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Utah's non-war over evolution

It's taught — but probably not believed

Anxious e-mails have been filling Karlene Bauer's inbox this school year — messages about Cobb County, Ga., and Dover, Pa., and all the other places where people are up in arms over the teaching of evolution.

Bauer, who teaches at Jordan High School and is on a listserv of AP biology teachers across the country, says she's happy to be in Utah, where Darwin's 146-year-old theory is currently making neither waves nor headlines.

One might suppose, given that Utahns tend to be both conservative and religious, that evolution would be a contentious topic in Utah's schools; but yet another legislative session has passed with no mention of Charles Darwin. And Brett Moulding can count on his fingers the number of anti-evolution phone calls he's gotten in the past 10 years, first as science education specialist and then as curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education.

As Murray high biology teacher Steve Scheidell says, "It's not a thing to panic about here."

That may be because not all biology teachers in Utah tackle the touchiest part of evolutionary theory: how humans came to be. And Utah students often don't believe what they've been taught anyway, because they've learned something different from teachers in LDS Church seminary classes.

As a whole, Utahns tend to be conflicted about the intersection of evolution and public education. A Dan Jones Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll conducted last week found that 64 percent of Utahns think evolution should be taught in biology classes — and 70 percent think creationism, "Intelligent Design" and other belief systems should be taught there too.

It is this desire for equal class time for Darwin and "alternative theories" that has set off the latest battles in America's 80-year-old evolution wars, whose most famous early skirmish was the 1925 trial and conviction (later overturned) of Tennessee teacher John Scopes, who tried to teach evolutionary theory. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring equal treatment of evolution and "creation science" was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, but that has hardly been the end of the friction.

The National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution organization based in California, reports that eight state legislatures have considered evolution bills this year; and there have been "33 incidents of significant anti-evolution activity in local communities in 15 states." In many of these cases, anti-evolutionists are pulling out the "academic freedom" card, arguing that their First Amendment rights are being trampled if alternative theories aren't discussed in the classroom.

In Dover, Pa., the school board voted in January that biology students must learn about alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution, a decision that is now being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This winter a federal judge ruled that the school board in Cobb County, Ga., must remove stickers — "evolution is a theory, not a fact" — that the board had previously ordered placed on all high school biology textbooks. The school board is now appealing that order. Kansas, whose state school board had ordered evolution removed from the curriculum in 1999 then reinstated it in 2001, is now revisiting the issue, with an anti-evolution majority now on the school board. In state legislatures like Montana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, bills were introduced this year that would mandate that teachers include "alternative theories" to evolution, or would allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Some of the bills failed to get out of committee, some are still in play.

Darwin's theory was first articulated in "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life." There is scientific evidence, wrote Darwin, that the variety and complexity of life on Earth are the result of two processes acting in concert — random mutation and natural selection. Although most random mutations are harmful to an organisms's chances of survival and reproduction, there is occasionally a random mutation that is helpful; natural selection is the process of harmful mutations dying out and helpful mutations being passed on to future generations, eventually producing new species. Humans, too, according to Darwin, evolved in this way, and can thus trace their ancestry all the way back to primitive life forms.

Utah's "science standards" require that public school biology students "understand that biological diversity is a result of evolutionary processes." Students, for example, must be able to "cite evidence that supports biological evolution over time (e.g., geologic and fossil records, chemical mechanisms, DNA structural similarities, homologous and vestigial structures)" and "identify the role of mutation and recombination in evolution."

The standards do not mention human evolution in particular, an omission that earned Utah a B rating in a 2000 survey of state science standards conducted for the Fordham Foundation.

Utah biology teachers don't have to talk about human origins, but they can if they want to — and many do. But some teachers, says Jordan High biology teacher Bauer, "avoid the leap that we have a common ancestor." Bauer herself shies away from the topic, because human evolution "is when people really bristle. That's when kids immediately forget everything else they've learned."

Professor Duane Jeffery, a professor of biology at Brigham Young University, estimates that "probably 90 percent of people who are LDS think the church is against evolution. But they don't get upset about it being taught in public schools." The reason, he says, is the church seminary system, which provides junior high and high school students with a class period of religious instruction during school hours.

"Most parents feel their religion is being take care of in seminary," Jeffery says.

Conservative gadfly Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, sees it this way: "Utah's children, for the most part are taught by their parents that evolution is not correct science. The parents feel more control because they know they're teaching their children the truth at home."

That truth, she says, is that "you are a child of God," a phrase that Mormons learn from the time they can talk, she says. "It's a year or two of learning about evolution vs. a lifetime of hearing that you are a child of God. Evolution just doesn't win out."

According to Randy Hall, assistant superintendent of the LDS Church Educational System, seminary teachers are told to refer to church statements included in what is known as the "BYU packet," a collection of four official statements on evolution made between 1909 and 1992. The statements are somewhat vague but do include sentences such as "Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes," and "Adam is the primal parent of our race." The packet does not include more clearly anti-evolution — and oft-quoted — unofficial statements such as those made by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1988.

"We ask our teachers not to go beyond those (official) statements," Hall says, "because then it gets into private interpretation, and that could as easily be misunderstood as understood."

Seminary teachers, on the other hand, may be interpreting the statements more narrowly. As one seminary teacher told the Deseret Morning News, "the position we're told to take is the one the church takes: that man does not come from lower forms of life."

That's the message Woods Cross High School sophomore Isaac Wood has taken away from his seminary class this year. Wood also takes 10th-grade biology, where he has learned about evolution. "That's just what Darwin thought," he has concluded, "and that's great. but it's not what I believe. I'll study it if I have to to get a good grade." But human evolution, he says, is "bogus."

BYU's Jeffery thinks Mormons misunderstand his church's take on evolution. In the foreword to "Evolution and Mormonism," he writes, "Many people believe that if we are the spirit children of God, then our physical bodies must be unique. They believe that if our bodies are in any way related to those of other animals, such a relationship is in some way degrading. We see a striking parallel between this belief and the medieval concept that if humans are the center of God's creation then Earth must be the center of the universe."

He also points to a 1910 statement from the church First Presidency in which divinely directed evolution was included as an apparently acceptable possibility for the origin of life.

Evolution, as described by Darwin, does not require a God or some other "designer." But it doesn't rule out God or another creator, either. Darwin himself, in "Origin of Species," wrote: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one. . . ." Darwin, who identified himself as an agnostic, added the phrase "by the Creator" in the second edition.

There are many pro-evolutionists, including many evolutionary biologists, who also believe that God had a hand in the process, Jeffery says. In 1996, Pope John Paul II delivered a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences saying that "fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis."

Utahns are almost evenly divided on the question of whether Darwin's theory is compatible with a belief in God: 44 percent of respondents in the Dan Jones Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll believe the two are compatible, 47 percent don't.

While discussions of God's possible role — either setting in motion the process of evolution, or creating humans from scratch — should take place, they don't belong in science class, says USOE curriculum director Moulding. "Religion is a very different way of knowing. It relies on faith." The science of evolution, on the other hand, "is a mechanism that explains the observed, empirical evidence," he says.

Creationists, who believe that the Bible, read literally, is an accurate description of how life began, have tried for years to include God in science class. The current attacks on the teaching of evolution add a new twist, an idea called "Intelligent Design."

Intelligent Design's most vocal and organized defenders are concentrated at Seattle's nonprofit Discovery Institute, which takes pains to separate the movement from not only Creationism but religion as a whole. When the Deseret Morning News first contacted the Institute, spokesperson Rob Crowther worried about an Intelligent Design story appearing in the newspaper's religion section.

"We approach it as strictly a scientific topic," he said.

The crux of the ID argument is twofold: that the scientific evidence supporting Darwinian evolution contains flaws and is still open to debate, and that nature is full of evidence showing that there was and is a "designer" at work.

"We don't seek to answer who the designer is," says Crowther. "Just that there is empirical evidence of design in nature."

The designer might be an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, for example, or it could be God, explains Guillermo Gonzalez, an Intelligent Design proponent who is assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University. Intelligent Design doesn't start with the assumptions that Creationism does, he says. "But the implications could be religious."

One evidence of a designer, say Intelligent Design scientists such as Lehigh University professor of biological sciences Michael J. Behe, is the concept of "irreducible complexity." Natural selection, he writes, "can only choose among systems that are already working, so the existence in nature of irreducibly complex biological systems poses a powerful challenge to Darwinian theory."

Examples, he says, are the human eye and the flagella of bacteria — both, he says, are systems made up of parts that couldn't exist on their own and therefore did not evolve. Not true, say evolutionary scientists, who argue that the precursor parts of the flagellum and eye could have been favored by natural selection.

"If Behe wishes to suggest that the intricacies of nature, life and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with a divine intelligence," writes Brown University biology professor Kenneth R. Miller in Natural History Magazine, "his point is philosophical, not scientific. It is a philosophical point of view, incidentally, that I share." But the hypothesis of Intelligent Design, he says, "is overwhelmingly contradicted by the scientific evidence."

There is no scientific controversy over evolution, argue these scientists. And to detractors who argue that "evolution is just a theory," they point out that in science "theory" does not mean hunch. "A theory in science," says BYU biology assistant professor Marta Adair, "is not like your theory about why BYU has a lousy basketball team. A theory in science means something nobody has been able to disprove."

Evolutionary biologists argue that DNA research, particularly in the past two decades — including sequencing work that shows how much DNA is shared by animals and plants — is evidence that all life shares a common ancestry. Human DNA and chimpanzee DNA are at least 98.6 percent identical, notes Utah Valley State College biology professor Richard Tolman.

"Gene technology is the best evidence we have of human evolution," adds East High biology teacher Laurence Burton. But not all his students can square this information with what they've learned in seminary. "I think they say 'Yeah, I can see that.' But beliefs are so powerful."

Utah biology teachers are quick to point out that they aren't trying to "convert" students to Darwin. "They're saying it's the best explanation that science has to offer," says Larry Madden, science coordinator for the Salt Lake City school district and president of the Utah Science Teachers Association.

But to Utah Eagle Forum's Ruzicka, that still sounds like "brainwashing." Parents have become too complacent about the teaching of evolution in Utah schools, she says. "We need to make sure the children of Utah hear both sides" in biology class.

The Eagle Forum has been preoccupied with other issues but now plans to tackle evolution, she says. Which may mean that Karlene Bauer's e-mail inbox may soon be full of messages about Utah.