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Intelligent design makes for big bang

The controversial theory about the origins of life finds opponents and proponents at a state science teachers meeting.

Published November 5, 2005

ORLANDO - Infinity mathematics, biorad genes, big bangs and black holes: Many of the things that light up a science educator's world were on the agenda this week at the Florida Association of Science Teachers Conference.

But tucked into the thick booklet of workshop descriptions was a less traditional topic: "Darwin under fire: Classroom strategies for teaching evolution in a climate of controversy."

The presenter's name rang a bell for those familiar with the lastest assault on Charles Darwin's 146-year-old theory of evolution. Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, is a key witness in a federal court case that involves the teaching of intelligent design, which Miller contends is just a repackaged version of creationism.

The Florida Association of Science Teachers, the group sponsoring the conference that wraps up today, invited Miller to Orlando to prepare Florida teachers for a possible battle here.

"We understand there are differences of opinion, but we don't like them to get mixed up," said Marsha Winegartner, a former state science supervisor and a member of the science association's board of directors. "I feel really strongly about keeping misinformation out of the classroom."

Winegartner and other science administrators think Florida may be ripe for an intelligent design debate because its science standards are up for a seven-year review next year.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the House Education Council and supports alternatives to evolution theory, has said it could be "a healthy time to have discussions of that nature."

The best known of those alternatives is intelligent design, which holds that some features of living things are best explained as the work of a designer rather than as the result of a random process like natural selection.

Florida's current science standards don't refer to evolution by name, instead using the term "change over time." But most public school science teachers understand that means evolution, said Pinellas K-12 science supervisor Robert Orlopp.

"People who have gone through four years at a university or who have advanced degrees in science would not perceive intelligent design as something that should be in a science classroom," Orlopp said. "There's nothing wrong with it. It's just not science."

But interviews with science teachers at the convention show that not all teachers feel that way. Some have no problem with the concept of intelligent design.

"I guess you could say I'm a creationist," said Marcia DeMeza, a national board-certified science teacher at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland. "I always tell the students human beings are awesome to me. There has to be something that designed all this."

DeMeza, who has been teaching for 38 years, ordered a video on intelligent design after receiving an advertisement for it.

"The students really received the video well," she said. "They learned that even if they believe in creationism, they can still believe in evolution. Now they don't fear evolution anymore."

DeMeza is a subscriber to the "equal time" argument for teaching intelligent design.

President Bush proposed the same argument in August when he said it should be taught alongside evolution, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

But Eric Meikle, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., says the "equal time" argument is seriously flawed.

"Tell me where else in public schools parents are going to say it's okay to teach children everything and let them decide for themselves," Meikle said. "Are parents going to say that about sex education? Are they going to say we should teach both sides about World War II and then let kids decide for themselves whether the Holocaust took place?"

Conference attendee Kathy Clark, a science teacher at Holley-Navarre Middle School in Santa Rosa County, said the topic of evolution has long been a sensitive one in her district.

"There are teachers at my school who don't believe in evolution and don't think they should have to teach it," she said. "But I don't think you have to believe in it to teach it."

Despite a Baptist upbringing, Clark said she is opposed to the idea of teaching intelligent design. So is Holly Cahill, a teacher from Marion County, where district officials have decided to place a book and a DVD on intelligent design in all seven high school libraries.

The items are being made available for students who want to research the issue for a book report or other assignment.

They were ordered to coincide with origin of life lessons that will be taught in biology classes.

"I don't see how you can teach about intelligent design and not talk about religion," Cahill said. "The minute you start talking about it, the kids are going to want to talk about God."

But first-year teacher Tina Baker, who works at Asbury Junior High in Clay County, said she will share her personal beliefs if students put enough pressure on her.

"I tell them I believe in the big-bang theory, but that I believe God pushed the button," she said.

Regardless of their personal beliefs, teachers have a responsibility to teach scientific truth, a problem with antievolutionary theories such as intelligent design, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

"Teachers are not supposed to present fringe ideas as if they were fact," Branch said. "For them to teach intelligent design or creationism or any other idea that compromises the teaching of evolution is to do a disservice to their students."

Miller, the Brown University professor, attempted to answer all the teachers' questions at his Friday presentation.

He shared with them the ways in which the antievolution movement is likely to manifest in their schools and provided them with resources they can tap for assistance.

He also suggested ways the teachers could teach evolution without interfering with the religious convictions of their students.

"Like a lot of scientists, I am a Christian, a Roman Catholic," Miller said in a phone interview prior to the workshop. "I seldom talk about my faith except to make the point that even a very conventional religious perspective is entirely compatible with the scientific understanding of evolution."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


Intelligent design is the assertion that some features of living things are best explained as the work of a designer rather than the result of a random process such as natural selection. Critics say intelligent design is nothing more than religion masquerading as science.

Here is an excerpt from Of Pandas and People, a text that defends intelligent design: "Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings, etc. Some scientists have arrived at this view since fossil forms first appear in the rock record with their distinctive features intact, rather than gradually developing."

Here is an excerpt from Biology, a science textbook by Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine used in many U.S. schools: "Darwin made bold assumptions about heritable variation, the age of Earth and relationships among organisms. New data from genetics, physics and biochemistry could have proved him wrong on many counts. They didn't. Scientific evidence supports the theory that living species descended with modification from common ancestors that lived in the ancient past."

Source: Time magazine

[Last modified November 5, 2005, 01:22:18]

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