Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals

Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals
By DON JORDAN Palm Beach Post Staff Writer - 12/31/2007 - original
Evolution and the 150-year national battle over its merits comes to Tallahassee's doorstep in February when the state Board of Education decides whether to approve an overhaul of state science standards that would make it a major topic in classrooms for the first time.

The proposed changes, which would require that students recognize that fossil evidence is consistent with the idea that human beings evolved from earlier species, have ignited a fierce debate among education officials and advocacy groups.

Opponents argue that evolution is merely a theory and that other explanations for the origins of life, such as intelligent design, also should be taught out of fairness.

Other groups have come to Darwin's defense, arguing that evolution is backed by empirical evidence, something that intelligent design lacks.

The current standards, which are used as the basis for school curricula and standardized testing, refer only to biological "changes over time."

That's not enough, said Mary Jane Tappen, executive director of the state Office of Mathematics and Science.

"If you look in any biology textbook, you'll see a chapter or more on the theory of evolution," Tappen said. "There is a disconnect here. If we really want to be clear, the accurate terminology should be part of our standards."

Some exchanges in the statewide debate have been stranger than others.

After a majority of school board members in Polk County agreed recently that intelligent design should be incorporated into the science curriculum, the district was inundated with e-mails from members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Members of the tongue-in-cheek religion credit all of creation to a flying abomination that's more Olive Garden than Garden of Eden.

"No one was around to see what was described in Genesis," one e-mail to board members stated. "For all we know, the Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything with his noodly appendages."

But Polk County officials aren't the only ones in favor of supplementing evolution with the teaching of intelligent design.

At least two of the five members of the St. Lucie County School Board - Chairwoman Carol Hilson and John Carvelli - said they either want intelligent design to be taught or wouldn't object to teaching it if the community requested. The new standards have no provision for creationism or intelligent design.

"My children need to be exposed to everything, but taught as a theory," Hilson said. "Science is, well, not an exact science. It's all so subjective. There are a lot of holes in the theory of evolution.

"I can't imagine that we would teach science and not teach intelligent design."

Board member Kathryn Hensley supported the teaching of evolution, adding that "anything that is faith-based or religious-based just doesn't belong in the classroom."

Board member Judi Miller refused to comment and board member Troy Ingersoll, a Baptist minister, could not be reached for comment.

Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Bill Graham said any discussion of intelligent design is best reserved for college philosophy classes, not "side by side" in K-12 science classes.

The other six board members either refused to comment or did not return numerous phone calls and e-mails made during the past two weeks.

Board member Debra Robinson told The Palm Beach Post in 2000 that schools should teach creationism with evolution.

Martin County School Board member David Anderson said he opposes teaching evolution and said it should be referenced only as a "theory that some people believe in."

"I'm a Christian and I believe in the Creation. I'm the son of a minister," said Anderson, whose district includes Palm City and Indiantown. "I am in no way endorsing the teaching of evolution."

The battle that has played out in boardrooms, in courtrooms and on car bumpers hasn't found its way into local lesson plans.

Palm Beach County science teachers say they have been teaching the topic for years, even with its formal title, and haven't raised any hackles.

Eagles Landing Middle School science teacher Gerard O'Donnell said he's been teaching evolution to his eighth-grade science students for more than a decade.

"I do discuss evolution, but I also put a caveat that there are other explanations of how we came to be where we are," O'Donnell said. "I deal in science, so for evolution, I'm the guy to talk to."

O'Donnell said evolution is essential to many aspects of what he teaches and he never has heard a complaint from a parent.

" 'Why does mom have brown hair and I have blond hair?' " O'Donnell said. " 'Why does a giraffe have a long neck?' "These are questions that are begging to have answers for."

In 2005, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute awarded Florida's science standards an "F" in a report comparing states. Evaluators criticized the standards as "scanty," "disappointing" and "sorely lacking in content."

Aside from the controversial evolution addition, the new version also has fewer standards. The idea is that, with fewer standards, teachers and students would be able to delve deeper into certain topics and analyze them rather than just skim over a multitude of subjects and learn mostly through memorizing.

State officials say the new standards would be more relevant and accurate and hopefully drum up student interest in the sciences.

The United States ranks behind 15 other industrialized countries, including China, Iran and Finland, in the percentage of college graduates with first degrees in science or engineering.

"There has been the growing realization that our Florida graduates are not competing with students in just ... Atlanta or New York," said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators and former state public schools chancellor. "They're competing with students around the world."

The decisions about what is good science should be left to the scientific community, Warford said.

Florida's DOE is expected to decide on the matter at its next meeting on Feb. 19 in Tallahassee.

Already, one member has vowed to vote against the new standards.

Board member Donna Callaway told the Florida Baptist Witness late last month that evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life."

Intelligent design should not be taught, but "acknowledged as a theory which many people accept along with others," Callaway said.

"My hope is that there will be times of prayer throughout Christian homes and churches directed toward this issue," Callaway said in the Jacksonville newspaper's Nov. 30 editorial.

Callaway's office referred all questions for this article to her statements in the Florida Baptist Witness.

A misconception created by those on the opposite ends of the evolution argument is that a belief in God and an acceptance of evolution are mutually exclusive, said Wesley Elsberry, a marine biologist and Michigan State University researcher studying the evolution of intelligent behavior. Evolution only explains how species have changed over time, not where they initially came from.

"Both sides aren't satisfied with the idea that there are a substantial number of Christians who can also accept evolution," said Elsberry, a Lakeland native who also is a consultant for Florida Citizens for Science, a group of parents and educators who support evolution and has members on the committee that drafted the standards.

Intelligent design has not gone through the rigorous testing and scientific criticism to warrant time in science classrooms, he said.

"This is not something that is accountable," Elsberry said. "Our students, in their limited time in a science class, they need to receive the information that has received scrutiny through the scientific process."

The state Office of Mathematics and Science will host additional public hearings in Jacksonville on Thursday and at Everglades High in Miramar on Jan. 8. Both hearings are scheduled for 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Standards writers will review the comments, along with those submitted on a Department of Education Web site, when they create a final draft next month that will go to the board.

West Boca High School biology teacher Kane More said she has gone through most of the new standards, but wishes teachers were given more time to review the changes.

"I think it's a warranted change," More said of the evolution addition. "Because I'm a scientist."

More said she recently attended a National Association of Biology Teachers conference that had a session on strategies for teaching about politically polarizing topics such as evolution, stem-cell research and global warming. "It's not my role to make a decision for the young people," she said. "My role as a science teacher is to present them with evidence and allow them to draw their own conclusions."

Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.