In classrooms across the country, science teachers are increasingly finding themselves on the front lines of the decades-long evolution wars, pitting accepted scientific explanations against biblical-based challengers. So when some 15,000 science teachers convened for their annual conference recently, many attended workshops designed to help them deal with the issue.
Amid all the lab gear and panel discussions at last month's annual National Science Teachers Association conference, one of the largest draws was a book signing.
Brown University Professor Ken Miller was autographing copies of the biology textbook he wrote with co-author Joe Levine. Known as 'the dragonfly book' from its iridescent cover photo, it's a popular classroom text. It was also the book at the center of a recent landmark 'evolution versus intelligent design' trial in Dover, a small Pennsylvania town. Miller explains, "Our book was the one the Dover teachers chose and the board of education in Dover objected to because it had too much evolution in it."
In the end, a federal judge ruled that 'intelligent design' could not be taught in science classes. Intelligent design holds that natural processes alone cannot explain the organization of life forms and the universe itself, and thus must be the work of a higher force. Advocates leave open the question of whether that force is God.
The Dover decision was a clear victory for Darwinism, but despite that legal precedent, Miller says the challenges to teaching evolution are ongoing. "I think this is an issue everywhere in the country."
And that's one reason science teachers from everywhere in the country were seeking answers to how to deal with the increasingly controversial issue. Patrick Grady admits, "That's usually the number one question students ask: ''What are you going to cover in evolution?'"
Grady is a biology teacher in Orange County California, where there's a large conservative Christian population. Many of those parents start off teaching their children at home, then switch to public high schools, where the kids are exposed to new ideas that challenge what they learned at home and in church. "As soon as you bring up the topic of evolution," Grady says, "they want to put a barrier or wall and they don't want to listen."
Dozens of teachers wanted to listen to Ken Miller. It was standing room only at his workshop, Darwin Denied: Teaching Evolution in a Climate of Controversy. Miller started with a brief history lesson and then set the stage for what they were up against today. Teachers took out their notebooks as he flashed popular anti-evolution websites on a large screen.
"This is from the 'Answers in Genesis' website," he told them. "It's probably the best compendium of anti-evolution information and propaganda that you will find." Miller also gave the teachers advice in how to respond to their students' questions, especially those that challenge the very basics of evolution -- from human origins to missing-link fossils.
Julie Bookman, a high school biology teacher for 15 years, found that information to be especially useful. "I do have students that ask those tough questions. They don't object to being taught natural selection and evolution, but they do ask the tough questions, so any help I can get with that is good."
For another teacher attending the workshop, it was the most basic theological questions from her young students that seemed the most problematic. "I lose them if I can't give them an answer about Adam and Eve," she laments, "I've just lost them and I've lost them for the next 3 weeks of my trying to get them to have an open mind about it."
Although his was clearly a like-minded audience, at the end of the day one of the most important concepts biology textbook author Ken Miller wanted teachers to take home with them was to be respectful of the religious belief of students. "I think religion and science, properly understood, complement each other by giving a complete worldview," he says. "Now you can be a great scientist without being a person of faith by acknowledging that both faith and reason are gifts from God and if properly understood, they ought not to be in conflict."
Evolution disturbs people, Miller says, because it concerns where we come from … and who we are today, and he expects it to continue to be a contentious issue at the intersection of science, religion and politics.