Lawmakers put theory of evolution under test

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Fundamentalist Christians are trying to undermine the teaching of Darwinian ideas. Jon Marcus reports

Seventy-two years after the famous Scopes "monkey trial" opened the way for evolution to be taught in US schools, resistance has returned.

Under pressure from fundamentalist Christians, the legislature in the south-western state of New Mexico has blocked a bid to mandate the teaching of evolution in public school science classes.

"I don't even know why this was controversial. It shouldn't be," said state Senator Pauline Eisenstadt, the sponsor of the unsuccessful bill. "It's not a question of belief. No one's saying they have to believe one way or another. We're talking science."

New Mexico is not alone. Lawmakers in the states of North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia and Mississippi are also debating evolution.

Tennessee's legislature last year considered a measure calling for the firing of any teacher who described evolution as fact. The proposal narrowly failed to pass.

North Carolina lawmakers are mulling over a bill requiring that evolution be taught as a theory rather than as accepted truth because it is "a belief and not true science".

A proposal introduced in West Virginia's state legislature would allow the Biblical account of creation to get equal classroom time.

In February, representatives of a conservative organisation in Virginia demanded that school officials there disclaim a biology textbook's description of creationism as "pseudoscience".

And in Kentucky, school officials, at the request of parents, glued together pages of a science book to keep students from reading about the "Big Bang" theory of the earth's origin.

The US Supreme Court in 1987 barred states from requiring public schools to teach creationism, calling it an unconstitutional mixing of church and state. That case stemmed from a Louisiana law requiring that creationism be taught whenever evolutionism was discussed.

But the controversy over teaching evolution dates to 1925, when novice Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was convicted in a dramatic trial of defying that state's ban on teaching evolution. Scopes' conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution holds that humans developed from lower organisms over billions of years. It conflicts with the traditional Biblical teaching that all forms of life were created spontaneously by God.

"This is a battle that's been going on for 70 years, and will probably continue as long as there is science," said Timothy Moy, a professor of the history of science at the University of New Mexico, who favours teaching evolution.

"During the Seventies and Eighties, creationists tried to use the law basically to prevent evolution from being taught or to require that creationism be taught alongside it," Mr Moy said.

"All of those laws were struck down as being unconstitutional.

"Now creationist organisations and fundamentalist Christians have gotten control of local school boards and state school boards. Once they win those seats, they try to water down the teaching of evolution."

Senator Eisenstadt's Bill would have required New Mexico schools, like those in other states, to teach evolution. It was blocked after heavy lobbying by the Christian Coalition.

"I thought I was back in the Scopes trial," the veteran legislator said. "I couldn't believe it. We found ourselves in a situation where people were concerned the Christian Coalition was going to make it harder for them to get re-elected."

On Senator Eisenstadt's side of the issue were Nobel Prize winners, teachers and the university faculty.

New Mexico is home to a burgeoning high-tech sector, including several manufacturing plants operated by microprocessor chipmaker Intel, and to the government's Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, where the first atomic bombs were produced.

"This state really exists because of high technology, especially physics and engineering, since World War II," Mr Moy said. "New Mexico now has this stigma as the state that voted down the teaching of evolution."

Teaching evolution in New Mexico is still not prohibited, but Steven Brugge, a sixth-grade science teacher in Albuquerque, said the legislator's action would discourage it.

"A lot of science teachers for a long time have avoided the subject," Mr Brugge said. "And those that don't want to do battle with parents now will skip that chapter in the book."

* Already burdened by the cost of building enough classrooms to contain a record flood of students, America's public schools arestruggling to pay for textbooks.

Rising enrolments have forced some cash-strapped school districts to double their textbook budgets. Annual spending by New York State alone on textbooks has increased from $114 million (Pounds 88m) to $220m in the last year.

At least seven of the 50 states have started charging rental fees for textbooks, and some families in Indiana are being sued by their school districts for failing to pay.

Other schools are hobbling along using outdated or dilapidated textbooks. In Louisiana, a lawsuit contends that poor school districts are going without textbooks altogether, or are using history books that end with the presidential term of Richard Nixon.

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