Evolution a ‘scientific theory’ in Florida
Compromise leads to some confusion
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A compromise calling evolution a “scientific theory” strengthens Florida’s new public school science standards, but it also makes them awkward, confusing and sometimes inappropriate, say advocates of Charles Darwin’s big idea.
That’s because the State Board of Education on Tuesday applied the same label to a variety of other terms throughout the standards, resulting in such usages as “the scientific theory of atoms.”
“It doesn’t exist anywhere except in Florida’s science standards,” said Monroe County School Board member Debra Walker. “Scientists would not have come up with that language.”
The compromise emerged, though, after many citizens complained the new standards conflict with the biblical account of creation.
Walker, an archaeologist from Key Largo, spoke in favor of the standards as originally drafted without the “scientific theory” wording.
Neither side in the evolution debate is happy about the compromise, but Walker and other supporters were more satisfied than opponents.
That’s because the existing version didn’t even use the word “evolution” and required only superficial exposure of students to the biological concept. That’s been a familiar problem throughout the old norms.
The new standards will require more in-depth study focused on a narrower range of topics including “Diversity and Evolution in Living Organisms.”
They also say evolution is “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence.”
That irked opponents, who had urged the board to add an “academic freedom” provision that would have let teachers “engage students in a critical analysis” of that evidence.
Evolution supporters, including mainstream scientists and clergy, told the board before the 4-3 vote the academic freedom proposal was a wedge designed to open the door for injecting religious arguments into science studies.
“We know what’s going on here,” said board member Roberto “Bobby” Martinez, a Miami lawyer. “What we have here is an effort by people to water down our standards.”
That brought shouts of “no” from the audience. Opponents, including some scientists, denied they have a religious motive. Instead, they argued there are flaws in the theory of evolution and that students should be allowed to explore them.
The vote was the latest in a long line of public debates over evolution dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when a teacher was convicted of violating Tennessee’s evolution ban. That verdict was reversed on technicality, but courts later ruled evolution could be taught.
Courts subsequently barred teaching the biblical account of creation along with evolution. Most recently, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design, which holds the universe’s order and complexity is so great science alone cannot explain it, also was a religious theory and could not be taught in public schools.
As originally written by a committee of scientists and educators, Florida’s new standards referred to evolution without the “ scientific theory” qualifying language. The standards also contain a section noting that a scientific theory is a well-supported and accepted explanation of nature, not simply a claim.
“I’m 98 percent satisfied,” said Dr. Ray Bellamy, director of surgery at the Tallahassee campus of Florida State University’s Medical School, who spoke for the original draft. “I don’t think it weakens the standards very much.”
The compromise disappointed John Stemberger, president of the Florida Fam- ily Policy Council, an Orlando- based advocacy group. He’s also leading a campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
“It’s a superficial fix that does not address the problem,” Stemberger said. “It’s really an attempt to placate the public but does not address the real issue of academic freedom.”
Stemberger said his organization will ask the Legislature to add the academic freedom proposal to the standards.
John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, also rejected the compromise in an e-mail to Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who had proposed it Friday.
Sullivan objected to calling evolution the only fundamental concept underlying biology. He wrote that Baptists firmly believe there’s evidence of a “Creator-initiated origin of life” but did not object to teaching evolution. He argued, though, its scientific weaknesses should be taught as well as its strengths.
The academic freedom proposal also would have referred to evolution as “a’’ rather than “ the” fundamental concept underlying biology.
Board Chairman T. Willard Fair, who heads the Urban League of Greater Miami, cast the deciding vote. He was joined by Phoebe Raulerson, a former Okeechobee County school superintendent; Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman, and Linda Taylor, a Fort Myers businesswoman.
Martinez, Donna Callaway, a retired Tallahassee principal, and Dr. Akshay Desai, a geriatric care specialist from St. Petersburg, voted against it.
“It doesn’t go far enough,” Callaway said after the vote, indicating she would have preferred the academic freedom proposal. “I think teachers can take it far enough if they choose to do that, and I hope that’s the message that goes out.”
Shanahan agreed with opponents who said evolution is not a fact, but she said the academic freedom proposal was unnecessary because standards for the nature of science cover the same territory for all scientific inquiry, not just evolution.