The Classroom: Other Schools of Thought

Since the publication of "Origin" in 1859, Darwin's theory of evolution has brought trouble to American classrooms. In 1925, 15 states considered legislation to forbid public schools to teach the theory. In Tennessee that year, high-school teacher John Scopes was found guilty--in the so-called Monkey Trial--of teaching evolution. More than 60 years later, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana's Creationism Act, which promoted the teaching of creationism in public schools, was unconstitutional. Today, the God vs. science debate still rages--now often under the guise of "intelligent design," an argument that proposes that living organisms are so complex that some supernatural entity must have been at work.

One current hot spot is the tiny town of Dover, Pa., where parents sued the school board last year after it mandated that teachers read a one-minute disclaimer pointing to gaps in evolutionary theory and steering students to the pro-ID book "Of Pandas and People" (by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon). "We didn't feel comfortable putting intelligent design on a par with evolution," says Jennifer Miller, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Dover's high school. A ruling on the constitutionality of the board's action is expected early next year. The judge's decision may be moot. On Nov. 8--in a victory for pro-evolutionists--voters kicked the school board out of office.

A similar kind of back-and-forth on the teaching of evolution has been playing out over the past several years in Kansas. Three weeks ago the state's school board voted 6-4 to adopt new science standards that point to gaps in evolutionary theory--gaps that most scientists dismiss. Board member Sue Gamble, who opposed the new standards, says the shift inappropriately inserts religion into the curriculum. "Science does not investigate evidence of the supernatural. Once you have supernatural explanations, you no longer have science." But board member Ken Willard says that providing alternative ideas gives students a broader base from which they can come to their own conclusions. "To isolate the theory of evolution from any challenge raises it to the level of dogma--and that's unconstitutional and objectionable to many people." Kansas's anti-evolution move didn't exactly come as a surprise. The state startled the scientific community in 1999 by eliminating nearly all mentions of evolution from its schools. That policy was reversed two years later when voters ousted the conservatives on the school board. Yet another election, this time in favor of anti-evolutionists, set up this year's reversal of the reversal.

A vast majority of scientists remain unmoved by the ebb and flow of local policy. "Evolution is not controversial in the field of science. It's controversial in the public sphere because public education is highly politicized," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. But in a country where 80 percent of the population believe God created the earth, skirmishes will, no doubt, continue between proponents of evolution and those who reject the idea that man reached the top of the tree of life pretty much by accident.