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Fresh Challenges in the Old Debate Over Evolution

"The parents and school board members I have spoken to who oppose the teaching of evolution seem to have little understanding of what evolution means," he said. "I believe it is my duty as a native of this town, and as a product of the schools in which I now teach, to discuss with them what we mean by evolution and why it is so vital to teach."

Haynes, of the Freedom Forum, sees those numbers and says it might be time for the scientific community to take a new approach to the challenges to evolution.

"The truth is that the majority of Americans would be happy to see an alternative [to evolution] come into the curriculum," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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"The truth is that the majority of Americans would be happy to see an alternative [to evolution] come into the curriculum," he said. "And the scientific community knows this. They haven't won the popular battle."

The strongest challenge to evolution, he said, may be from advocates of "intelligent design," a hypothesis that suggests an "intelligent cause" for some features of the natural world, rather than an undirected cause, such as natural selection.

Advocates of this approach -- including John G. West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle -- don't say what that cause is. Scientists believe it is a circuitous way of injecting God into the debate and is a form of creation science, which holds that God is responsible for life's development and diversity.

"Intelligent design is the contender that has the most chance of making inroads in the curriculum," Haynes said. "At the very least, intelligent design advocates are reframing the debate and are pushing public education to say we should be teaching alternatives."

That's what Margaret Young wants to do in Charles County. Young, vice chairman of the Charles school board, said she wants the panel to debate adding intelligent design to the curriculum. "Science is not stagnant," she said. "What we do need to do is open the debate."

Jackson agrees with Haynes that simply ignoring the controversy in class doesn't help anyone.

"It is legally and educationally inappropriate to present religious ideas as though they are scientific ideas," he said. "But I would not argue that you should pretend religion doesn't exist."

So, for the past 10 years, he has taught his students about evolution and the Supreme Court decisions that have said it is unconstitutional to teach creationism as a science. Then he asks them all to tell him -- anonymously in an essay -- what they think. Most, even those who are "young earth creationists" and believe that God created the Earth 6,000 years ago, have given what he calls thoughtful answers about how they would present the material in class. Only a few have refused, saying "it would be morally wrong to write anything that was in any way sympathetic to any other point of view," he said.

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