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A Battle Over Teaching the Origins of Life

Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; 2:30 PM

A battle is intensifying across the nation over how students are taught about the origins of life, Washington Post staff writer Peter Slevin reports in Monday's article, "Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens." Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution.

Peter Slevin was online to take your questions and comments Monday, March 14, at 2:30 p.m. ET

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Peter Slevin: Greetings from Chicago, where I'm based for the Post. There has already been much email and many questions on today's evolution story, with people on each side - as you will soon see -- wondering how on earth their opponents could be so wrong, and so obstinate. Another thread is why the Post didn't do more to a) debunk intelligent design or b) defeat "the apologists of Darwinism," as one reader put it.

There were also questions about why I did not spend more time on the Kansas debate itself; I focused more on how different anti-evolution groups are presenting their arguments, using Kansas as one example. A clear message from the message traffic is that one humble 1,800-word story cannot do justice to a topic so many people feel so deeply about.

Write with your thoughts and I'll get to as many as I can. Let's get started.

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Lincoln, Neb.: Seems to me that intelligent design is not really a science, so why bring it into the science classroom except for religious reasons? It belongs in religion class.

A keystone of science has always been to account for data and then predict the future. Intelligent design does neither. Evolutionary theory does both.

Peter Slevin: This is an important theme, and it comes up often in the debate. Many scientists also argue that intelligent design, if there's anything to it, needs to earn its place in the classroom.

In a bit, I'll post comments made at a public hearing in Hays, Kansas, by the president-elect of the Kansas Academy of Science.

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Washington, D.C.: Enjoyed your article.

I just don't understand why the religious right has to draw a line between the two. Theology and science don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Evolution does not try to explain the absence of God. In fact, I think it proves he exists beyond a doubt.
If I can quote Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."

Peter Slevin: Thanks. Few would dispute that religion and science should both be part of a core curriculum for students. The question is how each is taught, and in which classroom.

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McLean, Va.:
I am trying to take an impartial view of the unfolding events and when I brought up this subject with my husband -- I read him the title -- he made an interesting leap. "Are they saying that aliens did create our civilization?"

It's an interesting spin. Creationists/Intelligent Design believers will need to accept that not all people will interpret the CHRISTIAN point of view.

Peter Slevin: Your husband is not alone. Who, many critics of intelligent design ask, is the intelligent designer? I've attended hearings where critics of the theory have asked just what your husband did. Ditto on the issue of a Christian view of how the universe was formed, versus other theistic versions.

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Fairfax, Virginia: I am appalled to see in your article that some anti-evolution crusaders have come up with an equation that evolutionism = liberalism = atheism. My question is this: where are the science teachers during all of this debate? Are they speaking up for or against this injection of Christian philosophy into what should be purely unbiased instruction of observed science? Have you had conversations with science teachers who have an opinion about this politicization/philosiphization of a purely technical subject? Thanks for taking my question.

Peter Slevin: Many column inches have been devoted to the view of the vast majority of scientists that evolutionary theory is solidly -- and increasingly -- supported by the evidence. I quoted people saying as much, but was focusing this story on the dynamic activities of the groups on the other side.

The Discovery Institute, which is ground zero for the intelligent design movement, gathered at last count the signatures of 356 scientists who question evolution.

In response, the National Center for Science Education, which strongly defends the science of evolution, got 543 scientists named Steve to sign a defense of the theory. They said the evidence is "overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry."

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Peter Slevin: This the crux of the statement by Greg Liggett. He said the goal should be the best possible education:

The only way to do that in the science classroom is to teach the current, best scientific explanations available. Evolution through natural selection is the prevailing explanation for understanding natural biodiversity and the history of life. As such, it deserves a central role in the science classroom.

The scientific process is successful because it allows for the accumulation of knowledge about the physical world, and a self-correcting paradigm for organizing that knowledge. It takes place in scientific peer-reviewed journals, at scientific meetings, and in the halls of academia. The process is well-established and successful.

Let's use the process the way it was intended.

Any alternative scientific view to the prevailing theory should be taken up in the proper venue, the established scientific dialogue. The science standards for public school education are not the venue for an alterative view to prove its worthiness.

Teach the prevailing theory unadulterated. Let those holding alternative views present their data to the scientific process where they can be evaluated and tested.

If those alternative views have something to offer, and when they are accepted by the majority of researchers in biology, then, and only then, should they be presented to our students as the prevailing scientific wisdom.

Until that time, do not weaken the science standards by introducing poor, untested science in our classrooms.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the opportunity to discuss these issues. I do take issue with people who quote Einstein in support of either an omniscient god or organized religion (e.g., Christianity). He subscribed to neither.

Einstein: "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

The above quote is from a letter Einstein wrote in English, dated 24 March 1954. It is included in "Albert Einstein: The Human Side," edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press.

Peter Slevin: That's quite something to have at your fingertips. Glad you passed it along.

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Annandale, Va.: On Friday your paper had a sad article regarding massive budget cuts at NASA, with the focus of the cutting directed at basic research. Do you think that there's a direct correlation between lack of support for Evolution in some circles and the lack of support for NASA, seeing as much of the research done provides continuing evidence for evolution? Maybe if we had a greater push for teaching kids the scientific method, there'd be more respect for real science and fewer folks fooled by the pseudo science pushed by this current administration.

washingtonpost.com: NASA Plans Cuts By Summer '06 (Post, March 11)

Peter Slevin: No, that's a stretch. But on your second point, studies for years have shown that American kids could benefit from more rigorous science instruction.

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Ames, Iowa: I just don't get it. Science is all about coming up with an idea, testing the idea, and if the test doesn't meet expectations, then do some more tests and/or eventually modify the original idea.

If you start with the idea of an intelligent designer, and no matter WHAT you discover, that "fact" is immutable, then where is the science in that? Science changes, it evolves with new information. It's driven by data and investigation, not driven by the original idea. Intelligent design, by definition, will never change.

If people want to believe in a divine creator, good for them! But discussion about it does NOT belong in a science classroom - they are two ENTIRELY different beasts!

Peter Slevin: You've struck several chords that clearly echo with many readers.

In the ongoing debate over science standards, state science boards -- usually made up of scientists, teachers and educators of various stripes -- have pretty consistently said intelligent design, as well as what is sometimes called "creation science," has no place in a science classroom.

Readers suggest that religion classrooms should have plenty of space to discuss the role of a creator, so long as it's not characterized as proven science.

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Charles County, Md.: If a school board in Maryland does decide to change the way that evolution is currently taught (i.e. teach "intelligent design" or creationism as science), how much authority would the county commissioners, state legislators, state department of education, and the court system have in reversing that sort of action?

Peter Slevin: Education is largely a local initiative, which is one reason that politically well-organized anti-evolution groups are having some success.

But there is a larger influence at the state level, particularly connected with the federal No Child Left Behind law. States will be testing students on core knowledge, based on standards set by state boards.

To the extent that a state board can establish that doubts or "gaps" in evolutionary theory must be tested, it can be assumed that teachers will teach prepare their students to answer those questions.

That is the approach being taken now by the conservative Kansas Board of Education.

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Huh?: You say: "Few would dispute that religion and science should both be part of a core curriculum for students."

Um, actually MOST would dispute that religion has any place in the curriculum for public school students. That would seem to be the whole problem here, a small minority of super-religious wackos want to inflict their views on the decent folks just trying to get an education.

There are too many flavors of religion to include them in school, hence no school on the weekends so parents can take students to church or whatever.

Peter Slevin: Naturally. I simply mean that knowledge of an array of religious thinking is part of general teaching and classroom discussion, whether it emerges in literature, history, social studies or music. I'm not suggesting religion classes in public schools.

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Washington, D.C.: Both creationism and evolution are legitimate views of the origins and development of life and, in any case, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If you except this premise, why is there such hostility to acknowledging both theories in classrooms as an academic matter? Would we be having this conversation if a teacher of Religion Studies included a discussion of evolution and atheism as an alternative to religion in his syllabus? It seems to me that science and religion/creationism are not wholly incompatible subjects.

Peter Slevin: The key here, I think most scientists would agree, is what is taught as science. Creationism, countless readers have written today, is not proven and should not be served up as science to high school students.

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Washington, D.C.: It may be true about Einstein that he didn't subscribe to either organized religion or the existence of an omnipresent god.

I may not know as much about Einstein as the reader from Arlington.
Hey, I just thought it was a good quote. It seemed to support that in some debates such as creationism vs. evolution, scientific theory and theology can be two sides of the same coin.

Peter Slevin: More on Einstein.

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Bethesda, Md.: There's a basic error that one sees all the time in these debates -- Darwin's theories explain evolution, but evolution itself is simply a fact, written into the stones. If you oppose evolution, you should be arguing with geologists, not biologists.

Peter Slevin: Yes, the fossil record is key in defending evolution.

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Chicago, Ill.: Does it seem like scientists, teachers, etc., have somehow let the other side hijack the definition of "theory" and let them portray it as a guess or a hunch, when in science the word theory has a much more specific and definitive meaning, closer to "explanation" than "guess" ...? Seems like muddying the waters -- quibbling, even -- over definitions just benefits the anti-evolution types, so that's what they're doing?

Peter Slevin: We've all seen coverage of textbook stickers, such as the ones in Cobb County, Ga., that say evolution is a theory, not a fact. This is, indeed, one of the aspects of the anti-evolution movement that drives scientists mad.

"Theory," as used in the scientific world, has a far different meaning than in other usages.

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Silver Spring, Md.:
I definitely come down on the "evolution" side of this debate, but what's wrong with viewing this for what it is -- a series of local educational debates?

If certain jurisdictions want to teach creationism, or intelligent design, or any baloney they want, as silly as it may be, don't they have that right? Their kids will fall behind, and the sensible people in the area will leave, but it is still that community's decision.

We can't force people to be sensible. If you try to force people, you end up like the communist dictators in China, and pretty soon, you may not be forcing the right things anymore.

Peter Slevin: Hmmm. I think I'll let this one go.

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Fairfax, Va.: If I'm not mistaken, it's still called "The 'Theory' of Evolution," not "The Fact." Could not the same be said about Creationism and Intelligent Design? Why not present our young people with the best arguments FOR and the most obvious arguments AGAINST each of these "theories?" As far as "science" goes, I once heard it said that "to believe that the universe as we know it, and the complex intricacy represented in the cells of the human body came to be without some kind of intelligent design, is akin to believing that the Websters Unabridged Dictionary came to me through an explosion in the printing press!" Your thoughts?

Peter Slevin: On the science part of your comment, people who doubt evolution as an explanation often start with just that point. Hadn't heard that analogy, but it gives new meaning to the idea of verbal fireworks.

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Blacksburg, Va.: The "gaps" creationists cite in evolutionary theories are largely deliberate misrepresentations made by the creationists. I wish there'd be more talk about how evolution is an accepted fact, whereas the theories are in the details -- how individual mechanisms contribute. Talk of "gaps" is a way of driving in a wedge to open a crack into which they think they can offer their "intelligent design" as an alternative and nothing of legitimate science.

Peter Slevin: Judging by the mail today, there's a real interest in articles that go deeply into the science. Both National Geographic and Natural History magazine have done that, if I'm not mistaken. I'll pass this idea along to the editors here.

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Columbia, Md.: Just two questions for reasoning .........

Is it possible that something so intricate as the bodies of human and animals could just evolve (just like that?)

If so, could we also conclude that a product of your hobbies, skills, and talents could also just evolve just like that without no intervention, power, or passion?

What a disrespect this way of thinking is to our Grand Creator!!

Peter Slevin: This is one of the most familiar arguments advanced for some version of intelligent design.

Last month, I attended a public hearing in Derby, Kan., just south of Wichita. A man who challenged evolution went to the microphone, escorting his young son, who was dressed in a shirt and tie and was carrying a sign that said, "Exhibit A."

The man said his son was all the evidence he needed to believe in a creator.

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Washington, D.C.: Discounting evolution as a "mere theory" is misleading. Gravity is a theory. Light is a theory. The fact we don't know everything about either does not diminish their existence.

If all types of evolution and creation beliefs will be taught, how will schools (or teachers) determine what is an appropriate belief? Does it have to be a mainstream religion or will other religions and cults also be considered?

Isn't there already a classroom forum for discussion of various religious ideologies -- i.e., social studies?

Peter Slevin: Another word on the use of "theory," and other things.

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Rockville, Md.: In the 1980's "Creation Science" lost in the courts because it was clearly not science.

ID suffers from the same problem. It is not falsifiable. It makes no predictions that can be tested. It answers no scientific questions. Calling ID science amounts to putting "lipstick on a pig."

That said, having been raised a fundamentalist, I know that this faction of Christians will never, can never, stop trying.

How are the courts likely to rule on "Creation Science 2.0?"

Peter Slevin: Any court -- I assume without knowing all of the precedents -- would ask how much of the teaching is science and how much is, in effect, religion.

Critics of intelligent design argue, as they I quote them in today's story, that ID is really just religion masquerading as science. It would be up to the supporters, I imagine, to prove otherwise.

There are few current efforts, however, to teach creationism or ID. A narrower question is what a court would do if the question were how evolution itself is taught. I believe ID advocates are hoping they can make progress on that front without inviting a court challenge.

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Lexington, Kentucky: Is the backing for equal time for "intelligent design" regional, or general throughout the states?

Peter Slevin: As I tried to show today, it exists in many and scattered places, with efforts by its proponents at the local, state and national level.

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Washington Grove, Md.: How do you account for the traction these activists have been able to gain over the last few years? Evolution is a fact in biology like gravity is a fact in physics. That we don't understand the mechanism of evolution does not make it any less factual. Should we not teach about gravity because it is not fully understood?

Peter Slevin: There's that theory thing again. As for the traction, that's a very good question, one worth a long essay.

If you asked Rev. Terry Fox, I think he would say it is because large numbers of people doubt, as an act of faith and belief, the explanatory power of evolution.

If you asked the Discovery Institute's Steve Meyer, I think he would say that evolutionary theory leaves too many riddles unsolved, and that science is poking holes in it.

There is a strong political component, as I suggested in the story, but there is much more to be said.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: One problem with this discussion is that both sides misuse the relevant terms. Strictly speaking, evolution IS a theory. A highly successful scientific theory that explains all the available facts in the simplest possible manner. So, by the way, is the assertion that I'm now typing on a computer, or that I'm now trying to reach Peter Slevin. All three claims are the simplest ways to explain various facts we have, and therefore qualify as the best possible working hypothesis at the moment. Any arbitrary leap past the simplest possible theory, in order to reach something more in accord, say, with Genesis, is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
My point is that, properly considered, evolution is BOTH a "theory" AND "as certain as anything can be in this world."

Peter Slevin: I can not only vouch for the assertion that you tried to reach Peter Slevin, but that you did so. Here's the proof.

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Peter Slevin: Well, I'm going to have to sign off now, with scores of messages still in the queue. Thank for joining, and for all the comments and questions. I'm sure this isn't the last time the Post will be writing about this. Stay tuned.

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