Darwin survives another debate

Foes of new science education standards try a new strategy.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 4, 2008

JACKSONVILLE - Maybe Darwin's not such a bugaboo after all.

About 120 people gathered at a public hearing in Jacksonville on Thursday to weigh in on the state's proposed new science standards, which embrace Darwin's theory of evolution as the pillar of modern biology. And though Darwin doubters showed up in good numbers - some of them to advance a new twist on an old argument - they were outnumbered by his defenders.

Intelligent design and other faith-based theories are "philosophical arguments, not scientific theories," said Julie Pipho, a retired teacher from Clay County who was one of two dozen people to speak in favor of the proposed standards. To incorporate such theories into science curriculum "does a disservice to our students," she said.

A committee of teachers, scientists and others worked for months to update the current standards, which were written in 1996 and do not mention the word "evolution." If the state Board of Education approves them Feb. 19, students will be tested on them next year.

The revamp has won favorable reviews from teachers and scientists. But many conservative Christians object, saying the standards should also include faith-based theories.

Many of Thursday's critics - including Beverly Slough, president-elect of the Florida School Boards Association - insisted they were not pushing creationism or intelligent design. Instead, they said, they simply wanted the standards to open the door for classroom debate on what they have dubbed evolution's flaws.

"In my lifetime, I've never seen an ape turned into a human. I've never seen us come from slime," said Ruth Klingman, who identified herself as a former educator. Darwin should not be "dogmatically taught like it was a fact."

"How many of us were taught that Pluto was a planet?" said Kim Kendall, an activist from St. John's County.

Kendall said she took exception with the statement included in the standards that evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology." Asked after the meeting what other fundamental concepts there were, she could not say.

Religious critics have raised faith-based objections to Darwin's theory for decades, only to be dismissed by scientists as off-base and declared unconstitutional in federal courts.

Some experts say an attempt to insert skepticism into evolution lessons, rather than blatantly religious concepts, may be the latest wedge strategy for ultimately introducing religious ideas into science classrooms.

"This is strategy No. 4," said Michael Ruse, director of Florida State University's program on the history and philosophy of science. The first three - banning the teaching of evolution, then promoting creationism, then touting intelligent design - have all hit legal roadblocks.

In Florida, both sides have mentioned possible legal action. In a letter to the BOE last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida warned that injecting faith into science classes would be risky and costly. "This is not a really squishy area of the law," said ACLU attorney Becky Steele. "These battles have been fought a long time ago."

But Pinellas County attorney David Gibbs III, who represented Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings, argued otherwise in a recent letter to the BOE. He suggested the board might violate the constitution's establishment clause if it did not include alternative theories.

"The terms being used in the proposed standards seem to imply a shift in classroom worldview away from the neutrality of a scientific perspective toward a 'thumb on the scale' for one particular worldview or belief system," Gibbs wrote.

Darwin's theory, backed by reams of evidence, says species have changed over millions of years, driven by their ability to adapt and survive in changing environments. The vast majority of scientists agree.

Florida's draft standards say students should be able to recognize that "small genetic differences between parents and offspring can accumulate in successive generations so that descendants are very different from their ancestors." They also say students will learn that "fossil evidence is consistent with the idea that human beings evolved from earlier species."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.