Classroom Evolution's Grass-Roots Defender

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A grass-roots group troubled by recent Republican triumphs and the influence of the Christian right is fighting back in Northern Virginia by defending the teaching of Darwinian evolution, a battleground in the national culture war.

An e-mail last month seeking support from more than 300 local Democratic campaign volunteers and other potential supporters described efforts across the country to challenge evolutionary theory. It warned against "politically infused theological pseudo-science" and said silence risks undermining Virginia schools and weakening the state's economy.

The e-mail was the first shot from an unlikely group led mostly by Vietnam-era protesters who describe their aim as beating Republicans who oppose teaching evolution at their own organizational game. Based in Northern Virginia, the group says its immediate goal is a Fairfax County School Board endorsement of modern Darwinian theory, which faces attacks in many states by Christian groups and education activists.

The group's bigger dream is a statewide repudiation of intelligent design, a movement positing that life is too complex to spring from chemistry and biology alone. Followers, often asserting that a creator must have guided the origins of earth and man, believe public schools would better serve students by teaching unresolved aspects of evolutionary theory.

From Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Georgia to Texas, critics of modern Darwinism have battled to change textbooks and classroom approaches. Politicians, scientists and faith leaders on both sides have joined in the struggle. At hearings in May, the Kansas Board of Education, which has a conservative majority, supported teaching alternatives to evolution, a theory accepted by the vast majority of the scientific establishment.

Evolution's newest defenders, who came together in frustration after the November elections, have little political experience, apart from hoisting Kerry-Edwards signs in morning traffic. They mostly are middle-class people with day jobs. Some had protested the Vietnam War but had rarely felt inspired to undertake political activism since. Together, they call themselves the Message Group and depict themselves as "determined and balanced" voters worried about social conservatives.

"I fear for my country. That sounds like a radical notion, something from the '60s, but there is a pervasive fear, a scariness," said Richard Lawrence, 63, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee who voted for Nixon. "We're just a small group, maybe with a powerful idea. We don't have a clue, but we're not letting go."

Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), chairman of the Fairfax School Board, opposes the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, but he questions the need for activism.

"There's no indication this is something we have to clarify for our community or those who teach science in our schools," said Niedzielski-Eichner, who has a degree in biology. It might make sense "if it ever came to light that some of our science teachers were hedging their bets because of concern they wouldn't have the support of the community."

The Message Group was created out of its members' disappointment. After President Bush was reelected and Republicans strengthened their hold on Capitol Hill, the group's future comrades were among millions of demoralized Kerry voters who had invested fresh emotional energy and elbow grease in politics, only to fall short.

The members do not hide the fact that they are starting from scratch. Seven months ago, a dozen members were learning one another's names. Five months ago, they were choosing a mission. Now, though their aim of defeating intelligent design is explicit, their strategy is, well, evolving.

They selected evolution after deciding that other issues, such as Social Security revisions, were well-covered by bigger, richer groups. The emerging duel over the teaching of science, they reasoned, was important, local and manageable, an area in which they could make a small impact -- and if they got lucky, a big one.

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