Evolution is the linchpin of modern biology. Young people who don’t understand it are missing out on an entire range of educational and career opportunities. Certain professional fields can be closed off to them.
Despite this, some public schools in America do all they can to avoid teaching evolution. Thanks to constant pressure from the religious right, many public schools are battlegrounds in a culture war that does great damage to our nation’s scientific credibility as creationists work overtime to slip their ideas into the curriculum.
Federal courts have been clear: Creationism is theology grounded in a literal reading of the Bible, not science. It has no place in public school science classes, and inserting it into the schools is unconstitutional.
But despite a string of courtroom defeats, the creationists will not be stopped. They keep repackaging their ideas and trying again. Ironically, their strategies seem to evolve.
Here is a roundup of the latest ploys creationists are using to replace sound science with biblical fundamentalism.
1. Pretending to teach kids “critical thinking” skills: A spate of bills appeared in states this year that purported to help guide public school teachers in helping students apply “critical thinking” to select “controversies.” Not surprisingly, the controversies singled out always included evolution.
Legislation in Colorado would have directed teachers to “create an environment that encourages students to intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions and learn about scientific evidence related to biological and chemical evolution, global warming, and human cloning.”
An Indiana bill would have compelled teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions and theories being presented in a course being taught by the teacher.”
In Montana, a bill mandated that schools to encourage “critical thinking regarding controversial scientific theories” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, random mutation, natural selection, DNA, and fossil discoveries.”
Oklahoma legislation would have required Sooner State teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” Covered topics included “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
The similar language of these bills (which all failed, thankfully) is strong evidence that they come from a central source. The National Center for Science Education, a California-based group that supports good science instruction in public schools, has traced them to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that promotes “intelligent design.”
Critical thinking is great. We’re all for it. But that’s not what these bills are about. They are about warping the concept of critical thinking and using it as vehicle to introduce religious concepts into the classroom.
2. Lumping it in with other controversies: Arizona lawmakers this year deliberated a bill that identified a series of “controversial” subjects and signaled them out for special classroom treatment. These included “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
Louisiana already has a law on the books permitting public school teachers to use “supplemental” material when discussing certain controversial issues, evolution among them. No one knows for sure what these supplemental materials are, but given that state’s constant efforts to undermine evolution, it’s safe bet On the Origin of Species is not on the list.
A school board in Springboro, Ohio, is considering a similar ruse, only its list is even longer. Once again, the idea here is to attempt to seize some type of moral high ground as proponents claim they are only trying to teach “both sides.”
Unfortunately for the board, that only works when there are two sides of equal validity.
The “teach the controversy” movement gives the far right an additional bonus: They can use it as a vehicle to undermine climate change, which they also reject.
3. Calling it academic freedom: Academic freedom is an important concept at colleges and universities. It has not been extended to public secondary schools because those institutions teach impressionable youngsters. Thus, school officials and democratically elected boards have the power to rein in teachers who start acting like preachers or who stray too far from the accepted curriculum.
A common creationist ruse is to assert that teachers have the right, under academic freedom, to introduce material that undercuts evolution. They do not. Over the years, several public school teachers have made this argument in court. All have failed.
Imagine if this argument were taken to its logical extent. What’s to stop a teacher from espousing 9/11 conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, claims that we never landed on the moon, etc.?
4. Urging teachers to “go rogue”: Even though there is no academic freedom right to teach creationism, some public school teachers behave as if there is. They simply don’t teach evolution or teach it in such a way as to instill doubts in students’ minds.
A recent survey of public school high school science teachers in Pennsylvania found 19 percent backing some variant of creationism. One biology teacher in Altoona said he believes Earth is 10,000 years old and that the methods used to date it at 5 billion years are faulty.
“Sometimes students honestly look me in the eye and ask what do I think?” wrote this teacher in response to a newspaper survey. “I tell them that I personally hold the Bible as the source of truth. I tell them that I don’t think [radiocarbon dating] is as valid as the textbook says it is, noting other scientific problems with the dating method. Kids ask all kinds of personal questions and that’s one I don't shy away from. It doesn’t in any way disrupt the educational process. I’m entitled to my beliefs as much as the evolutionist is.”
An anonymous teacher in Indiana County, Pa., reported, “Most parents and officials do not want evolution ‘crammed’ into their children. They have serious philosophical/religious issues with public schools dictating to their students how to interpret the origin of life.”
Courts can strike down creationism repeatedly. That won’t matter if teachers refuse to offer proper instruction about evolution or are afraid to do so due to pressure from their superiors or the community.
5. Calling creationism something else. Back in the 1980s, “creation science” was all the rage among fundamentalists. They seemed to believe that all you had to do was tack the word “science” onto something and presto, it was science. (“Flat Earth Science,” anyone?)
That stunt failed when the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law mandating “balanced treatment” between evolution and creation science in 1987. The term “creationism” became more popular, even though it was the same old thing. When courts failed to fall for it, some advocates began using the term “the theory of abrupt appearance.”
Still others glommed on to “evidence against evolution.” Again, these name changes failed to fool anyone. It was the same old creationism in a new dress.
Most recently, “intelligent design” has become all the rage. Sometimes known by the acronym ID, intelligent design tries to cover up some of the more outlandish claims of standard creationism (6,000-year-old Earth, dinosaurs and humans living at the same time, Noah’s Ark was real, etc.) and instead posits that humans and other life forms are so complex that they must have been designed by some intelligent force. If this force just happens to be the Christian god, then so be it.
But at the end of the day, ID proponents are left to fall back on religious explanations. Just exactly who is this designer? Other than space aliens – and they aren’t really serious about that – ID backers have no candidates other than the god of their choice.
Evolution is no longer considered controversial by the scientific community. To biologists, it is as well established as the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease. When Religious Right activists succeed in removing it from the classroom or watering down the instruction to the point of uselessness, they don’t just violate the separation of church and state, they undermine our nation’s leadership in science.