NY Times editorial on teaching evolution

From: Steve Gabosch (bebop101@comcast.net)
Date: Mon Jan 24 2005 - 17:02:05 PST

The NY Times editorial below offers some good arguments against
anti-evolutionist proposals that some public schools are adopting.
~ Steve

The article below is from NYTimes.com
Editorial: The Crafty Attacks on Evolution
January 23, 2005

Critics of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution become more wily with each
passing year. Creationists who believe that God made the world and
everything in it pretty much as described in the Bible were frustrated when
their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools or
inject the teaching of creationism were judged unconstitutional by the
courts. But over the past decade or more a new generation of critics has
emerged with a softer, more roundabout approach that they hope can pass
constitutional muster.

One line of attack - on display in Cobb County, Ga., in recent weeks - is
to discredit evolution as little more than a theory that is open to
question. Another strategy - now playing out in Dover, Pa. - is to make
students aware of an alternative theory called "intelligent design," which
infers the existence of an intelligent agent without any specific reference
to God. These new approaches may seem harmless to a casual observer, but
they still constitute an improper effort by religious advocates to impose
their own slant on the teaching of evolution. .

The Cobb County fight centers on a sticker that the board inserted into a
new biology textbook to placate opponents of evolution. The school board,
to its credit, was trying to strengthen the teaching of evolution after
years in which it banned study of human origins in the elementary and
middle schools and sidelined the topic as an elective in high school, in
apparent violation of state curriculum standards. When the new course of
study raised hackles among parents and citizens (more than 2,300 signed a
petition), the board sought to quiet the controversy by placing a
three-sentence sticker in the textbooks:

"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a
fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be
approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

Although the board clearly thought this was a reasonable compromise, and
many readers might think it unexceptional, it is actually an insidious
effort to undermine the science curriculum. The first sentence sounds like
a warning to parents that the film they are about to watch with their
children contains pornography. Evolution is so awful that the reader must
be warned that it is discussed inside the textbook. The second sentence
makes it sound as though evolution is little more than a hunch, the popular
understanding of the word "theory," whereas theories in science are
carefully constructed frameworks for understanding a vast array of facts.
The National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most prestigious scientific
organization, has declared evolution "one of the strongest and most useful
scientific theories we have" and says it is supported by an overwhelming
scientific consensus.

The third sentence, urging that evolution be studied carefully and
critically, seems like a fine idea. The only problem is, it singles out
evolution as the only subject so shaky it needs critical judgment. Every
subject in the curriculum should be studied carefully and critically.
Indeed, the interpretations taught in history, economics, sociology,
political science, literature and other fields of study are far less
grounded in fact and professional consensus than is evolutionary biology.

A more honest sticker would describe evolution as the dominant theory in
the field and an extremely fruitful scientific tool. The sad fact is, the
school board, in its zeal to be accommodating, swallowed the language of
the anti-evolution crowd. Although the sticker makes no mention of religion
and the school board as a whole was not trying to advance religion, a
federal judge in Georgia ruled that the sticker amounted to an
unconstitutional endorsement of religion because it was rooted in
long-running religious challenges to evolution. In particular, the
sticker's assertion that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" adopted the
latest tactical language used by anti-evolutionists to dilute Darwinism,
thereby putting the school board on the side of religious critics of
evolution. That court decision is being appealed. Supporters of sound
science education can only hope that the courts, and school districts, find
a way to repel this latest assault on the most well-grounded theory in
modern biology. .

In the Pennsylvania case, the school board went further and became the
first in the nation to require, albeit somewhat circuitously, that
attention be paid in school to "intelligent design." This is the notion
that some things in nature, such as the workings of the cell and intricate
organs like the eye, are so complex that they could not have developed
gradually through the force of Darwinian natural selection acting on
genetic variations. Instead, it is argued, they must have been designed by
some sort of higher intelligence. Leading expositors of intelligent design
accept that the theory of evolution can explain what they consider small
changes in a species over time, but they infer a designer's hand at work in
what they consider big evolutionary jumps.

The Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania became the first in the
country to place intelligent design before its students, albeit mostly one
step removed from the classroom. Last week school administrators read a
brief statement to ninth-grade biology classes (the teachers refused to do
it) asserting that evolution was a theory, not a fact, that it had gaps for
which there was no evidence, that intelligent design was a differing
explanation of the origin of life, and that a book on intelligent design
was available for interested students, who were, of course, encouraged to
keep an open mind. That policy, which is being challenged in the courts,
suffers from some of the same defects found in the Georgia sticker. It
denigrates evolution as a theory, not a fact, and adds weight to that
message by having administrators deliver it aloud. .

Districts around the country are pondering whether to inject intelligent
design into science classes, and the constitutional problems are
underscored by practical issues. There is little enough time to discuss
mainstream evolution in most schools; the Dover students get two 90-minute
classes devoted to the subject. Before installing intelligent design in the
already jam-packed science curriculum, school boards and citizens need to
be aware that it is not a recognized field of science. There is no body of
research to support its claims nor even a real plan to conduct such
research. In 2002, more than a decade after the movement began, a pioneer
of intelligent design lamented that the movement had many sympathizers but
few research workers, no biology texts and no sustained curriculum to offer
educators. Another leading expositor told a Christian magazine last year
that the field had no theory of biological design to guide research, just
"a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions." If evolution is
derided as "only a theory," intelligent design needs to be recognized as
"not even a theory" or "not yet a theory." It should not be taught or even
described as a scientific alternative to one of the crowning theories of
modern science.

That said, in districts where evolution is a burning issue, there ought to
be some place in school where the religious and cultural criticisms of
evolution can be discussed, perhaps in a comparative religion class or a
history or current events course. But school boards need to recognize that
neither creationism nor intelligent design is an alternative to Darwinism
as a scientific explanation of the evolution of life.


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