Plan to teach evolution approved by Ohio board

COLUMBUS — Hours of criticism from mainstream scientists and several legal threats didn’t discourage the state Board of Education on Tuesday from approving new lesson plans to teach evolution in Ohio schools.

The science model curriculum, an optional set of classroom lectures and activities for science teachers, includes a chapter titled “Critical analysis of evolution” that recommends 10th graders debate several common critiques of the theory.

Supporters maintain the document simply fulfills a board compromise from 2002 to include critical thinking about evolution in science classes. But opponents label the section a cleverly disguised way of introducing public school students to intelligent design, which states a higher power played a role in the creation of all life.

“The reason this is being picked out for scientific questioning is not because it is more controversial than other science; it’s because some people object to evolution for religious reasons,” said the Rev. George Murphy, a Lutheran pastor from Akron and a former biology teacher.

“But this (lesson) encourages students not to take evolution seriously. I’m concerned about this as a scientist and a theologian.”

Critics say the lesson plan includes hints of intelligent design arguments — in the examples it uses to challenge evolution and in the print and Internet resources used to craft the language.

Catherine Callaghan, a linguistics professor at The Ohio State University, said the arguments included in the curriculum should be ignored because they come from unscientific sources.

“If you’re teaching geology, you don’t want to include a little bit of evidence from the Flat Earth Society,” she said.

But the board approved the chapter by a 13 to 5 vote after rebuffing efforts to replace it with compromise language put forth by opponents.

Several members said revised versions of the curriculum excluded a number of Internet links and literary references that took care of any perception that the chapter had religious influences.

“You’ve never heard me argue for intelligent design because I don’t want it in there,” said board member Michael Cochran. “But I don’t see it in there.”

He also criticized opponents’ assertions that controversies surrounding evolution are fictional, and took exception at one biologist’s characterization of evolution critics as “cartoons.”

“It’s clear after today the scientific community is not all of one mind on this,” he said.

Faculty councils from five universities, including Ohio State, and the Ohio Academy of Science all voiced opposition to the plan. But a number of individual academics also spoke in favor of the controversial lessons Tuesday, saying it encourages healthy scientific debate.

“Critical analysis is part of science,” said Thomas Marshall, an environmental science professor at the Ohio State University. “Withholding this evidence would be a disservice to students.”

The lesson plans approved Tuesday are one set of several model curriculums schools can use to teach science classes. Individual districts can choose to teach intelligent design. Last year Patrick Henry School District in northwest Ohio decided to include it in science lessons.

Board members who voted against the document predicted the state will be sued for introducing religion into public schools. Board member Martha Wise said she would consider filing suit herself.

Board member Jennifer Stewart voted against the measure, saying she believed the critical analysis requirement was covered in other lesson plans. She hoped her colleagues would remove the chapter so it could be debated further.

Steven Gey, a law professor from Florida State University who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said prior federal rulings have kept any sort of religious teachings out of public school classrooms.

“No one has won one of these cases yet,” he said. “Once the courts are convinced it’s some form of creationism, you’re going to lose.”

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