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02-12-2008, 08:25 AM
On Darwin's Birthday, Dover Still Isn't Over
By Brandon Keim 02.12.08 | 12:00 AM

Charles Darwin was born 199 years ago Tuesday, but the debate he ignited about the origins of species rages on. Florida's department of education will vote next week on a new science curriculum that could be in jeopardy, because some conservative counties oppose it.

Nine of Florida's 64 counties have passed resolutions over the last two months condemning the new curriculum that explicitly calls for teaching evolution. The resolutions, passed in heavily Christian counties in the state's northern reaches, demand that evolution be "balanced" with alternative theories, mainly creationist.

"Students need an education that prepares them to live in a forward-thinking way, not backwards," said Barbara Forrest, philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and a prominent proponent of teaching evolution. "They're losing a 21st-century understanding of the world."

Watchdogs say the stakes are high in the pending vote. If Florida backpedals from evolution, Texas may follow suit. Texas is scheduled to update its own science standards this year. In November, an education official was fired for mentioning a pro-evolution lecture. Along with California, Florida and Texas are the largest purchasers of textbooks in the nation.

"Texas buys about 10 percent of all K-12 textbooks, and Florida buys another 8 percent," said Lawrence Lerner, a science-curriculum expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education watchdog. "If they want creationism in their textbooks, Wyoming may not have a choice."

Florida's current science standards, which tell teachers what their students must learn, don't mention evolution by name. In 2005, a prominent education think tank gave Florida a failing grade in science teaching, prompting education officials to overhaul the curriculum. The new standards, drafted last October, explicitly called evolution "the fundamental concept underlying all biology."

But nine counties -- Baker, Clay, Hamilton, Holmes, Jackson, Madison, St. Johns, Taylor and Washington -- have passed resolutions officially calling for the teaching of evolution to be balanced with alternative explanations of life's origins, almost certainly religious.

The resolutions have been patterned after the one from St. Johns County, which calls for "teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory rather than teaching evolution as dogmatic fact."

Critics say the resolutions' language is thinly veiled creationism -- either in the strictly biblical sense, or the more-modern take of "intelligent design," which purports to use scientific methodology to prove divine intervention.

"We're concerned that we not impose state standards that prevent an open dialogue concerning other theories," said David Buckles, superintendent of schools in Putnam County, which is also considering opposing the new curriculum. "Did life begin in ice? Or was it the Genesis version? Or intelligent design? We want the pros and cons of all of it."

Intelligent design has been legally classified as religion, and therefore unsuitable for school, during the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

Despite the court ruling, many worry that school board criticisms will sway the Florida Board of Education. Two board members, Donna Callaway and Linda Taylor, have openly spoken against evolution. Neither would comment for this article, and board chairman Willard Fair declined to discuss the pending decision.

"If it was just one or two counties, you could blow it off," said Brandon Haught, communications director of Florida Citizens for Science, an education activist group. "But two board members already came out against evolution, and the weight of this could build and influence someone on the fence."

"They lose the understanding of the most powerful biological theory ever constructed," said Forrest, a prominent critic of intelligent design and a witness in Kitzmiller.

Scientists are nearly unanimous in saying that evolution deserves an exclusive presence in science classrooms.

"There's a whole idea that there is a controversy, but in the scientific community there's no controversy," said Jay Labov, co-author of a recent National Academy of Sciences report on evolution. "The evidence is overwhelming. It's the highest level of evidence that's able to explain and predict numerous physical observations. It's been born out in biochemistry and paleontology. In addition to biology, the Earth and physical sciences support it."

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