APS Helps Local Organizers in State Battles on Evolution
By Ernie Tretkoff
In the ongoing battle between evolution and creationism in schools, the APS has been working on this issue by monitoring developments and by assisting members who want to organize on a state or local level.
The issue has re-emerged recently as several states reviewed their textbooks or statewide science standards. Anti-evolution groups have tried to push for textbooks or lesson plans that criticize evolution and teach creationism or the related movement, intelligent design. This movement asserts that an "intelligent designer" is needed to explain the complexity of life on Earth, but does not say anything about the identity of the designer.
Last summer, a resolution came before the Louisiana House Education Committee requiring a balance between evolution and creationism in school textbooks. The APS closely watched the issue and raised people's attention, but the resolution was dropped before it even came to a vote, said Francis Slakey, APS associate director of public affairs
Also last summer, New Mexico conducted a review of its classroom science standards. The Discovery Institute, an anti-evolution organization, ordered a poll that suggested that many scientists support teaching intelligent design. The APS, together with AIP, then wrote a letter to the Board of Education, pointing out that the Discovery Institute poll misrepresented scientists' viewpoints and fell short of normal polling standards. The Board of Education voted unanimously to continue teaching evolution in an undiluted manner, rejecting the changes the anti-evolution groups wanted.
Last fall the Texas board of education voted on which biology textbooks to approve. The Discovery Institute pushed for textbooks that included what they called weaknesses in the theory of evolution.
The APS alerted C.A. Quarles, chair of the Texas section, and suggested that he help collect signatures for a letter to the board of education. About 550 of the approximately 1200 Texas members added their signatures to the letter, which urged the board to "choose only textbooks that present accepted, peer- reviewed science and pedagogical expertise."
The high response rate indicates how important the issue is to scientists, said Slakey. "One thing we learned from Texas is there are plenty of people in the physics community who are impassioned about this issue and willing to take action."
Physicist Steven Weinberg even testified before the board. "I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science, without any alternatives being presented," he said in his statement. In the end, the board voted 11 to 4 to accept textbooks teaching only evolution.
Quarles called the letter effective. "I think it was a good strategy," he said, "I would encourage other states to do it as the issue comes up." The issue does keep coming up.
Earlier this year, Georgia revisited its state science curriculum. State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox initially recommended removing the word "evolution" and some of its concepts from the standards, but later changed her mind. The APS, along with other scientific societies, wrote a letter urging the Board of Education to adopt standards that teach evolution in its entirety, and on February 12, the State Board of Education announced its plan to include a full treatment of evolution in the standards.
In February the Ohio Board of Education voted 13-4 to give preliminary approval to science lesson plans that include "critical analysis of evolution," which some scientists fear could be an opening to teach intelligent design. In Missouri, the House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would require intelligent design to be given equal treatment with evolution in science classes.
Though evolution is a topic in biology, not physics, it's an issue that all scientists can get involved in. "I think this is an issue that everyone should care about. I think that physicists can speak out on this. It doesn't have to be just the biologists who speak out," said Quarles. "You don't have to be a biologist to make a judgment about good science versus bad science."
The APS statement on creationism, adopted in 1981 and reaffirmed in 1997, reads, in part, "We strongly oppose any requirement for parallel treatment of scientific and nonscientific discussions in science classes.
Scientific inquiry and religious beliefs are two distinct elements of the human experience. Attempts to present them in the same context can only lead to misunderstandings of both."
Slakey emphasized that members who want to take action in their own state can contact the APS for support. "It's a structure that's available to anyone who's concerned that something's popping up in their state, " he said, "We provide assistance, but it's really locally based, with us just providing the logistical support."