Toledo City Paper
March 7, 2002

Evolutionary War

As Ohio legislators prepare to tackle science teaching standards, Darwin's theory of evolution comes under fire (again).


Pamela R. Winnick

First in a three-part series

In this issue, the Toledo City Paper introduces the first in a three-part series examining the competing forces that Ohio faces as it sets about deciding how evolution should be taught to students in public schools. The science standards, which include subject matter that students are required to learn, will be finalized by the end of the year. Now in draft form, they are already subject to attack by those who do not, primarily for religious reasons, believe that evolution should be presented as the exclusive explanation for the origins of life. The issue touches at the core of our humanity: who we are, how we were created and whether life is the product of chance or design. Scientists and religious leaders have debated these questions for centuries. In the first installment, the paper focuses on the issues central to the debate, including an overview of Darwin's theory of evolution, as well as the emerging intelligent design theory. The second part examines a case study in Kansas, in which that state's Board of Education confronted issues certain to face Ohio legislators, and were internationally ridiculued and eventually booted out of office. Lastly, The City Paper features children and families caught in the middle of the debate.

Two years ago, Ohio received a grade of "F" from an educational thinktank. The reason: Ohio did not require students in its public schools to learn about evolution, an important, yet highly controversial topic, in science. Good Science Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States, a report published by the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, evaluated the science standards of all 50 states based on how each state requires its schools to teach evolution. The author of the report, Lawrence Lerner, an emeritus professor from California State University at Long Beach, gave Ohio a failing grade. "Evolution is treated here as if it were not proper conversation in polite company," he wrote. "The E-word is avoided, and the evolutionary process occupies a near-negligible part of an extensive document." But soon Ohio, a "fly-over zone" for celebrity scientists like Lerner, may find itself redeemed in the eyes of the Eastern establishment.

Senate Bill 1, passed in 2001 by the Ohio General Assembly, calls for new state standards to be adopted in a number of disciplines, science included. A 35-member committee appointed by the Ohio Board of Education is now in the process of drafting a new set of science standards. They are due in final form by the end of this year. The standards now being drafted require that evolution be taught to students in the state's public schools. But it's not going to be easy going for the state board on March 11 when it will hear from both opponents and supporters of evolution. Evolution remains one of the most controversial issues in this country, right up there with abortion. Polls show that more than 50 percent of Americans do not accept that man could have evolved from lower forms of life. And 80 percent of Americans believe that God was involved in creation. Though many people of faith have no problem with evolution, to some it is an anathema. Moreover, there are legal issues. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creationism cannot be taught alongside evolution in science classes. To do so, the court ruled, would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, that government cannot sponsor religion. Evolution equals atheism? Evolution touches upon our very existence: who we are, how we were created, whether life is the product of chance or design.

For biblical literalists, Christian fundamentalists as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews, evolution contradicts the biblical account of creation: that the Earth was created in six days and that man was created in the image of God. But biblical literalists are not the only opponents of evolution. On March 11, the board will hear from two representatives of the "intelligent design" movement, which advocates a theory introduced by William Paley in the 19th century. Intelligent design, whose proponents include a handful of established scientists with degrees from prestigious universities, agrees with established science that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. But they disagree with the majority of scientists about how we got here, arguing that life is so complex that it had to have been created by a higher power.

John H. Calvert, a proponent of intelligent design, traveled to Ohio last year from Kansas to address a committee of the board. An attorney who originally trained as a geologist, Calvert was involved in his own state's notorious dispute in 1999 over the teaching of evolution in public schools, and is now involved in Ohio's. Calvert says that evolution is not science, but an atheistic view of life (naturalism) that disguises itself as science and imposes atheism on students in the public schools. "What pricked my interest," he told the Ohio committee writing the standards, "was learning that science essentially abandons the scientific method when it deals with origins science. "The effect of modern origins science is to imbue a belief in naturalism. This has led our government into a practice that has the effect of indoctrinating our children and culture in naturalism. "The naturalistic hypothesis proposes that all phenomena, including life and its diversity, result only from the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry and chance. In short, it holds that we derive only from undirected and purposeless natural processes, we are merely occurrences that just happen." Intelligent design enjoys some support among a small handful of scientists. Among them is Michael Behe, professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of Darwin's Black Box. After studying evolution on a molecular level, he said that much of what he sees cannot be explained by natural selection, the idea that random gene-tic mutations that give creatures a survival advantage are then passed on to their offspring. "Intelligent design is a theory that says that biological structures we see appear to have been purposely designed by an intelligent agent," he said in an interview.

Behe also attacks evolution because, unlike most scientific theories, it cannot be verified in a laboratory. Intelligent design is supported locally by a group known as Science Excellence for All Ohioans.

The group is asking that Ohio Intelligent Design be taught to students, alongside evolution. "We are not opposed to teaching evolution," they state in their Web site, www.sciohio.org. "Minor changes are needed, however, to ensure that biological evolution is portrayed as a theory, not a proven fact." "We believe that teachers and students should be permitted to (a) criticize the weaker aspects of evolutionary theory; and (b) discuss alternative theories that have been proposed." But the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design. They also say that science cannot accommodate the beliefs of the majority of Americans. "Science is not democracy,"

Lerner, author of the Fordham Foundation Report, said in an interview. "These calls for fairness in science may sound appealing, but they are bad science." Lerner dismisses scientists like Behe as "screwballs," and likens scientists who embrace creationism or intelligent design to physicians who turn from traditional medicine to "practicing voodoo." "There are a few people in intelligent design who have biological training," Lerner said. "These are all smart guys. But they're a cult. No one in the scientific community takes them seriously." At a symposium in Cleveland sponsored by Case Western Reserve University on Saturday, two prominent scientists likewise debunked intelligent design.

"There's nothing to debate," said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University. Krauss was joined by Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God, a work that attempts to reconcile religion and evolution.

Krauss and Miller said intelligent design cannot be taught in science classes because it's never been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Krauss said that he's always coming up with new theories but often discovers they're wrong when he tests them. All theories need to be proven, he said, then reviewed by other scientists and published in scientific journals. "The point about science is that it simply is not fair," he said. "Not all ideas get an equal hearing. Ideas that are impotent, that neither explain nor predict anything, are ignored. "The Earth isn't flat, end of story. We don't have to have classes that are sensitive to these issues, because they're wrong. "There's not a single article on intelligent design in the standard scientific literature. Yet these groups argue that they should be allowed to bypass that and go to the public and elected officials. It's the opposite of fairness." Miller agreed. As evidence of evolution, Miller gave the example of the elephant. According to the fossil record, there have been 23 different elephant-like species which existed long ago and then died out during the past 5 million years because they reached an "evolutionary dead-end"; that is, they lacked the ability to survive. Today, he said, there remain only two types of elephant: one species in Asia, another in Africa. If elephants were created by intelligent design, Miller said, the earlier forms would not have become extinct.

A practicing Catholic, Miller has written that God and evolution are compatible: God could have chosen to create the world through natural selection. He does not believe that God set out to create mankind, or any species for that matter, and acknowledges that this conflicts with the biblical teaching that man is made in the image of God. And Miller believes that chance, not God, shapes people's lives, a view that most Christians would not espouse. "One might say that chance is an illusion," he wrote in Finding Darwin's God,"that actually, everything is controlled by the hand of God." "A different view," he writes, "is that chance events are genuine because the physical world has an existence independent of God's will." Miller is one of the few scientists who openly professes a belief in God.

A survey conducted of members of the National Academy of Sciences showed that more than 90 percent of its members are atheists. This remains one of the problems when confronting the evolution debate: Many people in the Midwest and South resent "Eastern elitists" who try to impose their atheism in the schools. Harvard professor and best-selling author Stephen Jay Gould, though he claims to respect religion, has long been in the business of bashing God. "We are here," Gould has written, "because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures, because the earth never froze during an ice age, because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago managed, so far, to survive by hook and crook. "We may yearn for a higher answer, but none exists." Gould also characterizes the creation controversy in demographic terms: The sophisticatied accept evolution; ordinary folks do not. "This controversy," he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, "is American as apple pie and Uncle Sam. No other Western nation faces such an incubus as a serious political movement.

"The movement to impose creationism upon public school science curriculum arises from a set of distinctively American contrasts: North versus South, urban versus rural, rich versus poor..." But no one is more elitist than British zoologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, a polemic against the existence of God. "It is absolutely safe to say," Dawkins wrote in the New York Times in 1989, "that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

In a radio interview with BBC, Dawkins compared belief in God to drug addiction. When asked about religion, Dawkins said: "There are all sorts of things that would be comforting." He added: "I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting, it might be more comforting, for all I know. But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true." A brief history... Science and religion have long been at war with each other. In 1615, Galileo was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V and ordered to abandon the Copernican system, that the Earth revolves around the sun, or else. Not only did he refuse to do so, but he went on to write his own book, attacking the ancient notion that the Earth is composed of totally different kinds of matter from that of the heavens. Galileo's view challenged Christian orthodoxy, because he found that Earth has no unique place in the heavens and is subject to the same laws as other planets. In short, he struck a blow at mankind's position in the universe. His book was burned. He was ordered to appear for an inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment. When he died a blind man in 1642, the pope refused to allow him a proper burial.

While Copernicus and Galileo challenged Christian orthodoxy about Earth's place in the universe, it was British naturalist (and one-time student of the clergy) Charles Darwin who really brought religion to its knees. Life, said Darwin, himself an atheist, randomly evolved through a process known as "natural selection." He was not the first to think about evolution, however. Before Darwin, geologists, discovering the remains of species that no longer exist, known as the "fossil record", concluded that species did in fact change over time. But what made them change?

French naturalist Lamarck believed that offspring inherit traits acquired by parents in their lifetime: Thus, a giraffe gets it long neck because its parents had to stretch their necks in order to get food from trees. But in 1859 British naturalist Charles Darwin introduced an entirely different theory in Origin of the Species, a book that sold out on the day of publication, and sent shock waves through Victorian England. That theory is called "natural selection." Though genetics was not understood in Darwin's time, scientists did know that parents sometimes produce offspring with characteristics different from their own, we now call them "mutations."

Under Darwin's theory, giraffes have long necks because that was the trait that enabled them to survive. Offspring with longer necks are able to get food from trees, thereby beating out those with shorter necks and going on to reproduce still more offspring with longer necks.

The same principle applied to the 13 varieties of finches that Darwin brought back from the Galapagos Islands during his five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. Each finch came from a different island, and each had beaks that were different in size and shape. Darwin said that the size and shape of the beaks developed, through natural selection, because of the different kinds of food available in each of the 13 islands. Man developed in much the same way, science tells us. Though in common parlance we often say man "evolved from apes," this is not entirely accurate.

The first true hominids our ancestors, are known as "Australopithecus," and are believed to have existed somewhere between 4 million and 6 million years ago. They were "bipedal", meaning that they walked upright, although slightly hunched. They had large jaws, almost no forehead or chin; their brains were about half the size of ours. Homo habilis was the beginning of the "homo", or human, line. That species had a larger brain than the earlier species and used stones as tools. Homo erectus (also known as the "Java Man") lived about 1.5 million years ago in Asia, Africa and Europe. Their brains were larger than those of the Homo habilis, but the facial features remained primitive, with massive jaws, large teeth and a receding forehead. They made and used tools and fire, and possibly had language. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged about 250,000 years ago in Africa. They had large brains (possibly larger than ours), gathered food from hunting, made many types of tools and buried their dead. As Homo sapiens spread out through Europe, races developed. Those settling in the cold climates developed, through natural selection, blue eyes and fair skin; those in the warmer climates had dark eyes and dark skin, traits that protect them from the sun. At present, no one knows the skin color of the original Homo sapiens.

Opponents of evolution say there's no evidence in the fossil record that shows man randomly evolved from earlier species. "The fossil record is in many respects more consistent with the design hypothesis," said intelligent design proponent Calvert. "It shows sharper bursts of increased complexity and long periods of stasis rather than a gradual progression of complexity as predicted by Darwinian evolution." All school politics are local Although President Bush has expressed sympathy for creationism, at a local level such sympathy can spell political disaster. In September 2000, Ohio's House Education Committee killed HB 679, a bill that required "evidence against evolution" to be taught whenever evolution is taught.

"Whenever a theory of the origin of humans, other living things, or the universe that might commonly be referred to as Oevolution' is included in the instructional program provided by any school district," the bill said, "both evidence and arguments supporting or consistent with the theory and evidence and arguments problematic for, inconsistent with, or not supporting the theory shall be included." The bill's chief sponsor, Ron Hood, R-57, lost his bid for re-election the following November. Nonetheless, some legislators now seem prepared for another battle. On Jan. 24, HB 484 was introduced into the House of Representatives by Linda Reidelbach, R-26, that would require the science standards to be approved by both houses. A similar bill, SB 222, was introduced into the state Senate by Jim Jordan, R-12. Will the science standards in Ohio become a political battle in the state legislature? What effect will this have on local politics?

Next week, The Toledo City Paper takes a look at what happened in Kansas when that state thrashed out the evolution debate in 1999.

Pamela R. Winnick is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Phillips Foundation Fellow, and an attorney admitted to practice in the State of New York. She is writing a book about the controversy in Kansas over the teaching of evolution. Her e-mail address is pamrw@aol.com.