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Counter Evolutionary, Pt. IV

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If there is a ground zero for the religious right in this country, it is Colorado Springs.

If there is a ground zero for the religious right in this country, it is Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family and dozens of other conservative Christian organizations. Ironically, it's also the home of the nonprofit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which, back in the early 1960s, almost singlehandedly reintroduced evolution to the nation's biology textbooks. Founded in 1958 by a group of scientists concerned about the poor quality of science education in the public schools, the BSCS published a set of textbooks that abandoned the traditional taxonomic approach to biology in favor of inquiry-oriented instruction. One of those books was Biological Science: An Ecological Approach, known simply as the "Green Version." More than 2.5 million copies of the textbook have been sold since it was first published in 1963. It is the same book that Danny Phillips wanted to see dropped by the Jefferson County public schools.

In his spacious office, Joseph McInerney, the 48-year-old director of the BSCS, pulled out a facsimile copy of Biology for Beginners, by Truman Moon, published in 1921. "It was the most widely used biology textbook at the time of the Scopes trial," McInerney said as he opened the volume. "Look who's on the frontispiece. It's our boy Darwin." The 1925 trial changed all that, he explained. Scopes, as most people know, was accused of violating Tennessee's law against teaching evolution in the public schools. William Jennings Bryan, thrice-defeated presidential candidate and a leading spokesman for fundamentalist Protestantism, led the prosecution. Despite the efforts of the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, who represented Scopes, the teacher was found guilty, but the verdict was later overturned on a technicality.

"The scientific community, in a sense, won the battle," McInerney said, "but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial for the Baltimore Evening Sun, lampooned the creationists and the fundamentalists. But the publishers got the message that parents didn't like evolution, and so it came out of the books. They never mentioned the 'E' word." In fact, by 1926, the publisher of Biology for Beginners had replaced the Darwin portrait with a diagram of the human digestive system, and later editions of the book thoroughly emasculated the concept of evolution. Other textbooks followed suit.

The BSCS changed all that. From the beginning, the organization's textbooks have treated evolution as, in McInerney's words, "the central organizing theme of the entire discipline." Not surprisingly, BSCS texts have often been attacked by religious conservatives. When the books were first marketed back in the 1960s, school administrators in several Southern states refused to buy them. In New Mexico, the state board of education insisted that a disclaimer stating that evolution is a theory, not a fact, be added to all BSCS textbooks. In Texas, when the books were submitted to the state textbook-adoption committee, a fundamentalist minister called them "pure evolution from cover to cover, completely materialistic and completely atheistic," and he asked his church members to petition against their adoption. The committee eventually approved the books, but they were dropped several years later when the BSCS refused to add a disclaimer stating that the books' material on evolution was presented as theory rather than fact and that evolution was only one of several explanations for the origin of man. It wasn't until 1990, when the state of Texas changed its textbook-adoption policy, that the BSCS books were finally reapproved.

To McInerney, the Danny Phillips case was all too familiar. "I'm never surprised when I hear about these things," he said. "We've been fighting these battles for 38 years. Probably a month doesn't go by without my hearing about something happening somewhere in the country. ... This issue should have been over a long time ago, and it frustrates me because I have to spend so much time and money on it."

"A theory is not an ephemeral guess. It is a powerful conceptual framework that is supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence."

Joseph McInerney

McInerney handed me a copy of a column he had written for The Jefferson Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Lakewood, Colo. In it, he argued that "ignorance and zealotry are the twin towers of creationism." And he offered a point-by-point rebuttal of what he called the anti-evolutionist "party line," starting with their insistence that evolution is "merely a theory."

"A theory is not an ephemeral guess," he wrote. "It is a powerful conceptual framework that is supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence that explains numerous observations about the natural world and that helps predict future observations."

In an interview, he added: "Yes, it's 'only a theory,' but so is gravitation. So is germ theory. So is the chromosome theory of inheritance. They're all theories. But we don't see anyone challenging these being taught as theories. Evolution is as widely accepted a theory in science as any of the others. The only reason that anybody challenges this is because it conflicts with some people's religious views."

"Second," McInerney's column continued, "the party line claims that 'it's only fair to present both sides of the debate.' That is a plea to democracy that ignores the fact that creationism has no scientific basis and therefore cannot occupy any side in a scientific debate.

"Third, it argues that 'there could be intelligent design.' That is an assertion that falls beyond the province of science, which demands naturalistic explanations, and into the realm of mysticism.

"And fourth, the creationists maintain that 'scientists disagree about evolution.' That is a deliberate misrepresentation of biology. In fact, all scientists accept the reality of evolution, [although] they continue to debate the process by which it occurs."

Unlike some publishing companies, the BSCS refuses to water down its textbooks to appease the critics. In fact, its latest version, called Biology: A Human Approach, begins with a chapter titled "Evolution: Patterns and Products of Change in Living Systems." The theory of evolution pervades the entire volume, as it does in all BSCS books. According to McInerney, the BSCS "Blue Version," Biological Science: A Molecular Approach, is now being targeted by the religious right in Tennessee, where it is up for statewide adoption. "And you can bet that this one will be on the list," he said, holding up Biology: A Human Approach, "because it starts with evolution."

Some biology textbooks limit discussion of evolution to a single chapter—which can be conveniently overlooked by gun–shy teachers.

By contrast, some biology textbooks limit discussion of evolution to a single chapter--which gun-shy teachers can conveniently overlook. McInerney recently heard from a teacher in Michigan, whose school uses just such a book. "Her principal came to her and said that it would be 'fine' if she didn't getto the evolution chapter," McInerney said. "That's the power of what [writer] Nat Hentoff calls the 'heckler's veto.' Make enough noise, and you win. You know that as soon as you teach evolution, somebody is going to complain. And if the administrators aren't going to back you, why should you bother teaching it?"

McInerney urges biology teachers to stand firm and not bow to pressure from parents and administrators, but he also realizes that teachers are sometimes caught in a bind. "I feel a lot of sympathy for teachers," he said. "It's very easy to sit here in my office in Colorado Springs and say, 'You guys really need to teach this.' But often the administrators provide no support, which frustrates me a great deal. They are too willing to cave because they don't want any controversy, they don't want any pressure. It's easier to say, 'Just don't teach evolution.' To me, that's just clear capitulation to censorship and anti-intellectualism."

McInerney accused the Jefferson County curriculum review panel of doing just that. "I was so amazed that they let this 15-year-old kid set the criteria for their science curriculum," he said. "I mean, they just caved."

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