Saturday, December 13, 2008

Teaching Creationism Has Evolved

Forty years ago, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the US Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional an Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution. “The [Arkansas] law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read,” the court wrote in its decision.

The ruling was the first major judicial blow to creationists, who had largely silenced evolutionary education in many states across the country—ever since John Scopes was convicted in 1925 of the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee’s infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

Since Charles Darwin first put forth his idea of natural selection, the scientific community has viewed evolutionary theory as the unifying principle of biology. Among scientists, there is virtually no debate over its validity. And despite what religious fundamentalists insist, there is no credible scientific evidence backing up young earth creationism.

But instead of ending the cultural battle between religion and science, the Epperson case ignited what has been a four-decade fight to keep God out of science class. Since the Epperson v. Arkansas ruling anti-evolution laws morphed with each constitutional defeat into “equal time” laws and now “academic freedom” laws. Creationism, in trying to pass judicial muster, shape shifted into “creation science,” then into “intelligent design,” and now “strength-and-weakness” requirements.

George W. Bush's recent statement that he believes the Bible is "probably not" literally true has apparently left many Christian conservatives reeling in shock. Bush made the controversial statement during a interview on ABC's Nightline. Bush further stated in the interview, "I think that God created the Earth ... and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."

Now this nation will soon be led by a president who firmly embraces evolution theory—and the eight years of a Bush administration hostile to science are almost over. President-elect Barack Obama has expressed firm support for eliminating Bush administration practices of censoring government agency scientific papers, promised to lead a green technological revolution and has pledged to return the United States to its vaunted position as a leader of scientific innovation.

While an Obama presidency may spell good news for science, the truth is that he is unlikely to have much of an impact on the teaching of evolutionary theory on the ground. The Texas state Board of Education is reviewing its science standards in preparation for approval next year.

The results of the board’s decision will undoubtedly have wide repercussions. The review of the standards is to establish guidelines for textbook publishers, who are watching the process closely.

In September, writing teams had removed a requirement that had had been inserted years earlier that said students must learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories like evolution. But earlier this month, three new reviewers with strong intelligent-design connections, including Stephen Meyer, vice president of the pro-ID Discovery Institute, were appointed by the creationist-friendly board members to look at the standards. In a new draft submitted last week, students would be required to learn “strengths and limitations” in three courses.

In addition, the new draft calls on middle school students to “discuss possible alternative explanations” for scientific concepts, opening the door for supernatural explanations like creationism.

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