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Teachers debate how to handle evolution

Some educators say they look for ways to address creationism without straying from science, while others take a hard line against what they see as political and religious interference.
Science teacher Faye Haas, from Washington State, participates in a discussion on the teaching of evolution with fellow science teacher Terry Uselton, from Knoxville, Tenn., on Monday during the National Education Association's annual conference.
Science teacher Faye Haas, from Washington State, participates in a discussion on the teaching of evolution with fellow science teacher Terry Uselton, from Knoxville, Tenn., on Monday during the National Education Association's annual conference.Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every time Lisa Marroquin teaches biological evolution, she knows some students will show up ready to talk creationism, a religious doctrine of how life came to be.

So she finds a way to satisfy their curiosity without straying from science, the fundamental theory that species evolved over millions of years through natural selection.

“I allow them to be creative thinkers, because that’s what we’re driving the kids to do — be intelligent, analytical thinkers,” said Marroquin, who teaches at Downey High School in a Southern California district she describes as conservative. Yet evolution is a key part of California science standards, and she tells students they must learn it even if they don’t like it, because “they’ve got to live in the real world.”

Marroquin’s challenge in teaching Darwinian theory reflects a re-emerging issue in public education. In local communities and state legislatures, evolution is being contested anew, prompting rebukes from scholars who fear that politics and religion are eroding established science.

This debate of ideas, normally welcome in a classroom environment, is not embraced by instructors such as Terry Uselton, a high school science department chairman in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It’s not about education or science, it’s about politics,” Uselton told The Associated Press during a group interview of teachers at the National Education Association’s annual meeting. “That’s the problem, and that’s what we have a hard time separating out. Part of it doesn’t have anything to do with the science being right or wrong.”

Standards under debate
In rural Pennsylvania, a school board has ordered that biology students hear about a competing theory of life called “intelligent design,” prompting a court fight. In a Georgia county, officials placed disclaimers about evolution on text books before a judge overruled the move. In Kansas, officials may alter science standards to step up the criticism of evolution.

In Washington state, when students ask teacher Faye Haas about the role of a higher being in the origin of life, she tells them: “That’s religion, that’s a belief, it’s not science theory.”

“The thing about a (scientific) theory is it’s supported by a large body of evidence,” said Haas, a former biology instructor who teaches high school chemistry in a suburb of Seattle. “To spend half the time talking about things that speak against it doesn’t make any sense.”

Yet proponents of alternative views say they want young learners to hear critiques of evolution, and that science should be able to withstand the scrutiny.

Their push has been aided by the election of conservative lawmakers, and polls show that many adults are open to the teaching of criticism of Darwinism or creationist theories in class.

Natural vs. supernatural
The beliefs of creationist groups vary widely, but the doctrine’s principle is that a supernatural being created the universe and living things. Biological evolution refers to the process of change in which species formed from preexisting species through the ages.

Congress has weighed in with guidance to schools, saying in 2001 that students should be allowed to “understand the full range of scientific views” about biological evolution — but also that students should be taught to distinguish between testable theories from religious or philosophical claims.

Religious accounts of life’s creation are not permitted in public schools under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled. Another theory fueling debate, intelligent design, asserts that some features of the natural world are so ordered and complex that they are best explained by an intelligent cause. Critics call that a rehashed version of creationism, stripped of overt religious references, a claim that intelligent design researchers vigorously dispute.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that represents many scholars who support intelligent design, is not seeking to require schools to teach the theory. Nor is it out to diminish the teaching of evolution, said Bruce Chapman, the institute’s president.

“We want the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory taught. That’s it,” Chapman said. He said intelligent design is not sufficiently developed to be required teaching, but he points to more than 400 researchers who have signed onto a scientific dissent of Darwinism.

Alarm sounded
National science leaders are alarmed by these renewed questions about evolution. Bruce Alberts, a cell biologist and immediate past president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently wrote all of its members to warn of the “growing threat” to the teaching of science.

At the college level, the American Association of University Professors has deplored any efforts to force public school teachers or higher education faculty to teach theories of the origins of life that are “unsubstantiated by the methods of science.”

Meanwhile, Uselton, the Tennessee teacher, fears the political feuding over evolution will turn off students and drive them into other disciplines. He encourages students to embrace the fact that science doesn’t have all the answers, with hopes they’ll see it as an opportunity.

“Like I tell my kids,” he said, “somebody’s got to be out there filling these gaps.”