Chicago The hottest topic of hallway conversation among science teachers gathering for their annual Midwestern conference in Chicago on Thursday could not be found on the agenda of any seminar or panel: how the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design should be handled in a science class.
Most teachers interviewed Thursday followed the majority of the scientific community in saying that biology curriculum standards should follow evolutionary study, which the National Science Teachers Assn. calls "a major unifying concept in science."
But that concept is being challenged in at least one state, Kansas, which this week adopted new guidelines that criticize evolutionary principles and redefine science to allow what many believe are supernatural or divine causes for life.
Science teachers said they were chagrined at the Kansas development and defended evolution as the crux of biology. Still, a few others said that evolution and the theory of intelligent design or creationism should coexist in the classroom - perhaps not as coequals, but that they should both exist.
"The thing we need to do is stick together as members of the scientific community and make sure that actual science is propagated in the classroom rather than a theory that conflicts with evolutionary evidence," said James Keefer, a high school teacher outside Rochester, N.Y.
But others said that while Charles Darwin's theory might be a guiding principle of biology, it should not be the only principle available to students.
"You need to look at this from every aspect and judge for yourself - and I think the kids should be given the facts of each set and let them proceed and judge for themselves," said Jeff Kinsey, a sixth-grade science teacher who says he hails from "the Bible Belt," Tecumseh, Okla.
Evolution in Kansas
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- Discovery Institute
- Evolution timeline: Events related to the Kansas controversy
- U.S. District Court Ruling in Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District (PDF)
- Center for Science and Culture: A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism
- Parody: Intelligent Design Society of Kansas
- Mirecki press release (.pdf)
- More evolution coverage
- LJWorld.com's Evolution in Kansas coverage
A temporary threat?
The change in Kansas policy, effective in 2007, directly criticizes evolution, saying that some aspects contradict the fossil record. The criticism potentially opens the science classrooms of Kansas to other explanations for the creation and development of life.
Though they are not specifically cited in the Kansas standards, an alternate explanation could be biblical in nature or it could be so-called "intelligent design," which has been presented as a scientific theory maintaining that some aspects of life unexplained by evolution are best attributed to an unnamed and unseen intelligent designer.
Keefer, the teacher from Brockport High School near Rochester, said scientists have tended to disregard such movements because "it is obviously based on religion and not science or fact."
"I think it is essentially something that we have tended to ignore on the thinking that it will ultimately collapse under its own weight," Keffer said. "I think that this is probably a temporary threat to science and that it will soon fade."
Other science teachers said much the same.
Peggy Deichstetter, who teaches at St. Edward High School in Elgin, Ill., said she has never been pressured to counter the teaching of evolutionary biology with a creation-based theory or intelligent design. But she said she has run across other teachers who maintain that both should be given equal due.
"I know there are biology teachers out there who, because of their religious upbringing, never mention the word evolution," Deichstetter said. "But to me, you have to teach evolution as a scientific principle because every time you turn a corner, there it is. It is in DNA and classification study. The more closely an animal's DNA is to another, the more likely they are related and that naturally leads to how they evolved."
Theory vs. scientific theory
Several teachers said they have broached the subjects of creationism and intelligent design in their classrooms because students have brought up the debate or, more likely, they feel the matter should be given at least some discussion.
But they said that discussion might take up one class. The rest of the year, they are teaching science based on evolutionary principles.
"Just because something is a theory doesn't make it a sound scientific theory - and if it doesn't meet standard scientific guidelines, how can you put it in a science class and say you are educating your students on science?" Deichstetter asked. "If they go down this road in Kansas, they are severely shortchanging their children."
That is the prevailing school of thought in the community of science educators. After the Kansas Board of Education action, the science teachers association and the National Academy of Sciences both revoked permission for Kansas to use any of their copyrighted material in the new state standards.
Kinsey, the teacher from Oklahoma, said state and local standards do not permit him from teaching anything beyond evolutionary science in his classrooms - and he believes that is bad public policy.
"I'm sure that there will be heated debates about this down there," Kinsey said. He added that when creation scientists or others have tried to raise the issue in his school district, they were "squished and swept under the rug."