Evolution comments irk scientists

Gov. Sonny Perdue says he wants a “balanced” classroom approach to teaching evolution with an emphasis on its standing as “academic theory.”

State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox says her proposed biology curriculum will allow teachers to present other scientific theories about evolution and specifically mentions “intelligent design.”

Across Georgia, scientists cringed at the statements.

Sarah Pallas, an assistant professor of biology at Georgia State University, said Sunday that the public comments reveal an ignorance of science and mimic the arguments used by people who rebut evolution. Her views were shared by other biologists.

“He wants to insert religion into the science curriculum,” Pallas said of Perdue’s call for balanced instruction. “If there were other scientific theories about the diversity of life, scientists would be inserting them in class. That’s our job.”

Taking a position in the controversy for the first time, Perdue said Saturday that the word “evolution” should remain in Georgia’s proposed science standards and not be replaced with the phrase proposed by Cox: “biological changes over time.”

Nevertheless, the governor also seemed to express support for teaching alternate theories to evolution. A spokesman on Sunday refused to elaborate on the governor’s statement.

“What concerns me is that many times you’ll have teachers in the classroom with impressionable students who go beyond that and teach [evolution] as a proven fact, and then go beyond that and ridicule students who would believe anything other than the theory of evolution,” Perdue said. “I think we need to have academic freedom, but we need academic balance as well.”

In an interview shortly after his November 2002 victory, Perdue said he had “no problem” with children being exposed to creationism, evolution and other theories, but said the decision should rest with the local school districts.

Controversy over the teaching of evolution surfaced last week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Cox proposed eliminating the word “evolution” from the middle and high school science standards. The proposal is part of a massive revision of state curriculum.

While traditional scientists may be repelled by any move to weaken the standing of evolution in state classrooms, such a shift would be embraced by some parents and others.

Many parents say they find it frustrating that public schools have ignored the challenges to evolution put forward by legitimate scientists. Larry Taylor, a Cobb County parent, wrote in a letter to Cox that the opposition is not a simple matter of creationists trying to get religion into the schools.

“The debate is really about the lack of supporting evidence for evolution, the censorship of dissenting scientist, religious intolerance, viewpoint discrimination, and the interjection of personal bias by science educators when instructing our children on the subject,” Taylor wrote.

Charles Kelly, a former public school teacher who lives in Banks County, said many teachers shy away from teaching evolution because it is pushed in public schools without dissenting theories. The state’s curriculum should go into greater depth in placing evolution under more critical evaluation, he said.

“Not all scientists are evolutionists,” said Kelly, who now teaches in a Christian school.

Heidi Isom, who has two children in the Cobb system, said she agrees with the governor that students should be exposed to a balance of arguments. “[Evolution] is presented with far more weight upon it than it needs to be,” she said.

Cox explained that she regarded “evolution” as a buzzword that causes negative reaction in communities, enough to derail teachers’ attempts to teach the major components of biology. She identified “intelligent design” as another acceptable scientific theory about the origin of life.

Intelligent design holds that living things are too complex and diverse to have evolved through random mutation. Its proponents argue instead that life on Earth resulted from a purposeful design by a higher intelligence.

It is a belief, not science, said Pallas and other professors.

David Bechler, a biology professor and head of the department of biology at Valdosta State University, said the statements suggest a basic misunderstanding of science.

“I don’t think they understand the definition of a theory,” Bechler said. “You’re talking about a statement that describes a body of data that has gone through testing and proving. The theory of creation, intelligent design, or whatever you might want to call it, has not been tested and should not be discussed in science classes. It’s not the same thing.”

The proposed biology curriculum draws on national standards, but includes a truncated version of required knowledge for students on evolution. This aspect of the revision has drawn less attention than the loss of the word “evolution” but is just as worrisome, say advocates for evolution instruction.

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, said the call for “balance” usually is an effort to introduce concepts that rebut evolution.

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