Re: NY Times editorial on teaching evolution

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Tue Jan 25 2005 - 03:02:19 PST

I'm happy to report that a judge has ordered the Cobb County stickers
removed. p
At 05:02 PM 1/24/2005 -0800, you wrote:
>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
>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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