Local educators tread carefully around issue
The politically volatile issue of explaining man’s origin has returned to the national spotlight, and some local biology teachers and other educators say they are treading carefully around the topic as students return to the classroom.
Although teachers in Santa Barbara are required to stick to teaching the theory of evolution, no state law can tell them how to address the topic when students raise objections to it.
The issue resurfaced last spring, when the conservative-leaning Kansas Board of Education changed that state’s public school science standards to allow instructors to teach “the scientific criticisms” of Charles Darwin’s theory, which holds that all living organisms — humans, apes, fish, plankton — share a common ancestor.
The most prevalent recent countertheory, often supported by leaders of the religious right, is known as “intelligent design.”
This hypothesis contends that because some body parts and organisms are so “irreducibly complex,” they must have been designed by a superior intelligence. Unlike creationists, who believe God made man in his image, intelligent design advocates don’t specify God as this superior intelligence, but most in the science community say the linkage is clear.
Two weeks ago, President Bush ratcheted up the debate by saying, in response to reporters’ inquiries, that students should “be exposed to different ideas” about the creation of man.
While left-leaning Santa Barbara is arguably as far from Kansas politically as it is geographically, many local educators still are loath to discuss evolution publicly.
One top-level district administrator, for instance, did not return repeated phone calls over a two-week period for comment. One principal refused a News-Press request to borrow a biology textbook to obtain excerpts, though another obliged.
Santa Barbara schools superintendent Brian Sarvis said he understands their squeamishness.
“They don’t want to get mired in the controversy,” he said.
The educators’ reticence is testament to how, even here, the topic of evolution can be a charged one.
Local educators do their best to avoid broaching the debate, but they have their own methods of handling students who challenge them on the topic.
Dos Pueblos High School biology teacher Bob Evans starts the evolution unit by asking students to write down what they already know.
“There’s always a large portion of people who say, ‘I don’t believe that happened,'” he said. “I’d say 20 percent.”
Mr. Evans tries to make clear that he is asking those students to learn the theory, not necessarily to believe it.
Still, he said, “This is what the science is, and I’m not particularly apologetic about it.”
Ken Uchio, a biology teacher at San Marcos High School, begins the lesson with a verbal preface.
“I just tell the kids, ‘Look, I’m not here to shoot down any religious beliefs,'” he said. “For many of them, it’s a very important part of their lives. … I tell them that this is a science class and (evolution) is the best scientific evidence we have at this point.”
Rob Lindsay, a biology teacher and the science chairman at Carpinteria High, also tries to avoid the debate. But when it happens, he plays devil’s advocate, “no matter what position is being defended.”
“I’m trying to help them learn to think for themselves,” he said. “I’m less concerned with the conclusion they come to than the internal process that led to those conclusions.”
Mr. Lindsay hasn’t always tried to steer clear of the debate. About 15 years ago, he accepted a church’s request to come into the classroom to give a presentation on its brand of creationism. Oddly, the presentation drew fire from another local church, which has a more literal interpretation of the Bible.
Since then, Mr. Lindsay has learned to sidestep the point-counterpoint, which he said is perhaps better suited for the English department. Mr. Lindsay also has altered the way he responds to being challenged.
“I was more inclined to debate with them than I am now,” he said. “I’m better at helping them understand what the state wants them to do within a public school classroom.”
TWO CENTURIES OF CONTENTION
Though evolution was a concept codified by the ancient Greeks, in the 19th century, British naturalist Charles Darwin devised a theory of how it worked. The theory, called natural selection, holds that organisms that have physical traits that better suit their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce than those that do not have such traits. Over time, a species will change — or evolve — through natural selection into either a new species or one with more complex attributes.
In 1859, the public release of Darwin’s theory in the book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” stirred an international furor.
In 1925, Tennessee teacher John Scopes drew intense hometown fire — and considerable national attention — when he was sued by the state after imparting Darwin’s theory to his students in defiance of a state law that called for teaching creationism only. Though Mr. Scopes initially was found guilty in what became famously known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the state Supreme Court overturned the decision on a technicality.
It was a high-water mark for creationism in the schools, and the controversy mostly stayed below the surface of national debate until 1999, when the Kansas Board of Education started what would become a series of flip-flops on the matter by voting to remove Darwin’s theory from public school science standards. In 2001, a less conservative board reinstated the curriculum. Since then, the board has swung back to the right and the curriculum has taken its current form.
Locally, Dos Pueblos High School teacher John Torkington says the number of kids who disagree with evolution seems to be on the rise. But their distaste usually manifests itself silently — in their faces.
“They roll their eyes,” he said. “They do sometimes ask me what my religious point of view is. I just cut that conversation off right there.”
Others say their biggest confrontations happened long before the latest tempest in Kansas.
More than five years ago, Dos Pueblos’ Mr. Evans taught at Lompoc High, which had a “very large Christian club.”
When the club met at lunchtime, he said, the adviser would coach the kids on how to challenge their biology teachers when the subject came up.
“They raised their hands and would say, ‘Did you hear that so-and-so professor of chemistry from this prestigious school said this about evolution?'” he recalled. “A lot of their approach was to try and nitpick pieces of evolution.”
For their part, many students who believe in creationism keep a low profile.
Carpinteria High student April Wood said that although she doesn’t necessarily believe what’s being taught, she tries to pass the tests and keep her grades up.
“I’d rather be a good witness (for my faith) by example,” she said. “People don’t care what I have to say. High schoolers already have their mind made up.”
Chris Targoni, a 2005 graduate of Carpinteria High, said he appreciates the separation of church and state that most teachers practice.
“I’m not sure if I’d want a public educator teaching me about my faith,” he said, lamenting that one of his science teachers called creationism “junk science.”
“I’m not sure if they would be unbiased.”
At Bishop Diego High School — a Catholic school — biology teacher Randall Hahn said he’s never experienced a classroom debate during his seven years on the job.
Bishop’s science department has a written policy directing teachers to stick to evolution.
It reads: “It is possible that God created the world while also accepting that the planets, mountains, plants and animals came about after the initial creation, by natural processes.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Hahn said he hadn’t even heard the term intelligent design until very recently. But he’s well aware that the theory of evolution has been controversial.
“Some theologians say you shouldn’t restrict God’s power: If he’s all powerful, couldn’t he use evolution?” he said.
Although California’s content standards require that students learn evolution, the text itself seems to skirt the controversy. For example, nowhere does the name Darwin appear. Instead, the required knowledge includes bullet points that are highly technical. The least technical includes: “Students know how natural selection determines the differential survival of groups of organisms.”
Conversely, in Kansas, the newly adopted standards — which go into effect for the first time this coming school year — use language that is more inflammatory.
The Kansas guidelines, for example, say students should be exposed to some “of the scientific criticisms” of Darwin’s theory, such as “the sudden rather than gradual emergence of organisms near the time that the Earth first became habitable.”
Also, “The view that living things in all the major kingdoms are modified descendants of a common ancestor has been challenged in recent years by (how) … genetic changes occur only in individual organisms.”
In California, biology teachers do not teach that man evolved from monkeys. In fact, in Mr. Evans’ class, students learn about a 19th-century scandal in which scientists, in an effort to shore up support for Darwin’s theory, slapped together a skull by fusing the bones of a human and an ape.
“The point is, we both have a common ancestor,” he said. “Our common ancestor is a single cell. It’s a fish.”
He added, “You don’t have this classic picture of a four-knuckled walker turning into a sentient human. We don’t have a succession of fossils that lead in minor steps directly to the next.”
Meanwhile, at Santa Barbara High, biology teacher Claire Carey said the way an instructor responds to students who question the material is itself a teachable moment.
When that happens, “I listen and the class listens,” she said. “I would probably thank them for their input. … We respect that everyone has their own beliefs and opinions. But I’m also going to lay out the theory of evolution.”