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Darwin and evolving standards

Advocates of intelligent design may challenge evolution when Florida revisits its science standards.

Published August 28, 2005

Nationally, it's a raging debate. President Bush weighed in this month. Time magazine devoted its cover story to the subject two weeks ago.

But in Florida, the teaching of intelligent design - the newest, faith-based counterpoint to Darwin's theory of evolution - is not an issue.

At least, not yet.

Some observers expect the other shoe to drop next year, when Florida education officials revisit state science standards as part of a routine review of what should be taught in Florida schools.

"The question is going to come up," said Bob Orlopp, science supervisor for Pinellas County schools.

"That's a healthy time to have discussions of that nature," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the House Education Council and supports alternatives to evolutionary theory.

Charles Darwin's 146-year-old notion holds that the diversity of life on Earth, including human life, evolved over millions of years through an ongoing series of environmental adaptations. Scientists say physical evidence ranging from fossil records to DNA supports the theory. It is a mainstay of public school science classes.

But the idea that man descended from primordial ooze is offensive to many, particularly Christian conservatives who believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is the latest twist in that criticism, arguing that life is simply too complex to have evolved by accident.

A spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, which tracks intelligent-design skirmishes around the country, said anti-evolution forces typically rev up their campaigns when state science standards are reviewed.

"Florida is primed for the sort of large-scale evolution/creation incident that has grabbed headlines in other parts of the country," Wesley Elsberry, the center's information project director, wrote in an e-mail.

The center counts 69 recent clashes involving intelligent design in 27 states, including highly publicized battles in Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania. President Bush gave supporters of intelligent design a huge boost earlier this month when he said both theories should be taught "so people can understand what the debate is about."

"This whole thing is mushrooming," said John Calvert, managing director of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network.

No Child Left Behind is one reason. The sweeping federal education act has forced states to craft or revise curriculum to gear up for mandatory standardized testing, including science tests that must be in place by 2007.

But there's a culture war component, too, which would seem to make Florida, with its red-state leanings and a governor who has not hesitated to stroke his Christian base, particularly ripe for a clash.

Orlopp, the Pinellas science supervisor, said over the past year he has received calls every two or three weeks from parents who object to Darwin's theory. For years, he received none.

"There are a number of Floridians interested in this debate," Calvert said.

Yet Florida political leaders have remained curiously quiet.

Gov. Jeb Bush did not return a call and an e-mail seeking comment. He has dodged questions about his position in the past.

A few weeks ago, Bush, a member of the governing board that sets policy for the influential standardized test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, was present when the board reviewed a draft for the science portion of the test. The draft references Darwin's theory but makes no mention of intelligent design or creationism, another theory that criticizes evolution as flawed.

After the meeting, Bush declined to comment when asked whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools, according to a story about the meeting in Education Week magazine. The governing board will vote on the draft in November.

This week, Education Commissioner John Winn also declined comment.

"I'm not going to let the press advance the time frame in which I address that subject," Winn, a former middle school science teacher, told the St. Petersburg Times. "Our science standards are not going to be reviewed until next year at the earliest."

Those standards, last reviewed in 1996, do not mention the word "evolution" but reference its core principles, including the idea that species changed over time, that life on Earth goes back millions of years, and that fossils can be used to help explain the differences between existing creatures and those that are extinct.

Back then, state education officials deferred almost completely to science teachers, who overwhelmingly support evolution, said Orlopp, who is a member of the Florida Association of Science Supervisors. He expects science teachers will again have a strong voice during the upcoming review, which makes it unlikely, he said, that intelligent design would gain a foothold.

But the review process includes other interest groups and public input. In other states, supporters of intelligent design have used that opening to make a splash and, in some cases, an impact.

Neither the Seattle, Wash., Discovery Institute nor the Intelligent Design Network, national organizations that have led the charge against evolution, have plans at this point to influence Florida's standards review, said officials with both groups.

"While we get credited with being the evil geniuses (behind intelligent design) . . . it's not like we're at the grass roots," said Logan Gage with the Discovery Institute. The group won't jump into local frays unless invited by concerned parents or teachers, he said.

Ultimately, any changes to Florida standards would have to be okayed by the state Board of Education, a panel whose seven members were appointed by Gov. Bush.

Board chairman Phil Handy said he doesn't expect any moves toward intelligent design, given what he called a broad consensus over the existing science curriculum. He also suggested there were more substantial issues facing Florida's education system.

"I don't think (intelligent design) will make state headlines," he said. "There's plenty of other things that should make headlines."

Debate over evolutionary theory heats up in Florida from time to time, but it hasn't in years, and in recent history not on a sustained basis.

The issue made a brief appearance on the campaign trail in 1990, when Gov. Bob Martinez said he favored the teaching of creationism in public schools. He even ran a political ad slamming Buddy McKay, running mate of eventual winner Lawton Chiles, for reportedly likening creationist supporters to people who "believe in the flat world."

In 1991, the Lake County School Board drew national attention when it considered teaching creationism in science classes. The proposal was eventually rejected.

Baxley, the state representative, stopped short of saying whether he favored a mandate that would force the teaching of alternative theories to evolution. In the spring, though, he pushed a bill that would have allowed college students to sue if professors with a political bias discriminated against them in the classroom.

As an example, he cited professors who say "evolution is a fact" and refuse to consider intelligent design.

"What I'd like to see is an education model that simply accepts more diversity . . . rather than have some edict," Baxley said.

He said he has no plans to file legislation on the issue next spring, and did not know of other legislators who did.

But "you never know when these things take on a dynamic of their own," he said.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified August 28, 2005, 01:11:05]

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