Debate Over Teaching of Evolution Theory Shifts to Ohio

By David J. Hoff — March 20, 2002 4 min read
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More than 1,000 people turned out last week for a biology lesson in Columbus, Ohio.

The 2 ½-hour debate between scientists over how schools should teach natural selection drew scientists, educators, students, and parents, as well as members of the state board of education, who will decide what to include in new science standards to be issued by the end of the year.

Audience members heard about a clash of ideas that typifies the ongoing debate over how to teach evolution—a concept that scientists say is the basis for understanding modern biology, but which some critics say is insufficient to explain the biological complexities of the world.

The board’s standards-writing committee invited two defenders of evolutionary theory and two advocates of “intelligent design” to participate in a public debate over whether to mention intelligent design in conjunction with the theory of evolution, which originated with the studies of Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

Advocates of intelligent design—a small proportion of the scientific community—say that scientists still debate many of the key assumptions of Darwin’s theories. Too many changes happened too quickly in fossil records, they say, for natural selection to explain them. Therefore, their argument goes, teachers should be free to discuss the possibility that an intelligent designer, such as God, intervened to shape humans and other animals.

“We want to protect teachers that choose to share information about the controversy with their students,” said Jonathan Wells, a scientist and religious scholar who argued in favor of intelligent design at the debate. “Teachers should be protected from the [American Civil Liberties Union] or other pro-Darwin organizations,” said Mr. Wells, who is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that promotes the theory.

Intelligent design, his debating foes responded, shouldn’t be brought up in classrooms because it hasn’t been accepted by most scientists.

The journal Science hasn’t cited intelligent design in any of the 200 articles that have mentioned biological evolution since January 2001, according to Lawrence M. Krauss, the chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Leading science organizations—such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the Ohio Academy of Sciences—all refute the theory, Mr. Krauss added during his presentation at the March 11 event.

In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences declared that intelligent design and “other claims of supernatural intervention” should not be part of the high school curriculum. (“Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution,” April 28, 1999.)

Free Speech?

Ohio is the current hotbed in the debate over how to teach evolution in schools. Under state law, the state school board must revise Ohio’s science standards by the end of the year.

The last major state-level debate on the subject occurred in 1999, when the Kansas state school board eliminated evolution from the state’s science standards, prompting a flurry of national discussion of the issue. After new members were elected in 2000, the board revised the standards to include a thorough treatment of the subject. (“Evolution Restored to Kansas Standards, But Called ‘Controversial’ in Alabama’s,” Feb. 21, 2001.)

Ohio’s draft of the revisions say 10th graders should “analyze how natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the diversity and unity of all past life forms as depicted in the fossil record and present life forms.”

The proposal is much better than the state’s current standards, which give an incomplete treatment of the topic, according to Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor emeritus of physics at California State University-Long Beach, who has graded every state on how well its standards cover evolution.

Mr. Wells said in an interview that the Discovery Institute is advocating that teachers be given the option of teaching about intelligent design. Many of those who have tried, he said, have been prevented from doing so.

Such arguments from intelligent-design advocates have become common since 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that required schools to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

To avoid being labeled religious zealots, intelligent-design supporters are framing the debate in terms of academic freedom or freedom of speech, according to Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an El Cerrito, Calif., nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the teaching of evolution in high schools.

“Each point taps into a cultural norm that is certainly intended to get political support,” Ms. Scott said. “It places the scientific and education community on the defensive.”

The debate in Ohio will continue through the end of the year. The state board of education plans to release its latest draft of the science standards on April 1 and will be accepting public comments throughout the summer, according to Beth A. Gianforcaro, a spokeswoman for the Ohio education department.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Debate Over Teaching of Evolution Theory Shifts to Ohio


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