Science, faith clash in class

Some biology teachers are among evolution's challengers

November 27, 2005|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

Barbara Reger says she believes that God created the Earth, animals, plants and, of course, woman and man, and she tells children that some scientists insist nature shows the mark of a higher power's design.

This might not be worth noting but for the fact that Reger teaches biology in a public school. She is also head of the science department in a middle school in Indianapolis, one of the quiet proponents of intelligent design and creationism -- whose numbers science education experts call "troubling" and surprising -- among the ranks of public school teachers.

These challengers of evolution don't have to push the state legislature to revise education standards or run for the school board. They're inside, right there in the classroom.

"There's a consistent, a significant number of biology teachers in public schools who are creationists," says Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively on what might be called the "closet creationism" in public schools. "Despite decades of science education reform, these numbers have remained pretty consistent."

The great majority of science teachers accept and teach evolutionary theory, but in a national survey this year, one-third of teachers said that they have faced pressure to marginalize the subject, chiefly from parents and students, and that they often do so to avoid conflicts.

At least 10 statewide studies into these issues have been published since 1999. In six of them, public school biology teachers endorsed teaching creationism in some form alongside evolutionary theory in numbers ranging from nearly 20 percent in Minnesota to nearly half in some Kansas schools and more than two-thirds in Kentucky.

In two states, 40 percent of biology teachers say they allow little or no class time for evolutionary theory, a fundamental part of modern biology. In five states, nearly one in five teachers do not accept the scientific validity of evolutionary theory. In Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota, more than one in five teachers say they accept the scientific validity of creationism -- rejecting common ancestry of living things and accepting the involvement of a supernatural force in the development of life on Earth.

A Maryland education official said she knew of no such teacher surveys here.

Intelligent design advocates insist they're not pushing creationism, which was found unconstitutional for public school science classes by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. While they accept some aspects of evolutionary theory and insist intelligent design is a scientific concept, they argue that causes other than those accepted by mainstream science should be included to explain the complexity of life.

Introducing such concepts in a science class "may confuse students about what science is and what it isn't," says Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communication at the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS and the country's chief science research and education organizations consider intelligent design a form of creationism.

It's one thing for students to be mixed up about the nature of science, but Wayne W. Carley, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, says these surveys suggest teachers are failing to grasp the basics.

"It disturbs me greatly when I see those numbers," reflecting teachers who "don't understand the difference between science and religion," Carley says.

The line between the two is being tested lately in ways both new and familiar to those who have studied Charles Darwin's bumpy ride through the American scene. Historian Edward J. Larson, who has written several books on the American creationism-evolution conflict, says religiously based opposition to evolutionary theory simmers constantly in this country, and every so often, when cultural conditions are right, the argument breaks into general notice.

"It's like phases of the moon," Larson says. Consider this phase active.

The Dover, Pa., school district's attempt to recommend intelligent design to biology students awaits a ruling by a U.S. district judge in Pennsylvania. Another evolution challenge is expected to go before a federal appeals court next month in a Georgia school district case. Both cases involve disclaimers -- one spoken, one affixed to textbooks -- saying evolutionary science is "a theory, not a fact."

Moves are afoot in Michigan and Indiana legislatures to revise science education standards to challenge evolutionary theory, and Kansas adopted standards this month to expand the bounds of scientific inquiry beyond the confines of the natural world. The move reversing a few centuries of scientific devotion to "methodological naturalism" was considered friendly to intelligent design proponents.

Dover's intelligent design advocates on the school board were all voted out this month, but opinion polls otherwise suggest broad public rejection of evolutionary theory.

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