Science teachers use care when teaching ‘e-word’

Monday, August 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:06 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

The evolution unit at Rock Bridge High School will take two weeks. The controversy discussion will wrap up in 20 minutes. The impact will be confounded by other, arguably more influential factors: It’s 7:50 in the morning, the homework is due, mechanical pencils are scratching in symphony, and it’s time to pass papers to the front.

The students in Kerri Graham’s sophomore biology class habitually slump into their seats, apparently unfazed that they are at the bull’s-eye of the intelligent design movement, whose “teach the controversy” slogan intends to rile up high school classrooms just like this one. Intelligent design theorists contend that a purposeful creator is responsible for the beginning and diversification of life on the planet. But these sleepy teenagers care more about reaching driving age than the age of the Earth.

They don’t know that at 6:30 that morning their teacher joined four colleagues to discuss the introduction of the “e-word.” The group met in a small conference room, surrounded by more than 20 different textbooks — all decried by evolution critics as misleading and one-dimensional — to chart their course through what the National Academies of Science call “the most important concept to understanding biology.”

Graham ushers in the e-word with three pages of definitions: one for what evolution is and two for what it’s not.

“I want to share what I believe are misconceptions or what you might have heard in the news,” Graham says.


She navigates the class through some disclaimers: “Evolution is NOT a fact. Evolution is NOT an accidental or random process. Evolution was NOT developed to undermine religion. Evolution does NOT deny the existence of God.”

What evolution is not is a religious conflict, says fellow teacher Vicky Kyrimis, who found the definition pages on a Web site managed by the Evolution and Nature of Science Institute at Indiana University. Kyrimis shared them with her colleagues that morning because the teachers anticipate what resistance they meet from their students will be in God’s name, if they meet any at all.

Graham doesn’t. She works her way through natural selection, gene mutation, inheritable traits. She polls the class about the controversy behind evolution, and only three students say they have heard about it. She asks for comments, discussion, concerns. No one responds. She moves on.

If intelligent design advocates are aiming to make waves, they will need something bigger to reach this class. And they’re going for it.

This spring, celebrities of the intelligent design community gathered in Topeka, Kan., to argue for inserting evolutionary criticism in the state’s science standards. The cast of characters has mushroomed since 1999. That’s when the Kansas Board of Education was ridiculed internationally for deleting most mentions of evolution from the standards after public hearings its critics say legitimized scientific dissent delivered by non-scientists.

After elections ousted the conservative board members behind the change, a new board reversed the decision in 2001. The debate resurfaced in May with pundits and PowerPoint.

Attorney John Calvert brought together the 23 intelligent design advocates speaking before the Kansas Board of Education. A retired securities lawyer, Calvert attended the 1999 board hearings, where he met William Harris, a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri- Kansas City.

The two teamed up to found the Intelligent Design Network in Shawnee Mission, Kan., a Midwest depository for criticism of evolution and promotion of intelligent design theory. In honor of the events surrounding their acquaintance, in 2001 the organization gave its annual Wedge of Truth award to the 1999 board members.

This year, Harris is on the science standards writing committee, dissenting from the majority to include evolution criticism in the curriculum.

The attempt is an encore of a 2002 effort led by the intelligent design community in Ohio, where the science curriculum was primed for evolution skepticism. In 2004 the state developed a sample lesson plan for teachers to present criticisms of the theory. This time, in Kansas, evolution scientists refused to pit their ideas against a courtroom-style interrogation, afraid of creating the illusion of a scientific controversy where they say none exists.

High school science standards are crafted to mirror the predominant research in scholarly fields. By the time a topic makes it into the standards, it has been rigorously tested and supported by a scientific consensus.

That’s why scientists such as Dan Miller, head of the Science Department at Hickman High School, say evolution’s critics are trying to bypass the scientific process and head straight to the classroom, via politics and rhetoric.

“We start out the evolution unit knowing it’s a hot potato,” he says.

Miller is tuned into the controversy. He knows about intelligent design, about state Rep. Cynthia Davis’ bill to require criticism of evolution in science texts, about the pro-evolution lobbying of the National Center for Science Education and the intelligent design powerhouse, the Discovery Institute. He says he’s not married to Charles Darwin; he just understands the nature of science and wants his students to understand it as well.

“The intelligent design bills come from lawyers, not scientists,” Miller says. “It’s all about pushing an agenda.”

Evolution gives teachers a chance to go back to the basics of what science can and cannot do, Miller says.

That’s why Ilayna Pickett begins this year’s evolution unit with a vocabulary lesson, as she has done for the past 25 years. “What is a theory?” she asks her students.

The class falls quiet, unsure if the seemingly trivial question is a trick.

Pickett is chairwoman of the science department at Rock Bridge High School. In front of the class, she leads an animated back-and-forth with students, who begin calling out predictable responses: A hunch? A guess? An unproven statement?

Actually, Pickett explains, a scientific theory is a systematic explanation of natural phenomena, based on a well-supported, testable hypothesis.

And what is science?

“Science explains how,” Pickett says. “Religion explains why.

“Can science tell us the right way to live? Why is there truth or beauty? In science class, shouldn’t you be learning science?” Pickett asks. Missouri science standards state that “genetic variation sorted by the natural selection process explains evidence for biological evolution.”

In Columbia the curriculum compels teachers to use fossils, similarities in anatomy and DNA between species to support the theory of evolution. Neither state nor local standards tell schools which materials to use.

Like many teachers at Rock Bridge, Pickett doesn’t teach from one book. In fact, most of her colleagues use textbooks as supplemental materials, along with science journal articles and videos. The most widely used biology text in Columbia schools and in much of Missouri is the Prentice Hall “dragonfly” book — nicknamed for the insect sprawled across its cover. It was co-written by Brown University professor Ken Miller, an ardent evolution defender in the national debate.

Pickett says the evolution controversy has resurfaced every 20 years or so since she can remember, but she finds it hard to understand why the issue persists. The rest of the world has long since accepted evolution, she says.

The volume of evolution skepticism is unique to the United States, where Gallup polls have repeatedly shown nearly 50 percent of Americans to be unreceptive to the theory. In 2002, surrounding the heated controversies of how evolution should be treated in Ohio science standards, a Zogby International poll asked respondents if they wanted alternative theories of life’s development to be taught in public schools. More than half answered yes, although a survey by the University of Cincinnati showed the vast majority could not name or define any such options.

The intelligent design slogan, “teach the controversy,” implies that evolution is being challenged and that public schools are shielding students from the debate.

The National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the vast majority of scientists around the world disagree.

“In science, checks and balances come from other scientists,” Pickett says.

She is echoing those who cite the lack of intelligent design or creationist arguments in peer-reviewed scientific journals and professional conferences as evidence that such claims are not based in science.

But the controversy motto is strong and catchy, and it has already changed the way teachers approach the evolution unit.

The day after Graham’s class slumbered through its introduction to evolution, Roy Morris’ students settle into the same classroom for the same lesson. It’s not yet 8 a.m., and Morris works to compensate for the early time with a fast pace.

”How many of you’ve heard that evolution is against religion?” he asks. Most of the students nod; some exchange whispers. Morris knows he has hit a spark, and he inquires further.

In recent years, Morris showed his students the Creation/Evolution continuum — a slope stretching from flat-Earth creationists to atheistic evolutionists — developed by the National Center for Science Education. He challenged his students to find their place in the gamut, to really examine why they think the way they do. Today, he just asks his students what they’ve heard.

One student reports a classmate’s concern.

“(She) wants me to say that the controversy is that God made everything perfect the first time around,” she says.

“What about the missing links? Have they ever found any fossils to prove that?” asks another.

“Creationists say evolution is against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

“It’s saying people were made just like that.”

It’s easy enough to explain transitional fossils and to clear up confusion in physics. Explaining to science students how to reconcile their faith with their homework takes finesse.

Teachers across the country have uneasily taken on that role. A poll released in March by the National Academies of Science showed that 30 percent of teachers felt pressured to de-emphasize or drop evolution from their curricula and that the pressure was coming from students and parents concerned about its religious subtext.

“I’m not trying to change anyone’s belief or insult anyone’s belief,” Morris tells his class. “It’s just how science explains how things change over time.”

For the past few years, the Science Teachers of Missouri’s annual fall meetings featured seminars on how to handle evolution in high school classrooms. The group’s president, Linda Dudley, says some Missouri teachers are compelled by pressures from students and parents to skip over the evolution unit. Others gloss over it quickly or actively teach against it. The organization received complaints that some schools in southwest Missouri taught the Genesis creation story in biology class.

“We generally get resistance from kids,” says Dudley, who teaches biology at Lebanon High School. “What they hear is usually what’s been taught at church.”

So she went to the source. Earlier this year, a member of the Second Baptist Church in Lebanon invited Dudley to clear up confusion over evolution. A youth group member watched a video in school and wanted to know more about the theory. Dudley obliged.

“In science we really try to avoid saying ‘and then a miracle happened,’” she told the church group.

Dudley talked to her young audience about the nature of science: It must be testable and falsifiable; it must make predictions and raise more questions than it answers. She closed by assuring the crowd that many evolutionists believe God created life on Earth, they just believe he did it through evolution.

The audience left satisfied, she says.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The conflict continues Tuesday in the pews of Columbia, where interpretations of evolution take as many shapes as the interpreters themselves. Creationists discount evolution, saying it leaves no room for God. Atheistic evolutionists say the same, but discard God in favor of science. Many Missourians, including First Christian Church Minister John Yonker, are somewhere in the middle.


Mass extinction: Natural selection predicts that as the environment changes, only those organisms with suitable variations will survive and reproduce. Others will die out, leaving habitats and resources into which the survivors may expand.

Embryonic development: Embryos, humans, chickens, fish and many other animals look similar, supporting the idea that they descended from a common ancestor.

Fossils: The fossil record is the backbone of evolutionary theory, providing evidence that life first appeared more than 3 billion years ago, that many species have since evolved and gone extinct and that intermediate forms help link today’s diversity of life to a historical common ancestor.

Vestigial organs: The human appendix and male nipples are considered to be remnants of organs that were useful to a distant ancestor but have since lost their function.

Homologous parts: A whale’s fin, a bat’s wing and a human’s arm have similar bone structures, supporting the idea that these species shared a common ancestor, then diverged to adapt to their respective environments.

Microbiology: New technology has shown that DNA similarities between species support the traditional “tree of life” developed by scientists to chronicle how Earth’s diverse species arose from a common ancestor.

Source: Prentice Hall biology textbook


Motto: “Teach the controversy”

Rationale: For centuries biologists have acknowledged that the world appears designed. Given the cause-and-effect structure of the world, an intelligent designer better explains the complexity of the world than unplanned forces of nature.

Leader: Discovery Institute in Seattle.

Key concepts: In 1802, William Paley published "Natural Theology," a strategy for detecting intelligent design. He reasoned that walking down the street, if you come across a watch, you will logically conclude that a watchmaker produced it. Similarly, modern design theorists claim there are dependable, telltale signs of a designer in man-made and natural systems: irreducible complexity and specified complexity.

  • Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe coined the term irreducible complexity to describe a system of many well-matched parts with no obvious independent function and, if any were removed, the entire system would stop working. Behe uses a mousetrap as an example of such a system, reasoning that if the spring, the board or the bar were removed, the apparatus would cease to function entirely. Intelligent design theorists say irreducibly complex systems cannot have come about by natural selection because the parts have no functional advantage to have individually survived to combine into the whole. Therefore, they reason, the system must have been designed in its entirety.
  • William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, refers to any information as having the quality of specified complexity. "Life is both complex and specified," he writes. Dembski gives the example of the alphabet, each letter imbued with a specified meaning but not complex by itself. A random assembly of letters, however complex, is unlikely to carry a meaningful pattern, while a Shakespearean sonnet, both complex and meaningful, is an example of specified complexity. Intelligent design theorists apply the concept to the structure of DNA, claiming that the sequence is both complex and has a specified meaning that is unlikely to have assembled by chance.

Sources: The Discovery Institute Web site at

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