|By Jon Christensen

CISSY BENNETT, a high school biology teacher in Birmingham, Ala., has to use a textbook with a disclaimer in it.

"Evolution," says the message from the Alabama State Board of Education, "is a controversial theory some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

That does not deter Bennett from teaching her students that humans and all other species developed from common ancestors under the influence of natural selection. "I tell them on the first day, 'We are going to learn about evolution,' " she said. "'I do not care if you believe what I am saying, but you will learn.' "

But some teachers are more intimidated by the disclaimer. One colleague, Bennett said, told her that she thought teaching evolution was against the law.

It has been 73 years since another high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty under Tennessee law for teaching that humans and apes descended from a common ancestor, and 30 years since the Supreme Court essentially overturned the Scopes ruling and declared that states could not prohibit teachers from discussing evolution.

But Charles Darwin's theory continues to face challenges in the nation's classrooms from increasingly sophisticated creationists, state and local school boards that leave evolution out of science education, and many biology teachers who reject evolution.

"The evolution-creation controversy is as charged today as it was when Scopes was tried," said Randy Moore, a professor of biology at University of Louisville in Kentucky and the editor of The American Biology Teacher, a magazine published by the National Association of Biology Teachers. "Creationists are more powerful than ever. They're winning, not in terms of courts cases, but what happens in classrooms. I get three to five phone calls a week from teachers with problems."

A recent caller, Moore said, told him that a high school principal in Louisville used the public address system in his school to announce that evolution had been overthrown and no longer needed to be taught.

Faced with incidents such as these, teachers of evolution have been in "a defensive mode," said Wayne Carley, executive director of the 7,500-member biology teachers association.

The association and other groups such as the National Academy of Sciences and the largest professional group of evolutionists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, are embarking on a concerted effort to change the way Americans view evolution.

Evolution was at the center of the biology teachers' annual convention, which brought Moore and Bennett and about 1,500 other teachers to Reno, Nev., this month. Teachers heard about the latest challenges in the classroom, received a copy of a book published this year by the National Academy of Sciences about teaching evolution, and crowded into more than a dozen workshops on teaching the theory.

"When you combine the lack of emphasis on evolution in kindergarten through 12th grade, with the immense popularity of creationism among the public, and the industry of discrediting evolution," Moore said, "it's easy to see why half of the population believes humans were created 10,000 years ago and lived with dinosaurs. It is by far the biggest failure of science education from top to bottom."

The challenges to teaching evolution have changed, said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which monitors the teaching of creationism in schools and communities nationwide.

The latest creationist wrinkle, Scott said, is to try to introduce other theories such as "intelligent design" - the idea that the universe is so impossibly complex that it must have been designed purposely by an omniscient creator.

Creationism ranges from literal interpretations of Genesis in the Bible to the belief that God created and set in motion the process of evolution, a view shared by up to 40 percent of scientists, according to national surveys.

Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has written four books attacking "dogmatic teaching of Darwinian evolution." He wants students to be taught to be distrustful of evolution theory.

Johnson is affiliated with Access Research Network, a group in Colorado Springs, Colo., that promotes intelligent design in the biology textbook "Of Pandas and People."

Biology teachers convention

At the biology teachers convention in Reno, some sessions featured well-established lessons, such as comparing early hominid skulls and fossil footprints to the heads and feet of students in classes. But other workshops discussed current research in evolutionary biology and how the latest findings could be used to add new life to lessons.

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