On teaching evolution: New year, old fight

2 bills want it taught as theory

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It’s a new year, but familiar debates continue to rage over God, evolution and exactly what the nation’s students should learn about each.

At least two states in 2012 will consider bills that downplay the notion man evolved from animals and call for Charles Darwin’s famous theory to be taught as just that - one possible explanation, not the definitive answer.

Legislators in New Hampshire have introduced a pair of anti-evolution bills, one of which calls for intelligent design to be taught as a hypothesis for how life began. The measure’s co-author, state Rep. Gary Hopper, told the Concord Monitor newspaper last week that he wants “to introduce children to the idea they have a purpose for being here.”

“I want the problems with current theories to be presented so that kids understand that science doesn’t really have all the answers. They are just guessing,” Mr. Hopper said.

A companion bill, introduced by Rep. Jerry Bergevin, would require that evolution be taught as a theory, and that students be presented with the “godless” worldview that he believes accompanies the idea.

Tennessee is also expected to resurrect its so-called “monkey bill,” which would mandate that teachers fully divulge the “scientific weakness” of existing theories, including evolution, global warming and others. The measure cleared the state House last year, and Senate leaders have vowed to bring it to the floor soon.

In 2011, at least 11 anti-evolution bills in eight state legislatures were introduced. With the exception of those in Tennessee and New Hampshire, each measure died in committee.

“It was one of the busiest years we’ve ever seen. A lot of these bills get introduced, then keep getting reintroduced, and reintroduced and reintroduced,” said Robert Luhn, spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, which touts itself as a defender of “the teaching of evolution in public schools.”

Mr. Luhn and many others reject the concept that the belief in a supernatural creator is incompatible with the belief in evolution. Scientists, he said, also freely acknowledge that evolution is a theory, but one that outlines the most likely explanation for the dawn of mankind.

“That’s what we’ve always been doing. It is a theory. Gravity, too, is a theory, and if you don’t believe that, try jumping off of a building,” Mr. Luhn said.

The debate, formerly confined to classrooms, school board meetings and high-profile court cases, has now spilled into the arena of presidential politics. In June, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and White House hopeful, told reporters that she supports the concept of intelligent design, and would like to see it taught alongside evolution in American classrooms.

“What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also seeking the GOP presidential nomination, told supporters last summer that evolution is “a theory that’s out there,” and that he firmly believes the hand of an omnipotent creator is responsible for life.

Those statements and others prompted a rival Republican candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., to warn his colleagues that the party is in danger of compromising its credibility.

“When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution … I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and therefore, in a losing position,” he said in August.

Efforts to push intelligent design into the classroom have also been losers. School leaders in Dover, Pa., mandated in 2004 that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, a move struck down a year later by federal Judge John Jones III.

In his decision, Judge Jones, a 2002 appointee of President Bush, wrote that intelligent-design proponents weren’t trying to encourage critical thinking, but were instead trying to boot evolution from schools and replace it with the biblical account of creation. He ruled that intelligent design, by its very nature, is a religious belief, not a scientific fact or theory, and therefore should not be taught in schools.

Regardless of that decision, the battle is guaranteed to continue. The New Hampshire bills are set for hearings before the House Education Committee in February.

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