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For Your Consideration 6.3


In a 1983, Nova, the popular science series shown on the Public Broadcasting Service, aired a documentary called The Miracle of Life. The Emmy Award-winning film begins with a brief explanation of the origin of life on Earth. The narrator states, “Four and a half billion years ago, the young planet Earth was a mass of cosmic dust particles. It was almost completely engulfed by the shallow primordial seas. Powerful winds gathered random molecules from the atmosphere. Some were deposited in the seas. Tides and currents swept the molecules together. And somewhere in this ancient ocean, the miracle of life began.”

As the camera moves underwater, the narrator continues, “The first organized form of primitive life was a tiny protozoan. Millions of protozoa populated the ancient seas. These early organisms were completely self-sufficient in their seawater world. They moved about their aquatic environment feeding on bacteria and other organisms …. From these one-celled organisms evolved all life on Earth. And the foundation of hfe, the cell, has endured unchanged since the first tiny organisms swam in the cradle of life, the sea.”

When this program was presented in a high school science class in Jefferson County, Colorado, a 15-year-old, straight-A student named Danny Phillips was stunned. He believed the Bible is the absolute word of God. He does not believe in evolution and decided to fight back.

Danny filled out a district form titled “Citizen’s Request for Reconsideration of Learning/Human Resources.” In it, he explained that the film, along with a textbook called Biological Science: An Ecological Approach, was in conflict with his own beliefs because it taught evolution as a fact, not as a theory.

No matter that the Supreme Court, in two landmark cases, seemed to have resolved the matter. In 1968, in Epperson vs. Arkansas, the high court struck down an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution. And, in 1982, the court struck down a Louisiana law that required that schools teaching evolution must grant equal time to the theory of “creation science.”

Danny Phillips’ complaint to the district about the videotape and textbook was passed on to a six-member curriculum review panel, made up of teachers, administrators, and citizens. They found that “the introductory comments in the video are poorly stated and scientifically refutable. The statements assume a factual rather than a theoretical basis.” The panel recommended three possible solutions: Instruct teachers to show the video without the introductory comments; ask the video’s producer to supply a modified version; or select an alternative video on human reproduction. As for the textbook, the panel rejected Danny’s request that Biological Science: An Ecological Approach be withdrawn.

Danny had won a partial victory. “Basically,” he stated when interviewed, “I would like the schools to teach the theory of evolution as a theory. Treat it as they do science and present the evidence for and against it. Otherwise, the school is in essence censoring half of the information.”

Though the majority of teachers in Danny’s school system supported use of the videotape without any censorship, the definitive response to this issue came from Joseph Mclnerney. Mclnerney is the director of the nonprofit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which back in the early 1960s almost single-handedly reintroduced evolution to the nation’s biology textbooks. Mclnerney wrote, in a column published in The Jefferson Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Lakewood, Colorado, that, “A theory is not an ephemeral guess. It is a powerful conceptual framework that is supported by overwhelming evidence that explains numerous observations about the natural world and that helps predict future observations. Yes, it’s ‘only a theory,’ but so is gravitation. So is germ theory. So is the chromosome theory of inheritance. They’re all theories. But we don’t see anyone challenging these being taught as theories. Evolution is as widely accepted a theory in science as any of the others. The only reason that anybody challenges this is because it conflicts with people’s religious views.

“Second,” his column continued, “the party line claims that ‘it’s only fair to present both sides of the debate.’ That is a plea to democracy that ignores the fact that creationism has no scientific basis and therefore cannot occupy any side in a scientific debate.

“The creationists maintain that ‘scientists disagree about evolution,'” Mclnerney continued. “That is a deliberate misrepresentation of biology. In fact, all scientists accept the reality of evolution, [although] they continue to debate the process by which it occurs.”

“For Your Consideration,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 11.

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