Darwin Under Attack in U.S. Science Classroom
January 25, 2005
- Voice of America
Author(s): Zlatica Hoke
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. constitution guarantees separation of church and state. This means among other things that religious beliefs cannot be taught at public schools.
"We can teach about religion, under the First Amendment. We can't have religious indoctrination. So we can teach about various religious views of creation, of human origins, but in the science classrooms public schools must teach science as defined by the science community," says Charles Haynes, a legal scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Virginia.
An American high-school curriculum typically includes Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which is based on the notion that living beings developed as a result of biological chain reactions caused by natural selection. But many religious Americans who believe that God created life object to their children learning evolution. Educators often succumb to their pressure, says David Jackson, professor of science education at the University of Georgia and a former high-school science teacher.
"In some school districts in the United States - probably most, but not all of them in the southern United States - it is fairly frequent that evolution is either de-emphasized or not taught at all, or that religious ideas are in fact presented alongside scientific ideas in science class, even though that's not part of the official curriculum," says Mr. Jackson.
For example in 2002, schools in Cobb County Georgia, in suburban Atlanta, added a disclaimer to ninth-grade biology textbooks that says in part: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact regarding the origin of living things." This month a federal judge in Atlanta ordered the stickers removed as unconstitutional, but appeals are sure to follow, says Professor Jackson. Similar disputes have arisen in 40 other states in the past decade.
In 1991, Phillip Johnson, a retired professor of law published the book "Darwin on Trial" in which he claims that complex forms of life cannot be a result of natural process alone. "The basic unit of life – the cell – is not as it was believed to be in Darwin's day a simple blob of jelly-like matter that might easily have come together in the muck at the bottom of a body of water such as an ocean," says Professor Johnson, whose book has revived an old argument that at least some forms of life must be a result of a deliberate intelligent design rather than random natural selection, as evolution indicates.
Creationists have embraced this theory because it postulates that behind an intelligent design
undefined, i.e. God. And if science can prove it, there is no reason why it cannot be taught at schools.
Discovery Institute in Seattle, a private research organization, sponsors scientists who are looking for ways to determine whether some forms of life could be a product of an intelligent cause rather than evolution.
"Part of the research that goes on is looking at (the question) is chance and necessity selection plus random mutation. What's the probability that that can produce the sort of systems we see," explains John West, Director for Science and Culture at the Institute.
A school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, last year used the argument to introduce intelligent-design theory into its science curriculum. The decision is now challenged in court by parents who believe that intelligent design theory is just another name for creationism. School boards in some other communities are coming under pressure to add intelligent design to their science curriculum.
Margaret Young, director of the board of education in Charles County, Maryland, says her group has not discussed the idea yet, but if it comes up, she will have an open mind about it. "Science is not stagnant. There are always advances in science, and there may be – I am not saying that there is, I am not saying that there isn't – there may be more scientific evidence today to support intelligent design theory," says Ms. Young.
Observers outside the U.S. are curious if not bewildered that such a controversy over teaching evolution occurs in one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced countries in the world. But in contrast to many other countries, parents in the United States have a say in what their children learn at school and what goes into textbooks.
It is part of our democracy, says Margaret Young, a member of the school board in Maryland's Charles County. But as Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center says, separation of church and state is also an important part of it.