Fear of evolution

February 09, 2005

LIKE MANY SCHOOL districts around the country these days, Cecil County is struggling with the issue of how to teach evolution. Some county school board members wonder if a new edition of a biology textbook that discusses evolution also offers a significant enough challenge to it. The board is scheduled to decide next week whether to accept the textbook. In other districts, the fight over evolution has been much more heated, leading to lawsuits and proposals for restrictive legislation.

This latest round of the evolution vs. creationism debate sounds like echoes of the Scopes monkey trial 80 years ago. Across the country, teachers are refraining from teaching evolution, even when it is included in the curriculum. In recent years, at least a dozen states have introduced legislation designed to restrict classroom discussions of evolution or give similar consideration to alternative theories.

Why isn't this a settled matter? As scientific theories go, evolution is more than sound. As a legal issue, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools is unconstitutional.

But the evolution vs. creationism controversy has deep historical and cultural roots that keep popping to the surface. Surveys show that barely half of Americans accept evolution, compared with at least 75 percent in other industrialized countries. In addition, local control of education makes it difficult to determine what is -- or isn't -- being taught in individual classrooms. It's sometimes hard to know the chilling effect that anti-evolution advocates or other censors are having unless or until the controversies start erupting in public.

Among the recent controversies: Last month, a federal judge ordered the school board in Cobb County, Georgia, to remove stickers placed in textbooks in 2002 saying that "evolution is a theory, not a fact." Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Dover-area school district in Pennsylvania because it has required biology students studying evolution to be told about an idea called "intelligent design," which holds that aspects of the natural world are so complex that they must have been directed by some higher intelligence. Proponents of evolution rightly call it creationism with a new coat of paint.

Some of the anti-evolution fervor has been fueled by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law. The push for tests and standards has given evolution more classroom time, sparking more anti-evolution protests. It's possible to blunt at least some of the controversy if education administrators stand firmly behind those teachers who come under fire for teaching evolution.

Telling students that there is controversy over evolution may offer timid school districts some cover, but those discussions should not be part of science classes. Not teaching evolution at all because it is controversial should be unacceptable.

Cecil County, are you listening?

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