Science syllabus evolves into row

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Former US president leads protest against Bible belt's attempt to censor evolution, reports Stephen Phillips

A firestorm of bitter protest, led by former US president Jimmy Carter, engulfed America's Bible belt last week after Georgia's education chief censored references to evolution in the state's school science curriculum.

Schools superintendent Kathy Cox branded evolution "a buzzword that causes a lot of negative reaction".

"By putting the word in there, we thought people would jump to conclusions and think, 'OK, we're going to be teaching the monkeys-to-man sort of thing'," said Ms Cox.

However, the proposed changes to the state's science instruction guidelines, framed by a panel of 25 educators and scheduled for adoption within three months, pending public review, drew charges that religious extremism was being allowed to distort sound teaching.

A chorus of teachers and acadmics criticised them as pandering to Christian fundamentalists, offended by evolutionary theory, who hold that life was created by God within the last 10,000 years and the Bible is the literal transcription of human origins.

Georgia's most famous son, Jimmy Carter, also weighed in, professing he was embarrassed.

"There is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth to defend our religious faith," said Mr Carter, an avowed Christian.

Officials also struck out references to the Earth's age, and topics such as the prehistoric emergence of primitive life forms and fossils, recommended in US teaching standards, in the revisions.

"They were simply excised with scissors," said Wes McCoy, Georgia's 2003 outstanding biology teacher of the year and a veteran teacher of 26 years from North Cobb high school, near Atlanta.

Mr McCoy lambasted euphemisms such as "changes over time", recommended to supplant the term evolution, as "nonsense".

Staff remain free to use the e-word in lessons, Ms Cox stressed. But this is beside the point, said Eugenie Scott of the National Centre for Science Education.

Omitting any mention of it from standards that form the basis for new high-stakes tests will deter its teaching, while "by making evolution controversial, many teachers will feel intimidated by public pressure and skip it", she said.

Despite being the world's most technologically-advanced nation, America has a tricky task squaring an explanation, beyond dispute in serious scientific circles, with devout beliefs held by millions.

Teaching creationism is outlawed in schools, but this hasn't prevented proponents from de-emphasising teaching of evolution and stealthily promoting alternative, quasi-religious explanations of biological development.

Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma have also airbrushed references to evolution from their syllabuses, while Missouri lawmakers recently proposed legislation that would require staff teaching evolution to also cover intelligent design theory. This argues that the intricacy of organisms can only be explained as the product of a purposeful creator, but commands scant currency among scientists who regard it as creationism in disguise.

The science community cannot look to the White House for support. "On the issue of evolution the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth," President Bush has said.

A clause encouraging teaching evolution in a draft of the administration's sweeping 2002 school reform law was relegated from the final version into an adjunct report.

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