ELKTON - Charles Darwin and his intellectual descendants have taken a lashing here lately.
With the Cecil County Board of Education about to vote on a new high school biology textbook, some school board members are asking whether students should be taught that the theory of evolution, a fundamental tenet of modern science, falls short of explaining how life on Earth took shape.
"I'm not one of these people who believe Darwinism is protected by the Constitution," said board member William Herold, who has questioned the way evolution is taught in the county's five high schools.
The politically conservative county of about 90,000 people bordering Pennsylvania and Delaware is joining communities around the country that are publicly stirring this stew of science, education and faith.
In Cecil County, the matter seems unlikely to reach the level it has in Dover, Pa., where the school board is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State for its decision to require biology teachers to introduce the "intelligent design" argument.
Nor does Cecil appear to be headed in the direction of Cobb County, Ga., where the school board is appealing a recent federal district judge's order to remove stickers placed in textbooks in 2002 calling evolution "a theory, not a fact." The ruling held that the disclaimer serves religious ends, thereby violating the First Amendment principle separating church and state.
Herold is quick to explain that although he embraces a literal interpretation of creation as depicted in the Book of Genesis, he has no desire to impose his religious views on anyone.
"I don't want to teach creationism," he said in an interview, acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly ruled against teaching science from a religious perspective.
Neither is Herold insisting on "intelligent design," although he uses some of the rhetoric of its chief advocates at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank. The institute argues that aspects of the natural world "are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process."
Established science authorities dismiss "ID" as nothing more than old-fashioned creationism in new clothes, not suited to scientific research or a science curriculum.
Herold, a 42-year-old concrete contractor and father of three, said there's room for more classroom skepticism about evolutionary theory, even though the textbook in question, Biology: The Dynamics of Life, acknowledges that the fossil record is "incomplete," points out that "most of the evidence for evolution is indirect" and calls upon students to "critique Darwin's ideas about natural selection."
The book even briefly mentions that some religions say a "supreme being" created life on Earth. Another passage conveys this nod to the intelligent design argument: "Some people believe that the complex structures and processes of life could not have formed without some guiding intelligence."
Cecil County biology classes do not engage the question of the origin of life, and they deal with the fundamental elements of evolutionary theory - natural selection and relatedness of species - in about five classes, said Richard Lonie, the instructional coordinator for science in grades kindergarten through 12.
At the Board of Education's regular monthly meeting Feb. 14, the five voting board members are scheduled to decide whether to accept the new edition of the book and might discuss Herold's call for new anti-evolution materials in addition to the book.
Herold said he doesn't want to push the community into a divisive dispute. Neither, it seems, does board member Stewart C. Wilson, the only other member who has in interviews questioned the way evolutionary theory is taught in Cecil County. Herold, of Port Deposit, and Wilson, of Rising Sun, are the newest members of the board and the only ones appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"It's become so fractious," Herold said in an interview, referring to recent evolution disputes around the country, adding that he would not want this argument to disturb the board's work providing the best education for the county's 17,000 students.
He has, however, raised the subject, albeit offhandedly, and pursued it since.
In December, the question of accepting Biology: The Dynamics of Life was tabled to grant Wilson's request for more time to review it. In the course of discussion, Herold remarked that the book included no challenge to evolutionary theory.
All concerned say the decision to table the book's acceptance was not connected to the material on evolution, but the sequence of events made it seem that way. The result was a bit of a public dustup, though not quite the "firestorm" that Herold sometimes calls it.
The public argument has unfolded in letters to the editor of the Cecil Whig and public comments at a school board meeting.