Evo­lu­tion a ‘sci­en­tific the­ory’ in Florida

Com­pro­mise leads to some con­fu­sion

The Covington News - - Religion - By Bill Kaczor

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.

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