Ever since last October, when the school board in Dover, Pa., voted to make their town the first in the nation to discuss an alternative to evolution in high school biology classes, students have been as sharply divided as the rest of this normally close-knit community.
"I think we should have a choice: They should teach you both," says Meagan Hass, 14. "Evolution to me is like we come from monkeys."
Jessika Moury, 14, says her mother supports the school board but she does not. "There are so many aspects of religion, so you have to teach what each of them says," says Moury. "There's Bible Club in school for this, and that's where it should be taught."
In recent years, several states have issued disclaimers to students, questioning the validity of evolution and claiming it is riddled with gaps. The Dover school board went further when it voted to specifically identify a controversial alternative to evolution called "intelligent design" and encourage students to learn more about it.
But Dover High School's science teachers aren't happy. In early January, they refused to read to ninth-graders a statement written by the school board that criticizes evolution and cites intelligent design as an alternative.
The teachers contend that such a change to the curriculum amounts to teaching intelligent design, whose proponents say that life is so intricately complex that an "architect" must be behind it.
"Kids are smart enough to understand what intelligent design means," says Robert Eshbach, a science teacher who refused to read the statement. "The first question they will ask is, 'Well, who's the designer? Do you mean God?"'
Eleven local parents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have filed a federal lawsuit against Dover's school board, contending that intelligent design is a way to foist religion on their children. It is the nation's first lawsuit challenging the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools and is expected to go to trial this summer.
Dover, a town of 25,000 located about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, has become a testing ground in a widening national debate. Last November, in Grantsburg, Wis., the school board voted to teach a critical approach to evolution. Opponents of the teaching of evolution recently won a majority on the state school board in Kansas. And in 2002, biology textbooks in Cobb County, Ga., were labeled with disclaimer stickers stating that "evolution is a theory, not a fact." (A federal judge ruled in January that the stickers must be removed, and the Cobb County school board has voted to appeal.)
These developments are all part of a controversy that began in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. In this book, Darwin, a British naturalist, explained his theory of evolution by natural selection: that every species of plant and animal evolves or develops from an earlier one. The Origin of Species sparked immediate objections from religious thinkers and some scientists. But by the 187Os, Darwin's theory had gained wider acceptance, and today evolution is almost universally accepted by modern science.
Many people have objected to evolution because they believe it contradicts the biblical account of creation as told in Genesis. In 1925, Tennessee legislators made it illegal for public schools to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." That same year, a teacher named John T. Scopes, 24, was tried and convicted for teaching evolution in a high school biology class in Dayton, Tenn.)
During the 1970s and 1980s, some states mandated equal time for teaching "creation science" (based on the biblical account of creation) alongside evolution in public schools. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that such requirements were unconstitutional because they violated the First Amendment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."
In some communities, objections to teaching evolution are as strong as ever. Last November, a CBS News poll found that nearly two thirds of Americans favor teaching creationism in addition to evolution in schools.
'JUST TOO MUCH TROUBLE’
Even in school systems where evolution is part of the curriculum, it may be kept out of the classroom. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), says that many teachers do not teach evolution "because it's just too much trouble."
Dover High School's science teachers say that a schoolboard member first approached them about evolution in the fall of 2003. Last summer, some school-board members tried to stop the purchase of a new biology textbook because it mentioned Darwin. The books were ultimately ordered, but the board voted 6-3 to have teachers read a statement making students aware of intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theories.
The Discovery Institute in Seattle is a driving force behind the intelligent-design movement. According to its Web site, the organization does not claim that intelligent design is the work of a "higher power." Nor does it advocate making the topic mandatory in public schools. But it does recommend "that states and school districts focus on teaching students more about evolutionary theory, including telling them about some of the theory's problems that have been discussed in peer-reviewed science journals."
Critics argue that intelligent design has no basis in science and is creationism cloaked in scientific-sounding language. "It's another way of saying God did it," NCSE's Scott told Newsweek. "It isn't a model, it isn't a theory that makes testable claims." NCSE reviewedOf Pandas and People, the book cited in the Dover school board's statement, and called it "bad education and bad science."
In Dover, these arguments have split teachers, schoolboard members, clergy, parents, and students alike.
Jen Miller, who teaches ninth-grade biology in Dover, sees no conflict between evolution and religion. "Just because I teach evolution doesn't mean that God's not there or that I'm going against the religious beliefs of my students," she says.
With teachers refusing to read the school board's statement, administrators read it to students in January, as the new semester began. Students were allowed to opt out of the reading with their parents' permission.
The Rev. Warren Eshbach, an adjunct professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in nearby Gettysburg and the father of Robert Eshbach, the science teacher, warned at school-board meetings about how divisive the issue might become. Like many fellow Dover residents, he says the biblical account of the origins of humanity should be taught in a comparative-religion class, not a biology class.
"Science is figuring out what God has already done," Eshbach says. "But I don't think Genesis 1 to 11 was ever meant to be a science textbook for the 21st century."