A parent's request that Roseville high schools teach ideas that rebut Darwin's theory of evolution could set the stage for debate over what critics call the newest version of creationism.
When Roseville Joint Union High School District trustees took the first step toward approving a new biology textbook earlier this month, parent Larry Caldwell asked that supplementary materials be taught in conjunction with the text, which, like most biology books, presents the theory of evolution to explain the origins of life.
"Evolution doesn't represent all the views in the scientific community and probably doesn't represent the best views," said Caldwell, who has a child at Granite Bay High School. "Rather than giving our students the most up-to-date view of science, we're giving an outdated view that reflects the opinions of only one group of scientists."
Caldwell said he would like to work with district officials in gathering educational materials that present a theory called "intelligent design." District officials said they will assemble and review the materials in the coming months, seeking input from science teachers.
The school board will vote on approving the biology text July 2 and will consider any supplementary materials Aug. 5.
Assistant Superintendent Steven Lawrence said special consideration will be given to the fact that intelligent design is not included in state standards for biology.
"If we're moving to teach something outside the state standards, we need to consider why we're doing it and whether or not we'd be asking the teachers to give up something in the standards to do that," he said.
Intelligent design proponents say natural selection doesn't adequately explain the complexity of the universe. Instead, they say, life is the product of a directed process with intention. Followers distance the movement from creationism, saying intelligent design is based on science, not religion.
"At the very basis of life where molecules and cells run the show, we've discovered little machines. ... When we look at these machines, we ask ourselves: Where do they come from? The standard answer, Darwinian evolution, is very inaccurate," said Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, in a documentary on intelligent design called "Unlocking the Mystery of Life."
Critics of intelligent design say it has no place in a public school science classroom.
Intelligent design, they say, is really a savvy form of creationism because the "designer" refers to God. The idea may be worth discussion in a comparative religion class but should be forbidden in science class, critics say.
Numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions have determined that discussions about a supernatural creator are unlawful in public school science courses because of the constitutional separation of church and state.
But Roseville board member Kelly Lafferty said it would be wise to teach intelligent design.
"It saddens me to think that students can go through school and think that there's only one side of the story," she said. "Saying we come from amoebas, or whatever they say, is different from saying we were placed on the Earth."
Lafferty said the district should require its science curriculum to present a "balance" of ideas.
"It needs to be taught that there's another theory," she said.
But many believe a competing theory that is scientifically viable doesn't exist.
"When they talk about balance, it's a wonderful word, but there's an overwhelming volume of scientific studies that support evolution," said Barry Lynn, an ordained Christian minister, lawyer and director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"It's balance where one thing weighs 800 tons and the other weighs an ounce."
Many science educators agree.
"I do not understand how intelligent design is a scientific endeavor. I don't see it as something that would balance a curriculum," said Arthur Beauchamp, director of the Sacramento Area Science Project, a division of the UC Davis School of Education that works with K-12 science teachers throughout the region.
"Science operates under certain rules of the game. Intelligent design can get around those. It can invoke a creator that can do what it wants," he said.
Proponents of intelligent design say the idea shouldn't be banned from schools just because it may have religious implications or motivation.
"I have no doubt that a lot of people (who believe in intelligent design) are motivated by their Christian belief. I'm motivated by it," said William Dembski, a mathematician, theologist and advocate of intelligent design. "But the work still needs to stand on its own."
Mark Edwards, spokesman for the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think-tank that is the main promoter of intelligent design, said all theories on the origins of life have religious undertones, including those that imply there is no creator.
"Darwinism is an argument against design, intelligent design is an argument for design. Both have religious implications," he said. "That doesn't mean they should be excluded from biology."
Edwards said most people affiliated with the institute believe that the designer is God.
"But a person could logically argue that some sort of human has been able to design features of life working through time travel," he said. "And some people say aliens are the designer."
Proponents and opponents say intelligent design is not a required curriculum in any American public school.
The Ohio board of education and a school district in Cobb County, Ga., recently permitted science teachers to give lessons in intelligent design but do not require it.
The theory has little support in the mainstream scientific community.
The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science oppose teaching intelligent design. The National Science Teachers Association and the National Center for Science Education support an evolution-only curriculum.
Edwards said the mainstream scientific community has unfairly squelched debate on the issue.
Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said teaching intelligent design in public school is illegal.
"The Supreme Court has rejected the idea of balanced treatment between science and pseudoscience," he said. "And it would cost school boards a tremendous amount of money to fight this."
File Date: 06.28.03