Counter Evolutionary, Pt. I

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Jefferson County, Colo.

High school junior Danny Phillips brought the 70-year-old fight against Darwinism to his Colorado District.

In 1983, "Nova," the popular science series shown on the Public Broadcasting Service, aired a stunning documentary called "The Miracle of Life." The hour-long program was the work of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson, who somehow managed to capture on film the inner workings of sexual reproduction as seen from deep within the human body. The Emmy Award-winning film begins, however, with a brief explanation of the origin of life on Earth. As the camera sweeps over the ocean, a narrator intones, "Four and a half billion years ago, the young planet Earth was a mass of cosmic dust and particles. It was almost completely engulfed by the shallow primordial seas. Powerful winds gathered random molecules from the atmosphere. Some were deposited in the seas. Tides and currents swept the molecules together. And somewhere in this ancient ocean, the miracle of life began."

As the camera moves underwater, the narrator continues: "The first organized form of primitive life was a tiny protozoan. Millions of protozoa populated the ancient seas. These early organisms were completely self-sufficient in their seawater world. They moved about their aquatic environment feeding on bacteria and other organisms. ... From these one-celled organisms evolved all life on Earth. And the foundation of life, the cell, has endured unchanged since the first tiny organisms swam in the cradle of life, the sea."

When Danny Phillips heard these words, he felt as if his entire belief system had been challenged. A 15-year-old straight-A student at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County,Colo., just west of Denver, Danny is a freckle-faced kid with red hair, big ears, and a friendly smile. His father, David Phillips, is pastor at Lakewood Church of the Nazarene. Danny's heroes are the Rev. Billy Graham and James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian group. He believes the Bible is the absolute word of God. He does not believe in evolution. So on an otherwise uneventful day last winter, as he watched "The Miracle of Life" in his 10th grade biology class, he decided to fight back.

Danny explained that the film was in conflict with his own beliefs because it taught evolution as fact, not theory.

On Feb. 28, Danny filled out a district form titled "Citizen's Request for Reconsideration of Learning/Human Resources." In it, he explained that the film, along with a textbook called Biological Science: An Ecological Approach, was in conflict with his own beliefs because it taught evolution as a fact, not as a theory. "My concern about these resources was prompted by the information that they contain about the origins of man," he wrote. "The resources teach ... that man has come from a lower form of animals. Sometimes these teachings also include in them the theories of the origin of the universe from an explosion or other origin other than that which is taught in the Bible and which I believe. Being that my beliefs are a fundamental part of me, and that they are in total disagreement with anything that contradicts God's creation of the world, I felt it insulting that the public schools should teach otherwise, and I was prompted to stop it."

Science, he went on to say, "has only reputed evolution--and other theories--and has not proven them to be true at all. ... If science is pervaded with theories like this, and that is all that it is, then science is obviously nothing more than an attempt to discredit religion and should not be taught in public schools. But!!!! I believe that true, factual science holds every relevance to life and should be taught to further our knowledge of it. And simply, evolution and other theories on the origin of man and the universe that contradict the Bible are not true, factual science!"

Danny gave the completed form to his principal, Dave Hendrickson, and waited for a response. Another skirmish in America's culture wars was under way.

Science teachers are on the front line of the battle.

More than 70 years after the famous 1925 "monkey trial" of John Scopes, who was convicted of teaching Charles Darwin's theories in a Dayton, Tenn., high school, the debate over evolution in the classroom rages on. In recent years, as religious conservatives have stepped up their attacks on the teaching of evolution, liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way have responded in kind. Science teachers, of course, are on the front line of the battle. Some have concluded that evolution is simply too hot to handle and have dropped the topic from their lesson plans.

Conservative politicians, meanwhile, cite the teaching of evolution as yet one more example of America's moral decline. Last March, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan told ABC, "I think [parents] have a right to insist that Godless evolution not be taught to their children or their children not be indoctrinated in it." His words echoed those of Ronald Reagan, who once called evolution a "scientific theory only" and contrasted it with Genesis, "which is not a theory but the biblical story of Creation."

No matter that the Supreme Court, in two landmark cases, seemed to have resolved the matter. The first decision came in 1968, when the high court, in Epperson v. Arkansas, struck down an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution. In 1982, however, legislators in Louisiana passed a law requiring that any public school teaching evolution must grant equal time to the theory of "creation science." (Similar laws were passed in other states, including Arkansas.) Don Aguillard, a Lafayette biology teacher, challenged the Louisiana law, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled, in Edwards v. Aguillard, that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

"The Louisiana Creationism Act," Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote for the court, "advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety." However, the court added that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of mankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction." And Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, added: "The people in Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools."

Brennan's statement about "a variety of scientific theories," coupled with Scalia's dissent, seems to have planted the seeds for a new strategy that anti-evolutionists are now using to get their views into the classroom. With creationism no longer an option, they now argue that evolution must be taught as a theory, not as a fact, and that any evidence against Darwin's ideas must be offered, as well. Indeed, the word "creationism" is rarely heard these days. Instead, anti-evolutionists push such concepts as "abrupt appearance theory" or "intelligent design theory," which defenders of Darwin say are merely euphemisms for creationism. Eugenie Scott, the director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that monitors threats to the teaching of evolution, recently told Science magazine, "This is a soft-core anti-evolution strategy, which is very clever because it doesn't appear religious on the surface."

Vol. 16, Issue 12

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