It has been 83 years since the Scopes trial in Tennessee brought the evolution versus creationism debate to a head, yet the dispute rose to prominence again in Florida last month, when state legislators changed the way science – and evolution – were to be taught in public schools.
Until Feb. 19, when the Legislature voted 4-3 to change the science curriculum, it was not required that evolution be taught in Florida public schools. Not everyone in the fields of biology and education are happy with the change, as several University professors say they feel that the teaching of evolution should have always been a non-issue.
“There is no controversy at all within the scientific community, at least within biologists, about evolution,” said Henry Mushinsky, a professor of integrative biology at USF. “The controversy exists because people don’t understand the basic process of evolution.”
Responding to the new requirement, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, proposed a bill that would permit public school teachers to present evidence that contradicts the theory of biological and chemical evolution.
Although Storms’ bill, State Senate Bill 2692, states, “The provisions of this section do not require or encourage any change in the state curriculum standards for the K-12 public school system,” many people feel it would open the door to teaching theories like intelligent design or creationism.
Dana Zeidler, a professor of science education in the College of Education at USF, opposes any mention of religious-based theories in science classes.
“I think it’s been absurd and ridiculous,” Zeidler said. “There should be no argument or doubt about it. When it comes up people are infuriated that this is even an issue at all. If you would like to teach intelligent design then teach at a private school, but it has no place and no bearing in public schools.”
Mushinsky agreed with Zeidler on the distinct line that should remain between religion and science. There is nothing wrong with teaching creationism or intelligent design, Mushinsky said, but it doesn’t belong in science class.
“Comparative religion, that’s where I think it belongs,” he said.
Some think discussion of alternative theories of the origin of life like intelligent design goes beyond the controversy of including religion in science classes, as such discussion may not be inclusive of all possible theories of the origin of life.
“If you want to make room to teach alternative theories of evolution, then you need to make room for any kind of alternative theory,” Zeidler said.
Teachers would have to then be open to teaching Taoist or Zen Buddhist theories of existence – even the theory of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeidler said.
“On one hand I can sit back and laugh at the mess,” Zeidler said, “but on the other hand I get resentful that they preface it as ‘the scientific theory’ of evolution, and we don’t have to preface any other scientific theory by saying ‘the scientific theory.'”
Before the Legislature agreed to science teachers using the term “evolution” at all, they were supposed to refer to the theory as “change over time.” However, Zeidler said there was no science teacher he knew of who would not have used the word evolution.
“It’s not a bad word,” said Zeidler. “The fact that the state Legislature couldn’t get their act together doesn’t keep good teachers from teaching what they should be teaching, to the best knowledge they have, consistent with scientific evidence and current ideas.”