The evolving Darwin debate

By Julie Foster

In an effort to influence high-school science curriculum standards, more than 50 Ohio scientists issued a statement this week supporting academic freedom to teach arguments for and against Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Released Wednesday, the statement was signed by 52 experts from a wide range of scientific disciplines, including entomology, toxicology, nuclear chemistry, engineering biochemistry and medicine. Some are employed in business, industry and research, but most teach at state and private universities. A third of the signatories are employed by Ohio State University.

The statement reads, in its entirety:

To enhance the effectiveness of Ohio science education, as scientists we affirm:

  • That biological evolution is an important scientific theory that should be taught in the classroom;
  • That a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science;
  • That a science curriculum should help students understand why the subject of biological evolution generates controversy;
  • That where alternative scientific theories exist in any area of inquiry (such as wave vs. particle theories of light, biological evolution vs. intelligent design, etc.), students should be permitted to learn the evidence for and against them;
  • That a science curriculum should encourage critical thinking and informed participation in public discussions about biological origins.

We oppose:

  • Religious or anti-religious indoctrination in a class specifically dedicated to teaching within the discipline of science;
  • The censorship of scientific views that may challenge current theories of origins.

Signatories released the statement as the Ohio State Board of Education works to update its curriculum standards, including those for high-school science classes, in accordance with a demand from the state legislature issued last year. Advocates of inclusion of evolution criticisms believe the Ohio scientists’ statement echoes similar language in the recently passed federal education law, the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.” Report language interpreting the act explains that on controversial issues such as biological evolution, “the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist.”

As part of its efforts to update the science standards, the Board of Education held a moderated panel discussion on the question, “Should intelligent design be included in Ohio’s science academic content standards?” The debate was conducted during the March 11 regular board meeting and included two panelists from each side of the issue, who were given 15 minutes each to present their arguments. One of the panelists in favor of including “intelligent design” arguments (the idea that biological origin was at least initiated by an intelligent force) was Dr. Stephen Meyer, a professor at Whitworth College in Washington state and fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

Meyer has written extensively on the subject, including a column for WorldNetDaily in which he criticizes the PBS series “Evolution.” The series, he wrote, “rejects – even ridicules – traditional theistic religion because [religion] holds that God played an active (even discernible) role in the origin of life on earth.”

Additionally, Meyer co-wrote a February 2001 Utah Law Review article defending the legality of presenting evolution criticism in schools. The article states in its conclusion that school boards or biology teachers should “take the initiative to teach, rather than suppress, the controversy as it exists in the scientific world,” which is a “more open and more dialectical approach.” The article also encourages school boards to defend “efforts to expand student access to evidence and information about this timely and compelling controversy.”

Dr. Robert DiSilvestro, a professor at Ohio State and statement signatory, believes many pro-evolution scientists have not given Darwin’s theory enough critical thought.

“As a scientist who has been following this debate closely, I think that a valid scientific challenge has been mounted to Darwinian orthodoxy on evolution. There are good scientific reasons to question many currently accepted ideas in this area,” he said.

“The more this controversy rages, the more our colleagues start to investigate the scientific issues,” commented DiSilvestro. “This has caused more scientists to publicly support our statement.” He noted that several of the 52 scientists on the list had signed after last week’s Board of Education panel discussion.

However, panelist Dr. Lawrence Krauss, chairman of Case Western Reserve University’s physics department, said intelligent design is not science. ID proponents, he explained, are trying to redefine “science” and do not publish their work in peer-reviewed literature. In a January editorial published in The Plain Dealer, Krauss wrote that “the concept of ‘intelligent design’ is not introduced into science classes because it is not a scientific concept.”

Promoters of ID bemoan “the fact that scientists confine their investigation to phenomena and ideas that can be experimentally investigated, and that science assumes that natural phenomena have natural causes,” his editorial continues. “This is indeed how science operates, and if we are going to teach science, this is what we should teach.” By its very nature, Krauss explains, science has limitations on what it can study, and to prove or disprove the existence of God does not fall into that sphere of study.

Krauss was disappointed in the Board of Education’s decision to hold a panel discussion on the subject, saying the debate was not warranted since there is no evolution controversy in scientific circles.

“The debate, itself, was a victory for those promoting intelligent design,” he said. “By pretending there’s a controversy when there isn’t, you’re distorting reality.”

But Meyer counters that a controversy does exist over the validity of Darwinian evolution, as evidenced by the growing number of scientists publicly acknowledging the theory’s flaws. For example, 100 scientists, including professors from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale and Rice, issued a statement in September “questioning the creative power of natural selection,” wrote Meyer in his WND column. But such criticism is rarely, if ever, reported by mainstream media outlets and establishment scientific publications, he maintains.

At the Board of Education’s panel discussion, he proposed a compromise to mandating ID inclusion in science curriculum: Teach the controversy about Darwinism, including evidence for and against the theory of evolution. Also, he asked the board to make it clear that teachers are permitted to discuss other theories of biological origin, which Meyer believes is already legally established.

But such an agreement would only serve to compromise scientific research, according to Krauss. “It’s not that it’s inappropriate to discuss these ideas, just not in a science class,” he concluded.

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