Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Teachers often caught up in tug of war over handling of evolution, creationism


Bowsher High School student Whitney McCormick listens as her teacher Tom Patterson discusses intelligent design. The Ohio Board of Education is to address the state science curriculum today.


Michael Maveal wants his eighth-grade students at Jones Junior High to know the truth - as he sees it.

So, the Toledo Public Schools science teacher tells them that evolution is an unproven theory, as is creation.

He teaches them about Nebraska man, a creature rejected by science long ago, to demonstrate the fallibility of evolution. He teaches them that Pluto has never been seen. [It has.] He teaches them that humans are not animals. [We are.] He teaches them about the famous scientific hoax, Piltdown man, once purported to be an early human ancestor.

"I'm not afraid of dealing with all the fakery that's going on in all the science community,'' Mr. Maveal said. "We have to present information to the kids so they can make an intelligent decision for themselves.

"I tell them what the scientists won't admit."

While Mr. Maveal is unusual in his willingness to acknowledge his disbelief in evolution, and his highly skeptical treatment of generally accepted science, his approach reveals the turmoil that exists in some science classrooms.

The Ohio Board of Education today will again discuss the state science curriculum. The curriculum is under fire from critics who say it undermines the teaching of evolution, and Gov. Bob Taft has asked state lawyers to make sure the curriculum is not a back door for intelligent design. But no matter what is decided at the state level, it will be teachers who determine how best to tackle what for some is a confrontation between faith and science.

"That's a subject you always feel somewhat uncomfortable with, especially if you have your own religious base," said Ronald Rice, a science teacher at Woodward High School who has taught biology in the past.

All accounts of the origins of life "have holes in their stories," Mr. Rice said. "That's usually how I try to approach it."

Others sound almost fearful of the topic of evolution.

"I tiptoe through it as lightly as possible," said a high school biology teacher who did not want to be identified for fear of stirring up trouble.

"I don't cover any evolution in the class," said a junior high school science teacher who asked not to be identified to avoid problems. "We have it in the book. We can't cover the whole book."

"It's a touchy subject," the teacher continued. "I have had pressure occasionally. I've had parents come to me, and they don't want evolution taught, at least to their child."

The official position of the Toledo Public Schools is that teachers are to follow the science curriculum, which includes evolution.

"It is our duty to deliver the science curriculum as mandated by the Ohio Department of Education," said Treva Jeffries, director of science and telecommunity education for the district.

Yet even teachers who follow the rules are skittish sometimes.

A teacher from Start High School, who asked not to be identified, said: "I teach it from the way the book is, because I don't want parents screaming down my back."

Other teachers have no such problems.

Patrick Welch teaches biology at the Polly Fox Academy, a Toledo charter school.

"I do teach evolution. With creationism, we bring it up more to say that it's not a science. It's more a belief, and that's not what a science class is about."

He's never faced objection to his methods.

"No one's even batted an eye."

Bruce Meek, who taught biology for three years before changing to environmental science this year, also takes a straightforward approach to evolution in his Scott High School classes.

"I went to Catholic school for 12 years. I've been a Catholic my entire life. If there ever would be a so-called contradiction, I'd have seen it in myself. I'm not saying the idea [of creation] shouldn't be tackled somewhere in school. But it doesn't have a place in science class."

The Ohio Board of Education's 10th-grade science curriculum calls for a "critical analysis of evolution." The curriculum specifically says that the teaching of intelligent design is not mandated.

Mr. Meek said: "I don't have a problem with that. But if you're going to bring up the possibility that evolution isn't the answer, then what is? What is the only other theory? If you have an intelligent designer, a creator, in a very subtle way belief is brought back in. I don't think it has a place in a science class."

Ohio is just one of many states caught up in debate over evolution. In Michigan, legislation introduced this fall called for the state's science curriculum to require students to "use the scientific method to critically evaluate scientific theories including, but not limited to, the theories of global warming and evolution," and to "assess the validity of those theories to formulate arguments for or against those theories."

Another version of the bill was introduced in January, this one using near-identical wording, but without the specific references to global warming and evolution.

The Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank in Seattle, says a critical approach is the best way to teach evolution.

"The policy we do prefer is that teachers teach both the strengths and the weaknesses of evolution, without getting into replacement theories like intelligent design," said Casey Luskin, program officer in public policy and legal affairs for the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture. He said Ohio is following that path.

But the institute's reluctance to bring up intelligent design in the classroom is not because it disagrees with the notion that some parts of life are so complex that they must have been formed by an unnamed intelligent agent. In fact, one of intelligent design's major proponents, biochemist Michael Behe, is a fellow at the institute's Center for Science and Culture. Instead, the Discovery Institute's position comes from a desire to protect theory adherents, Mr. Luskin said.

"We found when intelligent design becomes mandated, then this issue become politicized. Right now the climate in the academy and in many places is, there's a lot of persecution of pro-intelligent design scientists."

But evolution supporters aren't buying the argument. They charge that the idea of intelligent design was a way to get religion into the science classroom, and "teaching the controversy" and requirements for "critical analysis" are steps in the same direction.

"No one was fooled by the phrase intelligent design. Everyone knew the designer was the Judeo-Christian God," said Susan Spath, a spokesman for the Berkeley, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization supporting the teaching of evolution.

Intelligent design proponents knew the idea "would likely fail the constitutional test, so they ... did move away from teaching intelligent design to teaching the strengths and weakness of evolution," she said. "On its face, there's nothing wrong with that, but context is everything. The real context is that people who have been pushing [critical analysis] are using that language to push attacks on the credibility of evolution. What they mean is, 'Hey kids, criticize evolution and don't take it seriously.' "

The Discovery Institute's Mr. Luskin calls such a stance "mind-boggling.''

"To me, it sounds like the Darwinists are afraid of having material taught to students," Mr. Luskin said. "They're trying to dumb down the curriculum."

But Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, says the Ohio curriculum, like Michigan legislation, is intelligent design in disguise.

"What they did is just sort of filed off the serial numbers, but the content is essentially the same," he said

The problem with intelligent design, its opponents say, is that it is simply not science. It proposes that some things in nature could not have come into being without a plan, and therefore, a planner. Whereas evolution is unplanned and gradual, occurring through the accumulation of genetic changes.

"Science has to be guided by natural laws, and we seek to explain what's observed by natural law - not by looking for supernatural intervention," said Gregory Forbes, executive director of the Michigan-based Evolution Education Institute.

But evolution's opponents claim that evolution is no more a science than creation.

"Creation and evolution are theories about history, and such theories are not scientific theories," said Duane Gish, author of Evolution, The Fossils Say No! and other pro-creation books. The biochemist also is part of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif.

To many researchers, a thorough understanding of evolution is essential to real knowledge of biology. Some teachers say they can't get along without it.

"It's extremely important. It's kind of like the basis for most of biology," said Jennifer Wagner, a biology teacher at Start High School. "It comes up a lot. Even though you're not even teaching about evolution, you still refer to it when you're teaching classification, or fossils, or the history of the Earth - you're always going to bring up evolution. Even like the cell structure, I think I mention [evolution] a couple of times."

None of the teachers who taught evolution unapologetically wanted to change students' beliefs, and they sometimes take pains to make sure students understand that.

Eric Snyder, who teaches chemistry at Rogers but has taught biology in the past, said: "When the children don't believe, it's because the parents don't. That's OK. They don't have to believe in anything. Here's the evidence. You choose."

Contact Jenni Laidman at: jenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6507.

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