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Debate over Darwin in Schools Gets Mixed Results on Election Day

January 1, 2006
By Neal McCluskey

On November 8, 2005, two major changes occurred in the battle over teaching evolution in America's public schools.

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On November 8, 2005, two major changes occurred in the battle over teaching evolution in America's public schools. In Kansas, the state board of education approved science standards challenging evolution, and in Dover, Pennsylvania, eight school board members who in 2004 voted to encourage students to explore intelligent design--the controversial theory that much of life is too complicated not to have an intelligent designer--were voted out of office.

What remains uncertain is whether those events show the overall debate over Darwin's place in public schools has entered a new stage.


Origins of an Argument

The Kansas school board has challenged evolution before, removing almost all references to it from state science standards in 1999, only to have the board's majority become pro-evolution in 2000 and quickly put Darwin back in the standards.

Nicholas Matzke, the public information project director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization that opposes teaching alternatives to Darwinian evolution in public schools, believes the November 8 vote is simply a matter of history repeating itself.

"Kansas is going through a repeat of 1999-2000," Matzke said. "We will see if a similar backlash occurs in the 2006 election. There are already many people declaring intentions to run against the four creationist board members who are up for re-election."

In Dover, while the ousting of evolution skeptics from the board might appear to be the beginning of the end for intelligent design in the district's public schools, the change might not be all that seismic. Richard Thompson, chief council for the Thomas More Law Center--which defended the Dover school board in a recent federal case concerning the legality of its support of intelligent design--believes the election losses were not caused by widespread disgust over intelligent design. Instead, he thinks the results stemmed from an ongoing dispute between the board and the district's teacher union.

"Although the easier answer was that this all involved the battle over intelligent design, that was not the case," Thompson said, pointing out the Dover area school board had recently denied teachers a pay increase. "I believe that had a greater impact."


Greater Criticism Arising

Nationwide, the argument over evolution does not appear to be going away. In Michigan, at press time a bill was wending its way through the House of Representatives that would require the state's science standards to single out evolution and global warming as subjects in need of critical evaluation. In Indiana, Republican lawmakers are developing legislation that would mandate the teaching of both intelligent design and evolution. And on November 10 in Alabama, the state school board voted to continue to require that biology textbooks carry a disclaimer saying "evolution is a controversial theory."

Perhaps the clearest sign the debate is not likely to be resolved any time soon, though, is that the public simply has not made up its collective mind about it. According to an October Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 54 percent of respondents reported believing "God created the universe and humans in a six-day period," and 69 percent agreed with the statement, "evolution is what most scientists believe, so it should be taught in public science classes."

Thompson believes the scientific community is similarly unresolved, but said, "the science itself will continue to talk about intelligent design." He believes intelligent design now is at the same point the theory of evolution was at in 1925, when the "Scopes Monkey" trial first drew national attention to it. Evolution was considered radical then, just as intelligent design is now. Whether the two positions will stay that way remains to be seen.


Neal McCluskey (nmccluskey@cato.org) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.


For more information ...

For more information on the intelligent design/evolution debate, visit the Web sites of the National Center for Science Education, http://www.ncsewb.org, and the Thomas More Law Center, http://www.thomasmore.org.

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