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Proposed rules boost teaching of creationism

Critics say it's not science and the same as teaching religion

Wednesday, November 29, 2000

By Pamela R. Winnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A draft of new standards for teaching science and technology in Pennsylvania schools includes some subtle, little-noticed changes that seem to open the door to the controversial idea of teaching creation theory alongside the theory of evolution.

 
   
More on
Creationism

Proposed changes in state's science standards

Basic theories on the origins of humans

 
 

Standard evolutionary theory says that humans developed from lower species of animals over millions of years.

Strict creationists, on the other hand, use scientific arguments to support the Biblical story of creation, arguing that humans were created separately from other life forms, and that Earth and all its life came into being in six days, in accordance with the Genesis story.

The latest state standards say teachers can present theories "that do or do not support the theory of evolution."

They also include a phrase saying that schools may "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution."

Dan Langan, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the new phrases were inserted by members of the state Board of Education, but he did not identify who suggested the changes.

If the standards are approved, Langan said, they would allow the teaching of creation theory alongside evolution in public school science classes.

"Under the proposed standards, there's room for science teachers to expose students to other theories," Langan said. "The degree to which that's done is up to local school districts."

State is downgraded

The new language has caused a national expert to downgrade Pennsylvania's science standards from an "A" to a "B."

Lawrence Lerner, an emeritus professor from California State University at Long Beach, has graded all 50 states' science standards for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in terms of how the states deal with teaching evolution.

Lerner said he was "surprised" to find the appearance of "creationist jargon" in the revised Pennsylvania standards. "The creationists have gotten in there," he said. "It's too bad that happened."

Andrew Petto, editor of the National Center for Science Education and an associate professor who teaches science at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, agreed.

Petto said he particularly objected to the standard that would allow schools to "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution."

"It smacks of anti-evolution intervention," Petto said. "No other scientific theory is singled out like this. Singling out evolution is a sign that someone is trying to raise doubts specifically about evolution."

The proposed standards still have a long way to go before they become official.

The standards still need to be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin -- sometime in the "next few weeks," Langan said -- after which the public will have 30 days to submit written comments to the state board.

(Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

After that, the board must vote to adopt the standards in final form, subject to review by the House and Senate education committees and the attorney general's office.

Pennsylvania is far from alone in potentially allowing creationism to be taught in its schools.

Lerner's Fordham Foundation report says that many states have yielded to pressures from the Christian right and, to varying extents, have watered down their standards on teaching evolution.

Lerner found that while 31 states do "an adequate-to-excellent job," 19 states do "a weak-to-reprehensible job" in the handling of evolution. Of those 19 states, Lerner said, 12 "shun the word 'evolution,' " and four avoid teaching biological evolution altogether.

While his report criticizes states that don't support the teaching of evolution, it notes that "the public is not nearly so ready as the scientists to mandate that all schools teach evolution and only evolution. This important political fact begins to explain the dilemma that state policy makers encounter when they set about to promulgate standards for science education."

Competing ideas

Unlike many other areas of science, evolution affects many people's core religious beliefs.

While many scientists and other people have no problem reconciling evolution with a belief in God and the Bible, others do.

The notion that humans evolved from lower forms of life cuts against the central belief of Christian fundamentalists that God created humans separately from animals. And the assertion in evolutionary science that this process took millions of years clashes with some fundamentalists' belief that the earth was created in six days.

For fundamentalists, evolution carries moral implications as well. If humans evolved from animals, they say, humankind is provided with a ready excuse for "bad behavior," such as homosexuality, crime and abortion.

But so far, the creationists have fought an uphill legal battle in the courts.

Twice in the past 40 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that teaching creationism is equivalent to teaching religion and, as such, is unconstitutional.

"Teaching creationism as a science is a clear violation of the constitutional separation between church and state," said Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney for the People for the American Way Foundation, a national civil liberties organization.

0"It's a black or white issue," said Witold Walczak, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Pittsburgh office, which in 1994 sued the Moon Area School District for teaching creationism and secured a successful settlement.

"It's impermissible to teach creationism as science, even as an alternative to evolution," Walczak said.

While that may be the law of the land, it apparently does not sit well with the majority of Americans. A 1999 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor teaching both creationism and evolution in the public schools. Among that majority are some in the Pittsburgh area.

"Our beliefs in Butler are pro-creationist," said Diane Snyder, vice president of the Butler Area school board. "Our demographics are very Christian-oriented. Why shouldn't we teach creationism in addition to evolution?"

"We've heard so much about how important it is for kids to think critically," said Marilyn Reed, a member of the Pine-Richland school board. "I would like kids to see both sides. Kids need scientific facts for and against evolution."

Butler Area Superintendent Edward E. Fink Jr. declined to comment, and Pine-Richland Superintendent James Manley said he did not know whether his district teaches creationism.

Urging co-existence

Many advocates for creationism resent what they call the media's spin on the subject. They insist that providing alternatives to evolution does not amount to teaching religion.

"One mistake reporters make is falsely accusing us of trying to replace the teaching of evolution with that of creation in public school classrooms," said Steve Sobek, a mathematics teacher in the North Allegheny School District who said he speaks only for himself, not his district.

"Though we reject the tenets of macro-evolution, we do not expect public schools to discard the teaching of evolution, which is currently the majority point of view."

"All we're trying to do is raise legitimate problems with the standard model [of evolution] and suggest that the dating of the Earth is not as precise as [evolutionists] believe," said Dennis Wert, who holds a master's degree in microbiology from the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh and is chairman of the Creation Science Fellowship in Pittsburgh.

"We're not trying to get students to believe in God."

Evolutionists, on the other hand, say science teaching should not be dictated by what a majority of residents want. While they have no problem with creationism being taught in such classes as civics or comparative religion, they insist there's no room for it in science classes.

"Science is not democracy," Lerner said. "These calls for fairness in science may sound appealing, but they are bad science."

While some creationists resent being labeled in terms of their religion, many clearly belong to Christian groups.

Among them is Sobek, who operates a Web site, www.getequipped.org, which says it is an outreach of the Pittsburgh-North chapter of the Citizens for Excellence in Education, a Christian-based organization that "equips parents with the information and resources they need to protect the minds of their children in an environment that is often hostile to a Christian world view."

The parent organization, Citizens for Excellence in Education, is based in Costa Mesa, Calif. and headed by Robert Simonds, a well-known Christian critic of the public schools.

The parent organization's Web site contends that in most public schools, "evolution and the origins of man and the universe are taught as scientific fact. The world exists by chance. Life has no known purpose. Sin is a delusion. Faith in God is openly derided in most science classes."

Others in the creationist camp, however, have tried to distance themselves from the Christian right, instead calling their anti-evolution theory Intelligent Design.

Among them is Michael Behe, professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of "Darwin's Black Box." After studying evolution on a molecular level, he said that much of what he sees cannot be explained by natural selection, the idea that random genetic mutations that give creatures a survival advantage are then passed on to their offspring.

"Intelligent Design is a theory that says that biological structures we see appear to have been purposely designed by an intelligent agent," he said.

He also attacks evolution because, unlike most scientific theories, it cannot be verified in a laboratory.

Lerner dismisses Behe as "a screwball." He likens scientists who embrace creationism or Intelligent Design to physicians who turn from traditional medicine to "practicing voodoo."

"There are a few people in Intelligent Design who have biological training," Lerner said. "These are all smart guys. But they're a cult. No one in the scientific community takes them seriously."

But creationists turn the mirror on evolutionists, accusing them of being "dogmatic" and "cultist," inflicting their own brand of "religion" on the public and remaining closed to alternative theories.

"The very persons who insist on keeping religion and science separate are eager to use their science as a basis for pronouncements about religion," said creationist author Phillip E. Johnson.



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