Vice President Gore, known for his love of science education, refused yesterday to take a clear stand on whether public schools should be required to teach evolution and not creationism.
Gore and the other candidates running for president have been faced with questions about their position on the teaching of evolution after the Aug. 11 decision by the Kansas Board of Education to wipe out evolution from the statewide science curriculum. The vote is the most decisive victory in recent years for creationists, fundamentalist Christians who believe that God created human beings and animals fully formed, as described in Genesis.
When first asked about the Kansas vote, a Gore spokesman seemed to allow for the possibility of teaching creationist science, an option the Supreme Court has ruled out.
"The vice president favors the teaching of evolution in public schools," Alejandro Cabrera said yesterday in response to a question from a Reuters reporter. "Obviously, that decision should and will be made at the local level, and localities should be free to teach creationism as well."
The Supreme Court has ruled that schools are not free to teach creationism. In 1987, the court ruled in Edwards v. Aguilar that a Louisiana statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution unless creationist science was taught as well improperly endorses religion.
After checking the 1987 decision, Cabrera adjusted his statement by saying that Gore supports the teaching of creationism only in certain contexts, such as in a religion class--an option that has not been ruled unconstitutional. The vice president, however, declined to criticize the Kansas school board vote, repeating that the decision to teach evolution should be up to local schools.
Prominent scientists felt betrayed by their ally, and detected waffling in Gore's finely tuned answers.
"What he's trying to do is carry water on both shoulders," said Daniel Koshland, former editor of the journal Science and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "It reflects badly on him that he would say something incorrect in order to appease all parts of the population."
According to Gallup polls, about 44 percent of Americans believe in a strict biblical creationist view. About 40 percent believe in "theistic evolution," the idea that God guided the millions of years of evolution that culminated with humans. Only one in 10 of those surveyed expressed a strict, secular evolutionist view.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, has more directly endorsed the teaching of creationism, using language familiar to the rejuvenated religious movement. "I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started," Bush said at a campaign appearance last week in New Orleans.
"He [Bush] believes both creationism and evolution ought to be taught," his spokeswoman Mindy Tucker elaborated to Reuters. "He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught."
Elizabeth Dole and John McCain, two other Republican candidates, deflected the question by saying the decision should be left to local school boards, without specifying their preference.
Steve Forbes, who is aggressively courting the religious right, called textbook illustrations of evolution "a massive fraud" but stopped short of fully endorsing creationism. "A lot of what we thought was true, it turns out, science is finding is not true," he said, repeating a common stance of creationists.
Gary Bauer, the GOP candidate most open about his religious views, was more straightforward about his position at a breakfast with reporters yesterday. While saying local school boards, not presidents, should make the decision, Bauer criticized the "elite" reaction to the Kansas school board vote and noted that he does not teach his children that they are "descendant from apes."
"Evolution . . . is taught with the idea that life arose spontaneously and that there is no divine intelligence involved," Bauer added. "I just reject the basic tenet of that theory . . . and so do most Americans."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.