Evolution: Just a theory?

Evolution: Just a theory?
State Republicans are ready to draft legislation to ensure evolution is taught as a "theory" in Florida's public schools.
By MARC CAPUTO - Miami Herald - 2/6/2008 - original
TALLAHASSEE -- Top state legislators say they're ready to join the fight over putting the word "evolution" in Florida's public school science standards to ensure that it's taught as just a theory and not as fact.

Rep. Marti Coley, future House Speaker Dean Cannon and state Sen. Stephen Wise, all Republicans, say they're considering filing legislation this spring that would specifically call evolution a "theory" if the state Board of Education approves the proposed science standards Feb. 19 as currently written.

For the first time in state history, the standards would clearly call on all science teachers to instruct middle- and high-schoolers about evolution and natural selection.

The proposed standards just say "evolution," not "theory of evolution."

Though Wise says biblical creationism should be taught alongside evolution, Coley said she doesn't want to go that far with evolution.

"It's technically a theory. Let's present it for what it is" Coley told The Miami Herald on Tuesday.

Coley's proposal concerns backers of mainstream science because they fear the word "theory" could be easily manipulated to cast doubt on evolution, a pillar of biology.


In common usage, a theory is just a guess. In scientific terms, a theory -- like gravity or quantum mechanics -- is a testable explanation of a phenomenon based on facts.

"If you use the word theory to imply that scientists think evolution is just a hypothesis and is not real, that gives an incorrect impression," said Prof. Joseph Travis, the dean of Florida State University's Arts and Sciences College, who reviewed the state's science standards.

"If you use the word theory to say it's the best idea to explain how it works, then that's good," he said.

Almost as soon as the standards were proposed in October, blogs and letter-writing campaigns were cranked up.

A number of rural Florida county school boards began criticizing the standards, and a state Department of Education worker sent out a call-to-arms e-mail to fellow Christians, noting that teaching evolution will be "a COMPLETE contradiction of what we Teach them at home."

Board of Education member Donna Callaway said in the Florida Baptist Witness that "other theories of the origins of life" should be taught. Evolution as proposed in the standards doesn't deal with the origins of life.

One concept being pushed by evolution bashers is intelligent design, which holds that the design of complex organisms is the result of the "purposeful arrangement of parts" by an unknown designer or designers.

A federal judge in Dover, Penn., banned intelligent design from classrooms in that state, saying it is based on religion.

Coley, who believes in intelligent design, said she also thinks it is too religious to teach in science classes. But she's ready to use the power of the Legislature -- which can override the Board of Education -- to insert the word "theory" into the standards.

"We are prepared," Coley said.

Coley hasn't filed legislation but has discussed that option with next year's House Speaker designate, Ray Sansom of Destin, and his likely successor, Dean Cannon of Winter Park, and Will Weatherford, Republican of Wesley Chapel.

Cannon said intelligent design should ideally be taught, but would leave that issue up to the "curricular experts."

And Wise, who said he is considering "legislative remedies," went a step further by saying that creationism should be taught in schools.

"Put them side by side," he said of evolution and biblical teaching.

All the talk about alternatives and evolution make church-state separationists like Sen. Nan Rich almost speechless.

"It's amazing to me. But this is Florida," said Rich, a Sunrise Democrat. "Rather than fixing education, we get caught up in mixing religion and state."

Gov. Charlie Crist, reached between campaign appearances with Sen. John McCain, said Tuesday he will reserve judgment, but added, "I think the way it's handled now is just fine."

Board of Education member Roberto Martinez of Miami said he will vote for the proposal as is, and that adding the word "theory" is unnecessary.

"The standards are fine. They were developed by scientists. I trust them," he said.

The state education department said the new standards are needed to ensure a mainstream, uniform science education in Florida and to keep the state from ranking in the bottom of national science surveys.


Travis, the FSU professor, said teaching evolution is key because it underpins the biological study of everything from dinosaurs to diseases. He also wondered why the critics aren't pushing to have the word "theory" precede mentions of gravity in the standards.

Asked if it should be called the "theory of gravity" in the standards, Coley said: "Sure."

But, she said, people aren't calling her about gravity.

"I have been overwhelmed with the response from constituents where they're not asking for anything else to be taught," she said.

'It's not like they're asking, `Oh please, teach intelligent design or creationism,' or anything like that. They're just saying put the word theory in there because that's what it is."

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.