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Classroom evolution’s grass-roots defender

A grass-roots group troubled by recent Republican triumphs and the influence of the Christian right is fighting back in Virginia by defending the teaching of Darwinian evolution.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A grass-roots group troubled by recent Republican triumphs and the influence of the Christian right is fighting back in Northern Virginia by defending the teaching of Darwinian evolution, a battleground in the national culture war.

An e-mail last month seeking support from more than 300 local Democratic campaign volunteers and other potential supporters described efforts across the country to challenge evolutionary theory. It warned against "politically infused theological pseudo-science" and said silence risks undermining Virginia schools and weakening the state's economy.

The e-mail was the first shot from an unlikely group led mostly by Vietnam-era protesters who describe their aim as beating Republicans who oppose teaching evolution at their own organizational game. Based in Northern Virginia, the group says its immediate goal is a Fairfax County School Board endorsement of modern Darwinian theory, which faces attacks in many states by Christian groups and education activists.

The group's bigger dream is a statewide repudiation of intelligent design, a movement positing that life is too complex to spring from chemistry and biology alone. Followers, often asserting that a creator must have guided the origins of earth and man, believe public schools would better serve students by teaching unresolved aspects of evolutionary theory.

From Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Georgia to Texas, critics of modern Darwinism have battled to change textbooks and classroom approaches. Politicians, scientists and faith leaders on both sides have joined in the struggle. At hearings in May, the Kansas Board of Education, which has a conservative majority, supported teaching alternatives to evolution, a theory accepted by the vast majority of the scientific establishment.

'I fear for my country'
Evolution's newest defenders, who came together in frustration after the November elections, have little political experience, apart from hoisting Kerry-Edwards signs in morning traffic. They mostly are middle-class people with day jobs. Some had protested the Vietnam War but had rarely felt inspired to undertake political activism since. Together, they call themselves the Message Group and depict themselves as "determined and balanced" voters worried about social conservatives.

"I fear for my country. That sounds like a radical notion, something from the '60s, but there is a pervasive fear, a scariness," said Richard Lawrence, 63, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee who voted for Nixon. "We're just a small group, maybe with a powerful idea. We don't have a clue, but we're not letting go."

Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), chairman of the Fairfax School Board, opposes the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, but he questions the need for activism.

"There's no indication this is something we have to clarify for our community or those who teach science in our schools," said Niedzielski-Eichner, who has a degree in biology. It might make sense "if it ever came to light that some of our science teachers were hedging their bets because of concern they wouldn't have the support of the community."

The Message Group was created out of its members' disappointment. After President Bush was reelected and Republicans strengthened their hold on Capitol Hill, the group's future comrades were among millions of demoralized Kerry voters who had invested fresh emotional energy and elbow grease in politics, only to fall short.

Starting from scratch
The members do not hide the fact that they are starting from scratch. Seven months ago, a dozen members were learning one another's names. Five months ago, they were choosing a mission. Now, though their aim of defeating intelligent design is explicit, their strategy is, well, evolving.

They selected evolution after deciding that other issues, such as Social Security revisions, were well-covered by bigger, richer groups. The emerging duel over the teaching of science, they reasoned, was important, local and manageable, an area in which they could make a small impact -- and if they got lucky, a big one.

Lawrence, for the first time in his life, had volunteered for a campaign, holding aloft signs last year for the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), at Wilson Boulevard and North Glebe Road in Arlington during morning rush hour. At a post-election meeting of the Virginia Grassroots Coalition, Lawrence wrote his name and Falls Church phone number on a blackboard and said, "If you want to do something, here's my name and number, and my living room is free."

A few people approached, including Irving Wainer, 61, a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. At a meeting Dec. 12, they were joined by Mary Detweiler, 54, a fellow Kerry sign-carrier. She had grown "very depressed" about the election, she said, but after feeling energized by the campaign -- her first political role since opposing the Vietnam War -- she did not want to let the spirit go.

At the December meeting at Lawrence's house, the dozen or so guests agreed that they had become more frustrated since the election, not less. They discussed drafting a "biting and pertinent" leaflet to distribute at Metro stations to inspire action from like-minded administration opponents.

But action for, or against, what? It was Wainer who suggested the focus on evolution.

"I decided I had personally had enough," said Wainer, a District resident who said he believes that the activism of the religious right is inhibiting science. He contends that the scientific establishment, initially dismissive of the intelligent-design forces, has been slow to see the debate as a primarily political battle.

"If you can [cast] enough doubt on evolution," the Rev. Terry Fox, a Southern Baptist minister in Kansas, said this year, "liberalism will die."

Narrowing focus
By February, the group decided to focus on evolution in Virginia. With little money or manpower, they figured their biggest potential advantage lay in the fact that the intelligent-design debate had not reached Virginia. They decided to make a stand by getting there first and setting the terms of the discussion, just as pro-creationism Republicans have done elsewhere, they said.

Greg Tinkler, a young neuroscientist sympathetic to the cause, presented a lesson on Darwinian theory and intelligent design.

"I'm just a citizen, not a scientist," Detweiler said. "I've even had to do a lot of reading to catch up."

She was not alone. A draft leaflet that the group sent to about 75 like-minded people landed with an ugly thud. It warned that "small special-interest groups" were threatening the teaching of evolution in communities across the United States. If science education suffered, the state would suffer, said the 19-line flier, which ended with the cry, "Keep Virginia Evolving!"

The most salient responses, the group's members figured, were the ones that asked why evolution and why now. Most respondents did not see the urgency or a threat. The media director for one national organization advised them to leave well enough alone. If the intelligent-design forces were ignored, she suggested, maybe they would fade away.

"Here we are in our cocoon of Democratic people in Arlington, and we're not getting the response we expected," Detweiler recalled thinking.

Wainer said wryly: "We've got a lot of work to do. The masses are not going to rise up."

The Message Group went back to work. The members decided they needed publicity and a new approach. Lawrence drafted the letter that went to 300-plus campaign workers and others. Announcing a strategy session this month, he wrote that the organization was trying to learn whether "regular citizens could take effective action to counter the Cultural War initiated by the leaders of the Religious Right."

"Could creationism be taught under the guise of science in Virginia, you ask? . . . It took several years, but the newly installed, right-wing Kansas state school board is expected soon to require that students be taught that evolution is to be doubted."

One Message Group plan is to hold a mock Scopes trial this fall, with the anti-Darwinian cause in the dock, the reverse of the 1925 Tennessee case that challenged the teaching of evolution. The group then hopes to persuade the Fairfax School Board to endorse the continued teaching of evolution, perhaps with a nod to Roanoke authorities, who recently chastised a high school biology teacher for distributing a 500-page homemade text arguing that God created the universe.

If the issue takes off, the group believes, it could be raised during next year's race for governor of Virginia. And Wainer expects a fight in a state in which Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, is co-sponsoring the Creation Mega-Conference this month.

"If we poke a stick at them, they'll come. If the Fairfax County School Board gets out there, there isn't any way they can't counterattack," Wainer said. "We may lose. These guys are well-funded. They have better connections."

Conservative Fairfax School Board member Stephen M. Hunt (At Large), who favors teaching the missing pieces in evolutionary theory, said the Message Group, by making an issue of something that has not been important in Virginia, might inspire voters "to come out and defend their beliefs and vote Republican."

"I think it's a great idea," he said with a laugh, "because they'll expend a lot of energy and really not accomplish much."

The new activists describe the effort as a catharsis, no matter the outcome.

Wainer, who once led sit-ins against the Vietnam War and helped start a civil rights group in Philadelphia, found himself griping about the Bush years but doing little. His wife challenged him: "You used to be so active. You used to be so smart. Why don't you get off your butt and do something?"

Patty Zubeck, 48, sees herself atoning for her Vietnam-era youth, when "by being naive, I didn't do enough."

Lawrence was on the other side, a soldier who "believed I had to go save the world from communism." He traces his current advocacy to anguish over his upbringing in southern Virginia, where he watched in church on Sundays as white friends and relatives spoke of tolerance, yet fostered racism.

"All these respectable people around me said nothing," Lawrence said. "That mass silence. That's what got me after 30 years, waving those Kerry signs. I felt I couldn't be silent anymore."

Detweiler believes too many skeptics were too quiet about Vietnam for too long. "We don't want to wait that long, until we get to a crisis," said Detweiler, who said she sees the religious right as a pernicious foe.

"I don't feel the depression I felt a year ago," she said. "My hope is, we are going to be coming to our senses as a country."