By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/19/2006 8:04:55 PM ET 2006-02-20T01:04:55

Hundreds of teachers from across the nation gathered here Sunday to arm themselves with information that will help them in future conflicts over the teaching of evolution in science classes.

On one hand, this weekend's teach-ins here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reflected on last December's decisive setback to the intelligent-design movement, which holds some things in nature are so complex that their origins can't be explained by natural phenomena.

On the other hand, the sessions were aimed at preparing teachers to deal with new challenges to evolutionary theory — this time aimed at casting doubt on the theory's foundations rather than trying to establish an alternative theory. "It's going on right now," Eugenie Scott, executive director for the National Center for Science Education, told MSNBC.com.

The AAAS' initiative follows up on the landmark federal court case in Pennsylvania, Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which District Judge John Jones ruled that teaching intelligent design in public-school science classes went against the constitutional ban on the state establishment of religion.

The controversy led to the ouster of school board members in the Dover Area School District who had required teachers to refer to intelligent design in biology classes. The newly elected board reversed the policy, even before Jones ruled, but the teachers who came to St. Louis from Dover said they still faced some frictions with school administrators.

"Their sense of leadership has been very disappointing," Robert Eshbach, a science teacher at Dover Area High School, told MSNBC.com. "There is still an animosity on the issue — and that goes both ways, to be honest."

As for the students, "they're just glad to be out of the news and out of the spotlight," said Jennifer Miller, a Dover teacher who testified in the court case.

Even as the school district and the plaintiffs' attorneys are continuing to negotiate over reimbursement for legal expenses in Kitzmiller v. Dover, Miller said some parents and board members have begun raising new questions, relating to how human genetic engineering is being addressed in science classes.

Bracing for the next wave
Scott, who has been a vocal opponent of the intelligent-design movement, said that in the months ahead she expected religious-inspired challenges not only to evolutionary theory but also to theories in astronomy, biology, geology and the historical sciences that went against the view that the cosmos was created mere thousands or tens of thousands of years ago.

James Murray of the University of Central Arkansas, said neuroscience is also facing a particularly strong challenge because it focuses on human mental activity as the product of biochemical brain activity rather than a reflection of the soul.

This weekend's sessions girded teachers for the challenges by providing videos, lesson plans and other briefing materials on evolution and the scientific method. On Sunday afternoon, an audience of about 400 heard from speakers ranging from U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., to Jeff Corwin, the host of "Corwin's Quest" on the Animal Planet cable channel.

The teachers also cast votes in an electronic instant poll to voice their own top concerns from a list of 10. Their four top concerns were:

  • "No one has explained how teachers can best answer parents, students or others who ask, 'Why not teach the controversy?'"
  • "It is difficult to frame evolution instruction in a way that leaves students' minds open — yet also does not sound to them like equivocation."
  • "Students or their parents object to evolution-related instruction, and the controversy consumes valuable class time."
  • "Feeling confident about teaching evolution can be difficult because professional development opportunities — or even simple answers to basic questions about evolution and the nature of science — are not readily available to help teachers freshen their content knowledge."

In a statement released Sunday, the AAAS' board of directors countered the "teach the controversy" question by declaring that "the current controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution is not a scientific one."

Scott voiced concern that the backers of intelligent design would turn their attention to "denigrating evolution" and even trying to redefine the ground rules of scientific inquiry to allow for supernatural causes. "This would, of course, not open up science but destroy it," she said.

Religion and division
Several speakers decried efforts to use evolution as a "wedge issue" to divide the supporters of evolutionary theory from religious believers.

"The most toxic thing about this whole discussion is the impression that most of the public has, that there's a line in the sand, and you have to be on one side or the other," Scott said.

The Rev. George Coyne, head of the Vatican Observatory, repeated his claim that the intelligent-design argument actually belittled God's role in the universe by portraying him as an engineer rather than a loving parent.

"Science tells us about the universe, not about God," he said in his AAAS presentation. "If I believe in God, the universe as science sees it also tells me about God."

To reinforce the message that science and religion need not be at odds, Michael Zimmerman, a dean and biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, gathered more than 10,000 signatures from American Christian clergy for a letter urging school boards "to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."

Zimmerman told MSNBC.com that his effort was aimed at showing that Christian fundamentalists "are not speaking for the majority of Christian leaders."

"Those Christian leaders, one at a time, then by fives and tens, then by hundreds and thousands, in a very quiet way could stand up together and provide a much louder voice than the shrill shouts of the fundamentalists," he said.

Intelligent-design proponents appeared to be in short supply during the weekend's sessions, and some said they had not been invited to participate. In response, Scott said that she and her colleagues had devoted a great deal of effort to organizing sessions for the AAAS meeting on the science of evolution.

Her advice to those who felt left out took on a biblical tone. "Go forth and do thou likewise," she said.

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