Age-Old Controversy

Proposed Pennsylvania Science Standards Resurrect Conflict Over Evolution In Schools

On Nov. 29, scientists at Penn State University reported new evidence of land-based life that is more than 2.6 billion years old, a significant finding because it is 1.4 billion years earlier than previously thought.

Apparently, the news did not work its way 60 miles southeast to Harrisburg. On the same day, the Pennsylvania Board of Education published new state science standards that seek to undermine evolutionary biology in public schools and open the door to creationism, a religious concept that holds the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago as described in the Book of Genesis.

Ironically, Pennsylvania was honored last fall as one of only 10 states with "excellent" state science standards for its treatment of evolution. In a September report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Keystone State's standards received a score of 91, tied for eighth best in the nation and earning an "A."

Despite the honor, Pennsylvania's Board of Education has revised those standards and abandoned the state's commitment to a thorough teaching of evolution. If the amended standards are adopted, not only would Pennsylvania likely lose the distinction of teaching excellent science, it would also invite the criticism heaped on the Kansas Board of Education for similar tactics in the summer of 1999.

Proposed draft language of the state's academic standards, which observers expect will be considered by the state legislature early this year, is part of Pennsylvania's effort to define what each student should know in a core set of subjects.

The state Board of Education had already completed what was considered to be a first-rate draft for science standards that took nearly two years to complete. But over the summer, after public hearings had been held, changes were made that weakened instruction on evolutionary biology in subtle ways.

Tucked into the new 34-page proposal is a provision that would allow teachers to "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution." Elsewhere, the standards were amended to say that science classes should introduce concepts to students that "do or do not support the theory of evolution."

Critics of these changes describe the language as "code" for introducing creationism into the classroom.

"The 'scientific creationism' of the '60s-'80s has re-emerged evolved, if you will into the anti-evolutionism of the '80s-'90s by recasting the arguments in this secular language, calling it 'evidence against evolution,'" said Dr. Andrew Petto, a science professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and board member of the National Center for Science Education, who is closely following the controversy in Pennsylvania. "However, the so-called evidence is the very same laundry list of unanswered questions and misinterpretations that formed the basis of the old 'creation science' arguments. Furthermore, it is the same groups, by and large, that support this new anti-evolutionism.

"The second way that we know that it is just code for creationism is that it singles out evolution, and evolution-related ideas, from among all the theories that students have to learn," Petto added. "That is, the new language focuses especially on those issues likely to be problematic for biblical literalists. There is no such language on the evidence against, say, quantum theory, or electromagnetic theory, and so on, only against evolution. Why only evolution if the real goal as proponents state is to get students to think critically about the process of science?"

In addition, the revised standards place significant emphasis on classifying evolution as a "theory," as if the label suggests the science is to be regarded as suspect. Eugene Hickok, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, for example, defended the changes by telling the Associated Press, "Evolution is not a fact, it's a scientific theory. And because it's a theory, that means you have to test various hypotheses to support it or not support it."

Hickok's knowledge of science, however, is apparently incomplete. The National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most respected institutions of scientific and engineering research, has directly tackled the common error associated with the word "theory."

"The theory of evolution explains how life on earth has changed," the NAS explains. "In scientific terms, 'theory' does not mean 'guess' or 'hunch' as it does in everyday usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world.... The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong."

Dan Langan, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, acknowledged in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the board's revision would allow creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

"Under the proposed standards, there's room for science teachers to expose students to other theories," Langan said. "The degree to which that's done is up to local officials."

If the revised standards are adopted and local school administrators and teachers read the curriculum as giving them a green light to teach creationism, they will almost certainly run afoul of the law. In fact, a definitive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court already makes clear that public schools cannot teach creationism without violating the First Amendment.

In its 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the high court ruled 7-2 that a Louisiana statute mandating the teaching of "creation science" with evolutionary biology violated the Constitution. As Justice William Brennan explained, the Louisiana statute was unconstitutional because it sought to "employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose."

Nevertheless, for supporters of the new standards, there is more at stake than the law and quality science education. They see the conflict as part of the wider campaign to give government a religious basis.

State Rep. Samuel E. Rohrer (R-Berks County) was an aggressive opponent of the science standards before the changes were made. He rejects teaching evolution without creationism, and as a member of the state legislature's education committee, is in a position to help make a change.

Rohrer believes the two sides of the origins debate necessarily disagree on more than just science.

"This discussion about the issue is healthy; it goes to the heart of who we are," Rohrer told Church & State. "The impact of origins carries through to political philosophy, economics, health. This issue is fundamental.... If a person thinks that we have just happened, the approach the person takes in life is going to be different from those who believe we were created. We believe in either a higher law or a lower law and you can't get away from that."

Rohrer, a graduate of the ultra-fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, went on to describe America as religiously based.

"Creationism is the underpinning of our American republic," Rohrer said. "Our Constitution says we are endowed by our 'Creator.' The Founding Fathers understood we didn't just happen. Everything in our form of government is based on that. There are governments based on accidental evolution. It's a part of secular humanism, which is a religion. It's a tenet of Marxism and communism and they're totally different from our system, always will be." [Editor's note: It is actually the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, that refers to a creator; the Constitution, which is the nation's governing document, makes no mention of God and provides for a separation of church and state.]

Despite Rohrer's enthusiastic support for creationism, the proposal to undermine evolution instruction in Pennsylvania is already being condemned by observers inside the state and out.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, wrote a strong editorial against the new proposed standards.

"Pennsylvania is hardly alone and it is far from the worst in using state education standards to advance a religious agenda," the paper said. "But it is disturbing that the state Board of Education would succumb to the pressure of Christian fundamentalists at the expense of the U.S. Constitution and the educational needs of Pennsylvania's students. Creationism paints a veneer of pseudo-science on a religious belief system. No reputable scientific group accepts it as a plausible alternative to evolution, period.

"Any individual is free to believe that the Earth is 10,000 years old and that man was molded from clay in the image of God," the Post-Gazette added. "But he can't teach it as a reasonable scientific theory in public school, because to do so would violate a central tenet of the American form of government the separation of church and state."

The proposed standards have also gotten the attention of national organizations. Americans United for Separation of Church and State contacted the Pennsylvania Board of Education, insisting that the new science standards would invite religious indoctrination in public schools and could lead to litigation.

In a Dec. 4 letter to Board President James Gallagher, Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn wrote, "The new science standards under consideration by the board clearly open the door to religious intrusion into the public school science curriculum. If local school districts follow these standards and alter their curriculum to conform to religious tenets lawsuits are certain to result. We strongly urge you not to give bad advice to school administrators and science teachers through poorly worded science standards."

Moreover, Lynn asked Gallagher not to let creationists drag Pennsylvania into a costly and drawn-out battle over religion in public schools. "Instead," he wrote, "Pennsylvania needs science and technology standards that are free from sectarian dogma, that instruct its children in the fundamental principles of modern biology and that spur all of the state's public school children to aspire to excellence."

Organizations with a different perspective on church-state separation have also taken note of the developments in Pennsylvania. In fact, Religious Right groups are circling the wagons, getting ready for a fight.

James Dobson's Focus on the Family published an item in a Dec. 6 "issues alert," advising its activists that the new Pennsylvania standards could bring creationism to the state's public schools. The same week, another Religious Right powerhouse, the Family Research Council, applauded the changes to the science standards. The group noted that scientists around the world were critical of the changes made in the Kansas standards, and creationism supporters in the FRC and elsewhere must be prepared to have their voices heard.

"Citizens of Pennsylvania should let the state know they want evolution to be taught more accurately," the FRC said, "as the theory it is."

Closer to home, the state's leading anti-evolution group, the Pittsburgh-based Creation Science Fellowship, is already touting the altered standards for providing teachers the opportunity to undercut evolution instruction.

"All we're trying to do is raise legitimate problems with the standard model [of evolution] and suggest that the dating of the Earth is not as precise as [evolutionists] believe," Dennis Wert, chairman of the CSF, told the Associated Press. "We're not trying to get students to believe in God."

The accuracy of the claim that the CSF isn't trying to promote religion is, however, dubious. The group readily admits in its materials the religious basis of creationism and states that among its goals is "to provide a forum to educate and exchange information pertaining to the Biblical model of creation."

The CSF and its allies appear ready for the challenge, but the outcome of the controversy is anything but clear. At this point, the proposed language has a long road to travel before being adopted as Pennsylvania's official science standards. The draft has yet to be submitted for public comment, and concerned citizens will have a 30-day period when they can submit written statements to the board. Even after the board votes, the standards will be subject to the review of education committees in the House and Senate.

In other words, supporters of quality science and church-state separation still have time to act.

"There is already a fair amount of interest from civil liberties and science education groups," Petto said. "The task for us is to convince a reasonably sized group of the public that this issue is important to them or their kids.... Our goal is not to have a big fight over this, but to work as effectively as possible to correct the errors and misstatements in the current draft standards."