Montgomery Journal, August 25, 1999

Evolution Controversy not Caused by Religious Fanatics


By Mark Hartwig

It's official: The sky has fallen.

At least that seems to be the conclusion of prominent scientists and educators following a decision by the Kansas State Board of Education not to require schools to teach evolution.

Commenting on the board's decision, Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education alleged: "This is the most explicit censorship of evolution I have ever seen."

Going even further, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould suggests that "as patriotic Americans, we should cringe in embarrassment that at the dawn of a new technological millennium, a jurisdiction in our heartland has opted to suppress one of the greatest triumphs of human discovery."

The culprits, of course, are "religious fundamentalists." Driven by the mistaken belief that evolution threatens people's ethical values and sense of meaning in life, such people have been engaged in what Gould calls a "long struggle to restrict or eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools."

Although that view has played well in the national press, it is far from the truth.

Over the last decade, much of the rancor toward evolution has been caused not by the fears of a few religious fanatics, but by the shabby tactics prominent science educators have used to further the cause of evolution in the public schools.

The point of these tactics has not been to promote open-minded inquiry, but to seal off classrooms from any viewpoint other than the official one.

An egregious example of this - and one that set the trend for the last 10 years - was California's Science Framework of 1989.

Ostensibly written as a straightforward set of curriculum guidelines, the framework was actually a polemical document aimed at marginalizing and disenfranchising anyone who disagreed with the authors' views about evolution.

This intent was plainly signaled by one of the framework's principal authors, Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian, who boasted in print: "As for the religious right, the new Science Framework leaves them totally disenfranchised from the public educational system in California."

Of course, you don't really need Professor Padian's confession to discover the framework's intent. It was evident in the way evolution was singled out for special treatment.

For example, the framework correctly emphasized science's need for an open marketplace of ideas.

The authors exhorted teachers to "show students that nothing in science is decided just because someone important says so (authority) or because that is the way it has always been done (tradition). In the free marketplace of ideas, the better new idea supersedes or absorbs the previous ones. This competition of ideas is a major part of the excitement of science."

The framework also correctly points out the importance of acknowledging negative evidence: "Scientists have responsibilities to their colleagues and to the public. Negative results - those that do not agree with the hypothesis - must be reported along with those that agree."

When it comes to the subject of origins, however, students are informed that there is no evidence against evolution. What's more, if students have the audacity to claim that there is such evidence, the marketplace of ideas is quickly boarded up and padlocked.

Teachers are instructed to tell students, "I understand that you have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field."

The California Science Framework is only one of several documents that employ such dishonest tactics.

A more recent example is the National Academy of Sciences guidebook, "Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science," released last year. Like the framework, this guidebook attempts to head off dissent by claiming that evidence for evolution is so massive that there's nothing to debate.

Unfortunately, in the effort to intimidate dissenters with this Great Wall of evidence, the guidebook's authors not only misrepresented a great deal of science but stated things that were patently false.

For example, while discussing the molecular evidence for evolution, the guidebook claims that "all organisms use the same molecular codes to translate DNA base sequences into protein amino acid sequences. This uniformity in the genetic code is powerful evidence for the interrelatedness of living things, suggesting that all organisms presently alive share a common ancestor that can be traced back to the origins of life on earth."

Sounds impressive, but it's wrong.

Biologists have known for more than a decade many organisms have genetic codes that differ from the so-called "universal" code. Among them is the humble paramecium, found in pond water and countless high school laboratories.

If this is merely an error, it's a stunning one - considering that the working group that produced the guidebook included noted cell biologist Bruce Alberts, president of the NAS.

So what's that got to do with Kansas?

The state standards on evolution proposed by the Kansas Science Education Standards Writing Committee were more of the same dogmatic claptrap. Rather than go along with this nonsense as California's board of education did, the Kansas board simply dropped the offending standards.

That may not have been the ideal solution. Students should learn all they can about evolution - including evidence against it.

But given the ideological leanings of the science education establishment, maybe that's too much to hope for. The Kansas board simply made the best of a bad situation.

Which is hardly cause for panic. A few folks are obviously upset. But the sky is doing just fine.

Mark Hartwig is the editor of Teachers In Focus, a educational magazine published by Focus on the Family. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has served on a science testing committee for the National Science Foundation.