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Evolution should be taught in public schools as "the most important concept to modern biology," a panel of scientists said Thursday in response to efforts to keep the subject out of the classroom.
"There is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution has occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred," the National Academy of Sciences said in a guidebook intended for teachers, parents, school administrators and policymakers.
It says that understanding evolutionary change is essential to understanding such vital processes as how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
Evolution still causes trouble for teachers and school officials more than 70 years after John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching it and more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot teach that God created the universe.
"Many students receive little or no exposure to the most important concept in modern biology," said the guidebook.
An indication of the subject's sensitivity:
The Arizona Board of Education kept the word "evolution" out of its 1996 science standards although they specify that students learn "how organisms change over time in terms of biological adaptation and genetics." Scientists protested the omission, and a committee will study the question this year.
The North Carolina House passed a bill last year requiring that evolution be presented as theory, not fact. And a Christian publisher in Richardson, Texas, Jon Buell, says he has been getting plenty of orders for a biology textbook, "Of Pandas and People," presenting the view that the world is the way it is by designa term critics say is code for creationism.
Moreover, a number of university scholars, including law professor Phillip Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley and biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, have published books and articles challenging evolution. They suggest that life, from cells on up, is too complex to have evolved.
"Our contention is that there is reasonable evidence of intelligent design," said Raymond Bohlin, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and heads the Probe Ministries, based in Richardson.
The panel of the National Academy of Sciences, a federal agency, says opponents of teaching evolution have quoted prominent scientists out of context to claim that a consensus is lacking.
Among the points raised by the scientists' guidebook:
People can believe in God and accept evolution because "religion and science answer different questions about the world."
Fewer than half of American adults believe humans evolved from earlier species and more than half want creationism taught, according to surveys; "but there are thousands of different ideas about creation among the world's people."
Children should be graded on their understanding of evolution but not penalized for refusing to believe in it.
And, to set the record straight, "humans did not evolve from modern apes, but humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists."
The guidebook also explains that "theory" in the scientific sense--an explanation that has been well-substantiated--is different from the everyday explanation: a guess or hunch. That helps get teachers and lawmakers off the hook.
"Just this year, a parent asked me if I was teaching evolution as a theory or as a fact," said Elizabeth Carvellas, a biology teacher in Essex Junction, Vt. "I explained that I taught it as theory. That seemed to settle that problem."
Barry Raugust, a high school biology teacher in Wichita, Kan., said he focuses on genetics and change when talking about evolution. "Regardless of other explanations of how life began, you have to understand it to understand biology and make sense out of it," he said. He avoids talking about human descent from earlier primate species.
"That's way over their head," he said. "That's just setting yourself up for arguments, and that's counterproductive, in my opinion. That might be a good thing for college or whatever, but at the high school level, it's overkill."
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