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February 1, 2006
Vol. 48
No. 2

Intelligent Design Versus Evolution Sparks Debate

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The education storm whirling in a number of states and school districts these days centers not around NCLB, but rather around a topic that evokes equally strong, if not stronger, reactions among educators, parents, and other stakeholders. Consider it as something akin to "on the road" with the Scopes Trial. Scientists, educators, and lawyers are crisscrossing the country explaining, testifying, and arguing in an often-bitter debate about the science curriculum in American classrooms. This debate pits the well-accepted theory of evolution against the controversial and untested (some say untestable) idea of intelligent design.
Both ideas seek to explain how the current variety of life on Earth came to be. Advocates for both say the stakes are high, and neither side seems prepared to back down. The debate has, in the last year, provoked lawsuits and influenced school board action—and elections—at the state and local level.
Some observers say the evolution versus intelligent design debate may be an unintended consequence of education's accountability movement, which necessarily parses out what students ought to know and be tested on. Combine state and local school board wrangling over standards with a cultural climate polarized along religious and political lines, and it is perhaps unsurprising that schools have once again become the place where larger societal issues play out.

Challenging Controversial Theories

In November 2005, the Kansas Board of Education amended the state's science standards, allowing criticism of evolution in the science curriculum. The board also added specific details to the definitions of science, science as inquiry, and the history of science that critics charge impart a cautionary tone to teaching evolution.
Reacting to a similar situation in Dover, Pa., voters in this past November's elections ousted a slate of school board members who had required including intelligent design in the science curriculum. Separately, a federal judge in December 2005 ruled that the Dover intelligent design policy was unconstitutional. The case—Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District—was brought by local parents who opposed the school board's policy. Many legal analysts called the decision a significant setback for proponents of intelligent design.
In January 2005, a Georgia judge ruled that the Cobb County School District's disclaimer in its biology books that evolution is "a theory not a fact" violated the United States Constitution's First Amendment prohibition on governmental establishment of religion.
At the core of the debate is the role of religion in America's schools.
"Evolution is both a fundamental underpinning of modern biology and an essential component to any biology course. Intelligent design, like other forms of creationism, is a narrow religious doctrine that does not follow the processes of science, and therefore has no place in any science classroom," says Wayne Carley, executive director of the National Biology Teachers Association.
At the same time, insists Carley, "Evolution is not dogma—it's not something we defend against all comers. Scientists love nothing better than a good controversy within science, and we welcome all challenges to those theories so we can strengthen those theories or replace them as need be."
When it comes to science in the schools, Carley observes that teachers are in the best position to know how to handle student questions when they arise. "Like any sensitive issue, it's important that the teacher addresses the issue and handles it respectfully but also supports the position that is founded on good science," he suggests.

Varying Teaching Practices

Before the standards and accountability movement, content coverage was less precise, says George De Boer, author of A History of Ideas in Science Education: Implications for Practice and director of Project 2061, a science-education reform program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the past, a teacher could choose to teach evolution or not teach evolution, explains De Boer.
Even with standards, it's not unusual for teachers to vary depth of coverage. Some teachers in Tennessee—the state where teaching evolution was debated during the Scopes "Monkey" Trial 80 years ago—told De Boer at a National Science Teachers Association conference that they "brush up" against evolution a little bit then move on. "As long as we don't make too much of it, and we let students know there still is ‘a Creator’—but that we're just going to talk about how the development of species might have happened—then there is no problem," De Boer recalls teachers telling him.
Content decisions ultimately fall to local districts, and teaching is left to teachers in the classroom, which allows plenty of latitude for variability. In fact, a recent report in the Baltimore Sun noted that 10 statewide studies of Maryland public school biology teachers conducted since 1999 revealed that significant percentages of these teachers reject some aspects of evolution, such as human descent from other forms of life, or believe it's OK to teach some form of creationism alongside evolutionary theory.
The devil, so to speak, is apparently in the details.
"The national or state standards codify knowledge in a way that was not done before. If a state requires that very specific statements about evolution be taught, and then students are tested on them, that may be where the issue is. That's what Kansas and Georgia are all about," says De Boer.

Effect of Kansas Changes Unknown

Although blasted as wrongheaded by the science community, the members of the Kansas Board of Education who amended the state's science standards claim that allowing the teaching of intelligent design in school science classrooms is a victory for freedom of speech.
Others view it as a political move that inserts religion into the science classroom and confuses students about the intentions and methods of science.
The new Kansas science standards add cautionary notes about biological descent from common ancestors and the continuity of the fossil record, which most scientists believe uphold the validity of evolution. Students would be required to understand not only scientifically accepted explanations of the origins of life and biological diversity, but also criticisms of such notions as the chemical "primordial soup" that scientists believe favored the appearance of life and science's inability to explain how the genetic code came to be.
The effect of the changes—which will not be included on Kansas state science assessments—is unknown, says George Griffith, the Kansas department of education's science consultant.
"Districts have more say in if and how these changes are included in their science curriculum," Griffith says. Ultimately, it depends upon decisions made by local school boards and teachers in the classroom, he adds.
Science teachers say pressure to teach alternatives to evolution come mostly from students and parents. The National Science Teachers Association's poll of 1,050 science educators showed that three in 10 have felt pressure "to include creationism, intelligent design, or other nonscientific alternatives to evolution in their science classroom." But six in 10 teachers also felt confident enough in their understanding of evolutionary theory to successfully explain its inclusion in the science curriculum to parents in doubt.
Some states seem free of the tempest over evolution and intelligent design.
Middle school science teacher Bob Chaplin, who teaches at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, Maine, says that the intelligent design versus evolution debate has not cropped up in his classroom or, as far as he knows, in his state. Evolutionary theory is woven throughout Bar Harbor's K–12 science standards, adds Chaplin, an award-winning teacher in the National Science Foundation's Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
If a student wanted to bring up intelligent design or arguments against evolution in his classroom, Chaplin would still allow that student to air her views.
"We do not squelch student opinion," Chaplin says. "We don't say to them, ‘This is what you should believe.’ You teach children to question—it should be exploratory. I think that has been the approach of Maine schools for a long time. If that means exposing them to intelligent design and evolution, then so be it."
At the same time, Chaplin asserts that he would still point out the necessity of understanding evolutionary theory, because even students who doubt its validity will need to meet the science standards and pass the exams.

Evolution Versus Intelligent Design

The theory of evolution, originally developed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, rests on the concept of natural selection, which proposes that any group of organisms tends to pass on traits favorable to survival while less successful traits die off with those bearing them. Darwin proposed that such adaptations can lead to the development of new species, from simple to complex organisms, over vast spans of time.

In the 20th century, growing understanding of genetic processes refined modern evolutionary theory, which posits that random mutations produce changes in animal and plant populations across generations.

In contrast, advocates of intelligent design contend that organisms are so complex and function so well that only a purposeful "designer" could have created them. They argue that genetic mutation alone cannot account for such sophistication. Intelligent design advocates include the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based conservative think tank, and a handful of scientists.

The scientific community largely considers intelligent design an idea incompatible with the scientific method, which demands that scientists propose a theory, gather evidence that could support or refute the theory, and then evaluate the theory in light of the evidence.

Scientists argue that intelligent design does not pass the scientific-method test because it cannot bedisproved by physical evidence. It is, they say, a religious belief more than a product of scientific thinking. And they argue that its religious basis makes it inappropriate for inclusion in the public school science curriculum.

What Do You Think?

Does intelligent design have a place in the science curriculum? Is it legitimate to include discussion of the controversy in other classes? Is it so controversial and potentially divisive that it doesn't belong in school at all? Or does ignoring it squelch honest inquiry? Send us your views via e-mail to

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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