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Evolution Debate in Georgia (2-7-05)

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Recent Action

House Bill 179, introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives on January 27, 2005, would require "Whenever any theory of the origin of human beings or other living things is included in a course of study offered by a local unit of administration, factual scientific evidence supporting or consistent with evolution theory and factual scientific evidence inconsistent with or not supporting the theory shall be included in the course of study." NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there is no "factual scientific evidence" inconsistent with evolution: "[t]hese are code words for creationism." The bill also contains a subsection claiming that it is "intended to strengthen the analytical skills of students" and "not intended to authorize or promote the presentation of religious beliefs," apparently attempting to render it constitutional under the purpose prong of the Lemon test.

The sponsor of the bill, Ben D. Bridges Jr., introduced a similar bill (HB 1133) in 1998, although it lacked any clause describing its intention. The language of HB 179 and 1133, as well as similar bills appearing in Ohio and Arizona, is patterned after a model bill drafted by John Hansen, a Wisconsin schoolteacher who founded Operation TEACHES (the acronym is for Teach Evolution, Accurately, Comprehensively, Honestly, Equitably, Scientifically) and who crisscrossed the country in the late 1990s to urge state legislators to sponsor it. If enacted, HB 179 would become effective on July 1, 2005. The story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated that the House Republican leadership was unenthusiastic about the bill, however, stating that the bill is not a legislative priority, noting that
Bridges is the sole sponsor, and quoting the speaker pro tem of the House as saying that "[e]ach member of our caucus is elected by their district and they have every right to introduce bills they feel their constituents want." (2/7/05)

Previous Action

A trio of op-ed columns greeted the January 13, 2005, ruling in Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al., in which U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper deemed that the evolution disclaimer required in the Cobb County School District violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although the board decided (on January 17) to appeal the decision to the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals, the discussions in these columns are still worthwhile and timely. And a humor column in Scientific American looks on the lighter side.

NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch, and Nicholas Matzke teamed up to write "Creation sticker shock" for United Press International. In their column (which appeared on January 18), they reviewed the use of disclaimers to undermine evolution education. In science, they observe, "theories incorporate facts, laws and hypotheses. They are the central unifying backbones of disciplines. Just as relativity and quantum mechanics are the backbone of physics, and plate tectonics is the backbone of geology, evolution is the backbone of biology." The description of evolution as "a theory, not a fact," in the Cobb County disclaimer, however, exploits the colloquial sense of "theory" as something speculative or conjectural, and -- as Judge Cooper recognized -- thus "appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof." Neither disclaimers in particular nor attempts to dilute evolution education in general is going to disappear in the wake of the Selman decision, but neither is the need to teach students about evolution "uncompromised by disclaimers or phony evidence against evolution." Scott (whose first name was unfortunately misspelled in the byline) is the executive director of NCSE, where Branch and Matzke also work.

In "Remove stickers, open minds," published in the Boston Globe on January 22, Kenneth R. Miller applauds the Selman decision from a unique standpoint: he is the coauthor (with Joseph Levine) of the high school biology textbook used in the Cobb County School District. Miller comments, "So what's wrong with telling students that evolution is a theory? Nothing. But the textbook they were using already described evolution as a theory, and I ought to know." Challenging the misuse of "theory" in the disclaimer, he writes, "Theories in science don't become facts -- rather, theories explain facts," explaining, "Evolutionary theory is a comprehensive explanation of change supported by the facts of natural history, genetics, and molecular biology." Isolating evolution for special attention, as in the disclaimer, is unwarranted: as Miller ironically comments, "The sticker told students that there was just one subject in their textbooks that had to be approached with an open mind and critically considered. Apparently, we are certain of everything in biology except evolution. That is nonsense." Removing the disclaimer is what truly promotes critical thinking, Miller writes, by letting "students see a science of biology in which all theories, not just one, are the result of constant, vigorous, critical analysis." Miller, who teaches biology at Brown University, is a Supporter of NCSE.

Published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 21, Edward J. Larson's "Sticker shock" is accompanied by a wry disclaimer of its own: "This article contains material on evolution. It warns that the Cobb County school board's fight to keep its evolution stickers on textbooks is neither isolated nor over." Larson, whose book on the Scopes trial Summer for the Gods won the Pulitzer Prize, notes that the antievolutionist tactic of describing evolution as "just a theory" goes back to William Jennings Bryan and continues to flourish today within the conservative Christian community. For Henry Morris and Ken Ham, for Phillip Johnson and Charles Colson, evolution is "just a theory ... and not a very good one." But "Judge Cooper belled this particular cat. Of course evolution is a theory, but it's not just a hunch or guess. ... In science, evolution is the dominant theory of origins accepted by virtually all biologists." Larson also notes that it is only a subgroup of American Christians who object to evolution: "In Atlanta and across America, many deeply religious people are profoundly troubled by the assault on evolution teaching by a subgroup of conservative Christians." The column concludes by warning, plausibly, of continued controversy across the country. Larson teaches history and law at the University of Georgia.

Finally, on the lighter side, Steve Mirsky's Antigravity humor column in the February 2005 issue of Scientific American rejoices in the now familiar title "Sticker shock." Evidently writing before the order in Selman was issued, Mirsky begins by noting that "[b]rushfires are raging all across America over the teaching of evolution, as various antievolution interests attempt to give religiously based views equal footing in science classes," fomented by creation scientists and their "co-conspirators, the 'intelligent design' crowd." The latter, Mirsky quips, "don't mention you-know-who by name as the designer, but you know who you-know-who is, and it isn't Brahma." Turning to the Cobb County disclaimer, he proposes a revised version that reads in part, "Evidence for evolution itself is so overwhelming that those who deny its reality can do so only through nonscientific arguments. They have every right to hold such views. They just can't teach them as science in this science class," and then goes on to propose similar stickers for cosmology, geography, earth science, chemistry, and other science textbooks. Mirsky is a regular columnist for Scientific American. (2/7/05)

On January 13, 2005, US district judge Clarence Cooper ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Selman et al. vs. Cobb County School District et al., ordering the Cobb County public schools to remove evolution disclaimers from science textbooks, ruling that the stickers violated the establishment clause of the first amendment. Although he was satisfied with the school board's claim that the stickers were intended to encourage critical thinking about the origins of life, the judge maintained the understanding that "an informed, reasonable observer" would interpret the sticker as an endorsement of religion. In his ruling, he stated, that the disclaimer "sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while [it] sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders." The ruling rested on the connotations of the word 'theory' as a 'hunch' or 'something easily disregarded,' as well as the history of anti-evolutionism in the County and the common practice of using such stickers in other states as a vehicle to promote creationism in schools.

On January 17th, the Cobb County School Board voted 5-2 to appeal the court's ruling and additionally asked for a stay of Judge Cooper's charge to remove the stickers. A review in the school district's homepage reports that School Board members believe the court to have, in effect, "condemned the Board for taking a reasonable approach to address the concerns of its citizens on a controversial issue." Board members felt the Judge's decision was not based on the School Board's intent but rather on "the judicial interpretation of social facts," and thus deem the ruling "an intrusion into local control of school policy and administration."

Download Judge Cooper's ruling from the ACLU website and the School Board's appeal (press release). (1/27/05)

On November 8th, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Federal Court on behalf of six parents challenging a two year old Cobb County School Board rule, which mandated the use of disclaimers about evolution on a biology textbook. The disclaimer reads, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." The plaintiffs in the case argue that singling out evolution as a theory suggests that creationism or intelligent design are also equally as valid, a clear violation of the 1st amendment establishment clause. The textbook's author said in a Los Angeles Times article, "the disclaimer used the word "theory" in a colloquial way that suggested it was "a guess, or a little hunch." In science, theories are overarching explanations - in evolution's case, "widely supported by millions of facts," he said. Moreover, it is misleading to single out evolution for scrutiny when all science should be approached with a spirit of inquiry," he said.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper will make a ruling after what is expected to be a four day trial. Cobb County, a highly conservative region outside of Atlanta, has a history of bucking the Darwin requirement in science education. Prior to 2002, evolution was prohibited from the curriculum and teachers were instructed to rip out pages of Biology textbooks that discussed evolution.

In a November 10th letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, microbiologist David L. Cox wrote, "Some Georgians still don't know that a theory is a set of facts, propositions or principles analyzed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena. Too many people get "theory" confused with "hypothesis," which is unproven and has little data to back it up. Evolution has reams of data to support it. All one has to do is look at the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the past 50 years to see mini-"evolution" in action and in our lifetimes. And where is it written that evolution couldn't be God's work? The Bible says God created the Earth in six days, but I think Old Testament stories were simple explanations for simple-minded people. Thousands of years ago, who could have comprehended genes, DNA or the atom? Even today, many people still don't understand them; some parents in Cobb County are living proof." (11/10/04)

In mid-May, Georgia education officials released this year's revised education standards. The Standards for Excellence in Education by the Council for Basic Education (CBE) was used as a model for standards and benchmarks. The CBE are a distilled version of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s publication, Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy. Georgia's goal is for students to “Do Science, not View Science.”

Like the other curriculum areas, the most noticeable difference in the new Science Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) is the presence of new performance standards. The curriculum is trimmed down with the expectation that students will be given the opportunity to achieve scientific literacy, while also giving students the necessary tools to be successful at the next level of their educational career.

With regard to content, the most radical change is moving Earth Science to sixth grade and Physical Science to eighth grade. Georgians felt that Physical Science is very abstract and includes rigorous mathematics. Therefore, eighth graders who have experienced more mathematics courses and have two more years of cognitive development, have a better chance for success and mastery in Physical Science than sixth graders do.

In regard to the teaching of evolution, the Earth Science education standards state, "During middle school, several lines of evidence are further developed. The fossil evidence can be expanded beyond extinctions and survivals to the notion of evolutionary history. Sedimentation of rock can be brought in to show relative age. However, actual age, which requires an understanding of isotopic dating techniques, should wait until high school, when students learn about the structure of atoms. Breeding experiments can illustrate the heritability of traits and the effects of selection. It was familiarity with selective breeding that stimulated Darwin's thinking that differences between successive generations can naturally accumulate." There is no mention of Intelligent Design or "alternative theories" in the revised standards. (5/24/04)

In 2002, the Cobb County School District in Georgia issued a requirement that all textbooks containing material that discuss evolution have a disclaimer in the front of the book that warns that "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." Five parents sued the school system to get the stickers removed in August 2002, and in early April 2004, a federal judge ruled that the case had merit and could go to trial. In 1971 the Supreme Court issued a three-pronged test of the constitutionality of issues related to the separation of church and state. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in order to get the lawsuit dismissed the Cobb County School Board had to prove "that the sticker was adopted with a secular purpose; that its primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and that it does not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion." The judge found that school board only met the first criteria. The case is expected to go to trial later this year. (4/16/04)

The Georgia State Board of Education reversed its earlier decision and on February 19th released a new version of the science curriculum that includes both biologic evolution and the big bang theory. However, the section on biologic evolution is not fully complete and the section on student activities concerning evolution is labeled "more tasks to come". According to the National Center for Science Education, other states have used these tactics to insert material in similar locations to undermine the classroom presentation of evolution. Supporters of science education will continue to review the proposed standards.

The revised curriculum is up for public comment and the school board will take a final vote in June. (2/25/04)

The Georgia State Board of Education released a statement on February 12th that said the national science standards would be adopted in the new curriculum including use of the word evolution. Both scientists and educators were happy with the statement, but will continue to watch the process. The team of teachers who wrote the curriculum will propose changes to the evolution portion, which will then be voted on at a special meeting of the state board.

In addition, Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) has sponsored a bill (HB-1406) in the Georgia House of Representatives that requires future changes to the curriculum follow national standards. The bill would also clarify the role of the legislature in curriculum changes. Ashe told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "My real objective is to make sure the legislative process isn't left out as major curriculum revisions are made and Georgia maintains a curriculum that is worthy as our place as an economic engine in the Southeast." The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee where it has the support of committee chairman Rep. Bob Holmes (D-Atlanta). (2/20/04)

As a result of the feedback and controversy over the removal of the word evolution from the science curriculum, State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox announced on February 5th that she would leave the word evolution in the curriculum. However, it is unclear as to whether she will also incorporate the deleted sections of the curriculum dealing with evolution and the age of the Earth. The issue of including that material will go before the curriculum advisory panel before the end of February. (2/6/04)

The Georgia Department of Education released its new curriculum on January 12th to a thunder of controversy. The new middle and high school science standards proposed by Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox strike references to the word evolution and replace them with the term "biological changes over time." The curriculum revisions began over a year ago in an attempt to strengthen the performance of students by requiring greater depth of essential topics. Although it's not explicitly mentioned in the curriculum, Cox said that the new standards could include the teaching of "intelligent design" as another legitimate theory.

Not only are many scientists and educators outraged by this plan, but according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying "As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox's attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students". Governor Sonny Perdue says that there should be a "balanced" approach to teaching evolution in the classroom and that impressionable students should not be taught that evolution is a proven fact. However, Perdue thinks that the word evolution should stay in the curriculum and not be replaced.

The Georgia Department of Education will collect feedback for three months. If you wish to comment on the proposed standards, click here. Additionally, thousands of people have signed an online petition to encourage the Georgia Department of Education to adapt the Project 2061 benchmarks for science education that were developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. To view (or sign) the petition, click here. (2/2/04)

Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Insitute of Biological Sciences Public Policy Report, Associated Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN, National Center for Science Education, National Science Teachers Association, Georgia Department of Education Performance Standards Curriculum Revision website, Los Angeles Times, Cobb County School District Homepage.

Contributed by Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program; 2004 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern Gayle Levy; Bridget Martin, AGI/AIPG Summer 2004 Intern; David Millar, AGI/AAPG Fall 2004 Semester Intern; Katie Ackerly, AGI/AAPG Spring 2005 Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on February 7, 2005