History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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On the Front Lines

March 9th, 2006 · No Comments

Fwd’d from Science For The People
On the Front Lines in the War Over Evolution

Chronicle of Higher Ed
From the issue dated March 10, 2006

Proponents of creationism and defenders of Darwinism seek recruits in new territory

In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.

“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”

It was a call to arms for American scientists, meant to recruit new troops for the escalating war against creationism and its spinoff doctrine, intelligent design. As president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, Ms. Froschauer had joined the all-afternoon symposium to rally more support for the teachers who are on the front lines in the war over evolution.

The gathering was only one of five sessions devoted to that conflict at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That number is one sign of a growing movement across the country that is drawing academic scientists into action, after decades during which they basically ignored religious threats to science education.

Eugenie C. Scott sees that trend every time she looks at her calendar. A former anthropology professor, Ms. Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education and a leading voice against creationism. She has spoken at the AAAS meeting several times and is a regular at gatherings of evolutionary scientists. But for the first time, she has been invited in the past year to speak at meetings on astronomy, biochemistry, human genetics, and microbiology. She has also started receiving requests from medical schools.

National organizations such as the AAAS and the National Academy of Sciences have often championed the teaching of evolution, but there has been far less activity at the grass-roots level. “What is new is that it’s finally trickling down,” says Ms. Scott. “These scientists are saying, I’ve got to do something.”

The supporters of intelligent design suffered a high-profile legal defeat in December, when a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the concept was inherently religious and therefore could not be introduced into a public high school as an alternative to evolution. But the conflict is hardly winding down. In fact, new fronts are opening up as both sides expand into different terrain, looking for tactical advantages and fresh troops.

The intelligent-design camp is forging ties with academics in neuroscience, medicine, and other fields. At the same time, scientists who defend evolution are linking up with nonscientists to broaden their support.

“We need to reach out not only to other scientists but to the clergy, as well as to our friends who are nonscientists,” says Irving W. Wainer, a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health, who organized one of the other symposia at the AAAS meeting on the continuing battle between evolution and creationism.

In the Trenches

Until recently, Mr. Wainer was content to follow that war from the safety of his laboratory. But two years ago, a friend handed him a copy of the now famous “wedge” document from the Discovery Institute, the leading force behind the intelligent-design movement.

The document, written in the late 1990s, describes a strategy to topple what it calls the “materialism” of modern science — that scientists seek to explain nature in terms of natural processes instead of allowing for supernatural forces. That materialism has “infected virtually every area of our culture,” according to the Discovery Institute, which formulated the wedge strategy to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The document, which spells out specific goals to transform society as a whole, led Mr. Wainer to conclude that the evolution controversy had shifted from a debate about science and religion into a political battle. The Discovery Institute, he says, “has been extremely effective, and that’s very frightening.”

Mr. Wainer did what academics normally do when faced with a challenge: organize a conference to talk about it. When he first started planning the symposium, he rounded up the usual suspects — standard-bearers from universities and other organizations that have long championed the teaching of evolution. But as he spoke to more people, he began thinking that the symposium — and the whole defense of science — had to broaden its base.

So he invited Warren M. Eshbach, a minister and adjunct faculty member at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Mr. Eshbach has a son who teaches biology at Dover High School, in Pennsylvania, the focus of the recent court case.

The Dover-area school board decided in late 2004 to require ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement to students emphasizing gaps in evolutionary theory and informing students about intelligent design. Several parents sued the board over that policy, and U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled in December that the board’s actions violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

In his decision, the judge said, “in making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

Mr. Eshbach warned the audience at the AAAS meeting that “Dover is not unique,” and that these battles are happening all over the country.

He argued for a dialogue between scientists and religious leaders. “I’m not saying we have to kiss, but to get to know each other.”

Toward that goal, Mr. Wainer announced the creation of the Alliance for Science, an advocacy organization that includes scientists, clergy members, businesspeople, and educators. By reaching out to nonscientists, the new organization seeks to build support for more federal financing of science and science education. “There are a lot of segments of society that would be willing, and anxious, to see support for science,” says Mr. Wainer, who is the chair of the alliance.

Evolution’s Bully Pulpit

Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, recently found supporters numbering in the thousands in the Christian religious community. Mr. Zimmerman leads an effort that to date has gathered 10,300 members of the clergy to sign a letter supporting the teaching of evolution.

For Mr. Zimmerman, the letter project marked a return to the battle after a decade-long furlough. Early in his career, when he was a professor of biology at Oberlin College in the 1980s, Mr. Zimmerman had been active in writing and organizing to defend the teaching of evolution. But by the mid-1990s, he had burned out, and subsequently decided to focus on his day job as a dean at Oshkosh.

He was drawn back into the fight when he learned that the town of Grantsburg, Wis., passed a law in 2004 restricting the teaching of evolution. Mr. Zimmerman organized deans from across Wisconsin to sign letters critical of Grantsburg’s decision. Next he recruited biology professors and religious-studies professors. Then came anthropologists and geologists. But the effort did not move the Grantsburg board. “The response was, These are just academics,” says Mr. Zimmerman.

In past evolution conflicts around the country, Mr. Zimmerman had always advised people to involve the clergy. In the Grantsburg case, he says, “I finally realized that I needed to do what I’d been telling everyone else to do.”

A friend who is a minister wrote a letter and sent it around to other ministers. Eventually, they collected 200 signatures from clergy in Wisconsin, which carried far more weight than the voices of academics. The school board backed down and adopted a less restrictive policy, says Mr. Zimmerman.

At the same time, however, the case in Dover was attracting national attention. Mr. Zimmerman saw a news report in which an evolution foe argued that people had to chose between evolution and religion. “That so angered me because evolution has nothing to do with religion,” says Mr. Zimmerman.

He and his friends started sending the clergy letter out nationally and eventually gathered more than 10,000 signatures. “I wanted to demonstrate to the American people that the dichotomy that was set before them was a false one,” he says. “They didn’t have to choose. They could be perfectly religious — or not — and still accept modern science and evolution.”

Once they reached the 10,000-signature goal, Mr. Zimmerman’s group looked for a way to publicize the letter. They decided this year to create a national holiday, called Evolution Sunday, on February 12 — the 197th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Across the country, 464 congregations staged activities, such as sermons, classes, or discussion groups, that focused on science and religion.

The event was an effort to “elevate the national debate on this topic, instead of having people just shout at each other, You’re going to hell,” says Mr. Zimmerman.

The Discovery Institute, however, discounts the clergy letter. “Religion is irrelevant to the issue,” says Robert L. Crowther II, director of communications for the institute. The beliefs of clergy members, he says, do not alter the evidence for intelligent design in DNA and biological cells.

Chalkboard Talk

Defenders of evolution are also trying to raise the level of discussion in classrooms in middle schools and high schools.

The AAAS invited science teachers from the St. Louis area to the afternoon symposium where Ms. Froschauer, of the National Science Teachers Association, spoke.

The event started with a movie, projected onto the giant IMAX screen, that celebrated science teachers who have been fighting for evolution education in the face of pressure from their school boards and administrators. After that, teachers from Dover High School and from Cobb County, in Georgia — the site of another legal battle over evolution — were introduced and given a standing ovation by the audience.

Aside from the recent legal battles, educators point to several other signs troubling them about evolutionary education in the United States. For example, in a study published last year, Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, reported that 20 percent of the biology teachers he surveyed in Minnesota include creationism in their classes and believe that it is scientifically valid.

Last year Ms. Froschauer’s organization polled more than 1,000 science teachers, asking whether they felt pressure to teach alternatives to evolution. About 30 percent reported that they did get pressure, mainly from parents and students.

Seeking fresh news from the front lines, the AAAS asked the St. Louis teachers in the audience for their top concerns and instantly tallied their responses using electronic counters. The 134 teachers who answered wanted help resisting the pressure to teach creationism or play down evolution. The single biggest response was a request for talking points to deal with students’ concerns.

Teachers also said they had trouble framing the evolution issue for religious students, and that their knowledge of evolution was rusty.

Universities and colleges must shoulder some of the blame, says Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

In an earlier session at the meeting, Mr. Wheeler said many science teachers don’t receive adequate training in evolutionary science. “During their four-year experience on your campus, they didn’t get the material they needed to be prepared to teach,” says Mr. Wheeler.


Despite their legal setback in the Pennsylvania trial, opponents of evolution remain committed to advancing their cause. There are more than a dozen bills pending across the nation that challenge the teaching of evolution or mandate instruction in intelligent design in public schools.

In Georgia the Cobb County School District is appealing the decision of a federal district judge last year ordering the district to remove warning stickers from biology textbooks. The stickers said that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” and they urged students to think critically about evolution.

The intelligent-design movement is spreading to higher education, with some colleges offering courses on the topic and clubs sprouting up on different campuses. The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, in San Diego, has 24 chapters at colleges and universities across the United States, including Cornell and the University of California at Berkeley.

The supporters of intelligent design are also moving beyond evolution to other areas of research that might mesh well with their guiding philosophy of a creative entity that manifests itself in nature. As its long-term goal, the Discovery Institute has vowed to push what it calls design theory beyond biology and cosmology into such fields as psychology, ethics, philosophy, and the fine arts.

At the AAAS meeting, James A. Murray, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Central Arkansas, reported on several signs that the neurosciences could emerge as a major battleground soon. The conflict is brewing because most scientists who study the brain are convinced the mind is produced entirely by neural activity, and that there is no metaphysical component to the mind.

In fact, while many religious leaders see no discord between evolution and theology, Mr. Murray wonders whether the direction of neuroscience research will prove unpalatable to religious people. “There is more of a concern that with neuroscience, there may not be as much room for compatibility,” he said in an interview. “It could be considered threatening to religious beliefs for people who believe in a soul.”

Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 52, Issue 27, Page A14
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tags: Evolution

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