CNN.com May 9, 2001

Evolution debate: Student leads textbook challenge


Joel Hocmuth

PERKASIE, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- It's a debate that just won't go away. The latest battleground over the teaching of evolution in public schools is in the town of Perkasie, Pennsylvania. But what makes this particular debate unique is that the campaign against teaching evolution is being led not by parents or politicians, but a high school student.

Joe Baker, 19, is a senior at Pennridge High School, about 45 minutes north of Philadelphia. He has spoken out at every meeting of the Pennridge School Board for the last seven months or so, urging board members to place labels in his school's biology textbooks, warning students of alleged errors about evolution he claims are printed in those books.

"This isn't about typos," Baker said. "These are the main icons that are used to teach evolutionary theory. Many of them are fraud."

So far, though, board members are not persuaded. After meeting Tuesday night, they agreed not to print the warning labels. Instead, they are putting together a curriculum committee to review textbook errors as they are brought to light.

Board member Karen Sterling at first admired Baker and his campaign, but she has grown increasingly annoyed by his tactics. He typically would appear before the board by himself and it wasn't until a meeting in March when a CNN camera was present that he had 40 to 50 supporters with him, according to Sterling.

She said Baker's campaign is not about errors in textbooks, but is an attempt to sneak creationism into public schools through the backdoor.

"When you start moving off the science-based theories and into the religious-based theories, you're moving into areas that don't belong in the biology classroom," she said.

Baker, who describes himself as a Christian who accepts the biblical account of creation literally, denies he is trying to introduce any religious theories into biology classrooms.

"I personally am not asking for anything that I believe to be brought into the science curriculum, but for the evidence that they have to be taught honestly," he said.

Baker claims one of the most glaring errors is that of the peppered moth, used for decades by scientists as evidence of natural selection still at work. It's an example still widely illustrated today in a variety of high school and college biology textbooks.

Studies have shown that in England before the industrial revolution, lighter-colored varieties predominated over darker varieties. That all changed when pollution began darkening trees. Then the darker varieties began to outnumber the lighter varieties. The long-held conclusion has been that the darker varieties were better camouflaged against the trees and harder for predatory birds to find. To many scientists, this is a classic example of natural selection through "survival of the fittest."

But Jonathan Wells, an critic of evolution who holds doctorates in biology and theology, pointed out that there is little evidence that peppered moths even rest on tree trunks in the wild.

"It turns out, these textbook photos showing them on tree trunks have all been staged," he explained. "And I think that's bad science."

Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, acknowledges there is truth to Wells's allegations, but they are nothing new.

"The problem with the examples that Wells points out like the peppered moths is that they were not discovered by Wells, but discovered by other scientists, including myself," Coyne said. "We've published these problems in the scientific literature so Wells is merely dredging them up again and pretending he found them."

"But the textbooks still teach them as though there were nothing wrong with them," Wells said.

School board members admitted that Baker's campaign has made them aware of a variety of errors in their biology textbooks. They conceded that they probably would never have set up a committee to review textbook errors had Baker not forced the issue.

But board member Sterling said editing the textbooks or placing warning labels in them was never really an option.

"The fact that there's an error in the textbook doesn't mean you've got a teacher up there saying 'Look at page 5 and memorize it and this is where you come from,'" she said. "Kids questioning in classrooms provides teachable opportunities and I certainly expect that's what's happening in our classrooms in Pennridge."

Baker suspects the board is simply stalling until he's gone. He graduates this month and will head to college in Montana next fall.

Even though he's lost this latest battle, he won't back down.

"I'm always ready to stand up for what I believe," Baker said. "It's not that I'm afraid they'll think I'm a wacko, that's all right with me. I think it's pretty hard for someone to believe we evolved from a rock."

File Date: 5.09.01

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