Darwin critics arrive in force

Evolution foes show up to oppose new science standards.

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2008

ORLANDO - Opponents of the state's proposed new science standards turned out in force Monday, encouraging education officials - in the last public hearing before next week's vote - to take a more skeptical view of evolution.

"The state Board of Education will be known as the first to buy the lie that evolution is fact," said Curtis Dalton, a military veteran from the Panhandle town of Graceville.

More than 70 people spoke at the hearing, which itself drew criticism because board members were not present. About 45 speakers were opposed.

The board is scheduled to vote Feb. 19.

The proposed standards say evolution is the "fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and is "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence" - a position in synch with scores of scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association.

Polls, though, suggest the public is split. And the board may be as well.

At last count, two members had indicated support for the standards, two appeared to be leaning against, and the rest were either undecided or unwilling to say.

Monday's hearing was in a hotel conference room at Orlando International Airport. Those who spoke did not break new ground, with both sides repeating arguments uttered by scores of people at four prior public hearings, and in thousands of comments on the Education Department Web site. But the sheer number of speakers - and the fact some were willing to travel 200 miles - spoke to how much the issue has touched a chord.

One man linked Charles Darwin to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. Another said evolution sanctioned murder. Still another held up an orange and said that because of evolution, he now had irrefutable evidence that an orange was "the first cousin to somebody's pet cat" and "related to human beings."

Other opponents spoke in more measured tones, saying they did not want the inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in science classrooms - just a treatment of evolution that included its holes, gaps and flaws.

"Science is not infallible," said Tampa doctor Elizabeth McVeigh.

"I'm frightened," countered Robert Hankinson of Orlando. "Let the experts in science decide what my kids are taught in science."

In related developments, a coalition of conservative religious groups asked the Board of Education for 15 minutes to make their case at next week's meeting. The board said last week it would not take public input Feb. 19, so board members would have more time to deliberate among themselves.

"They need to see the whites of the eyes of the parents who are affected," said John Stemberger, president and general counsel for the Florida Family Policy Counsel, which supports biblical values.

The groups promised to bombard Gov. Charlie Crist and other state officials with thousands of requests until the board says okay.

Also Monday, 40 members of the committee that drafted the science standards issued a statement affirming their work and declaring, "There is no longer any valid scientific criticism of the theory of evolution."

Buckling to "special interest groups," it continued, "would not only seriously impede the education of our children but also create the image of a backward state, raising the risk of Florida's being snubbed by biotechnology companies and other science-based businesses."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.