This American Scientific Affiliation Science Brief was published in the ASA
Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1996.
A School Board Success Story
How a California school board set policy on teaching science that
ousted "isms" from the biology classroom.
Coming Soon to a School District Near You
On some issues, compromise is as difficult as being "moderately
pregnant." A school board trying to combat teen pregnancies will find
some parents and educators insisting that abstinence be taught, while
others favor instruction on how to use condoms.
Consider this scenario: A science teacher gives an assignment on evolution
or earth history, letting students read "creationist" materials.
Some parents hear about it, demand to see the assignment, and ask to visit
the classroom. The teacher fears that they are out to get him fired.
Various groups take the side of the parents or the teacher, and the
complaint is finally dealt with at a packed board meeting. Getting wind of
the story, the press builds it up as a confrontation between liberal,
open-minded parents and "the radical religious right."
When a local battle in today's "culture wars" is taking shape,
citizens often call on nationally prominent organizations for assistance.
But instead of helping to negotiate a satisfactory solution, some groups
are eager to chalk up another "win" for their side. The losing
side then smolders in resentment. That has happened in some well-publicized
controversies over the teaching of evolution.
Teaching Evolution: Major Players
Two national organizations wanting to exercise control over how evolution
is taught are the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the National
Center for Science Education (NCSE).
Most scientists undoubtedly consider evolution a harmless term, merely a
name for whatever processes produced the kinds of living things we know
today. To the Institute for Creation Research, however, the word connotes
an atheistic conviction that the God of the Bible had no part in the origin
and development of life, especially human life. ICR leaders also contend,
primarily on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible, that the earth
is only a few thousand years old. Books and booklets flow out of ICR
headquarters in El Cajon, California. Some argue that Genesis depicts a
sudden, recent creation of all forms of life. Others avoid mentioning the
Bible but assail the claim that evolutionary processes took place over
billions of years. In heated school board controversies, ICR literature has
often added fuel to the fire.
"Scientific creationism" is the label used for ICR's position.
Legal battles over state laws mandating balanced treatment for scientific
creationism culminated in a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as
Edwards v. Aguillard. The courts have ruled that the young-earth
creationism fostered by ICR is "religious doctrine masquerading as
science," which cannot be taught as science in public schools.
In subsequent political maneuvers, a major player has been the National
Center for Science Education, which was founded to protect the teaching of
evolution from inroads by scientific creationism. Citizens concerned that
"creationism" may be creeping into local classrooms frequently
request help from NCSE's headquarters in Berkeley, California.
NCSE is more overtly political than ICR and is generally praised in the
media, whereas ICR is ridiculed. Both organizations are supported
financially by zealous "believers" in their causes. Both seem to
benefit from ambiguity in the public's perception of what they stand for.
Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe in a
divine Creator, not merely a "fundamentalist" minority who view
creation as relatively recent and static. Hence, creationism can be taken
to mean either the religious commitment of many devout people, or the
narrow dogma of a few, depending on how the word is defined.
Similarly, is evolution a fact, hypothesis, theory, or an ideology
amounting to a belief system? It could be any of those, depending on how
the word is used. Such ambiguity leaves people confused about whether or
not they want evolution taught at all. Some parents worry that exposure to
creationism could keep their kids from learning real science. Others are
concerned that evolutionary theory will be taught as dogma, or that their
children will be exposed to a naturalistic, anti-theistic evolutionism.
The most satisfactory solution is to keep both "isms" out of
science classrooms by adopting a policy that clearly defines terms. That is
what the school board of Hemet, California, did on September 5, 1995.
Teaching Evolution: Major Issues
Hemet is about fifty miles from Vista, California, a town torn apart by
controversy and scrutinized by the media. More recently, excerpts of an
acrimonious school board hearing in Merrimack, New Hampshire, were aired on
a network television special, "Faith and Politics: The Christian
Nobody in Hemet wanted that. Four of the seven seats on the governing board
of the Hemet Unified School District (HUSD) had been filled by individuals
of a conservative frame of mind. By the time "creationism" came
up, the board had already suffered one setback: after adopting an
abstinence-based sex education program, they dropped all sex education in
response to a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and People for the American
With another conflict facing them, concerned parents sought help from the
Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA),
whose chairman agreed to meet with them to help them find their way through
a potentially explosive situation. He first explained that, by law,
"scientific creationism" cannot be taught in science classrooms.
What most parents who are attracted to the ICR position really want,
however, is assurance that their children will not be taught that they are
The problem, he said, is that when theists (such as Christians, Jews,
Muslims) object to that evolutionary interpretation, they are met with the
argument that evolution means merely "change over time," which
obviously occurs. But is that all that evolution means? Consider, for
example, a 1995 position statement of the National Association of Biology
Teachers, that evolution is "unsupervised, impersonal,
unpredictable."1 A widely used high school textbook says that
evolution "works without either plan or purpose ä is random and
undirected."2 Those are statements by scientists. Are they scientific
statements? No, because science, carried out in a purposeful way, has no
way of determining whether or not purpose plays a role in evolution.
Students who believe in a divine purpose for life should not be fooled by
switches back and forth between a scientific meaning of evolution and an
When "common descent" is presented properly as a working
hypothesis supported by considerable evidence, it is no more a challenge to
theism than "change over time." As to the neo-Darwinian theory of
how evolution took place, natural selection's role in changing the color of
moths, the shape of beaks, etc., has been extrapolated to explain such
major innovations as the radically different body plans of new phyla. Yet
there is reluctance to admit that the extrapolation is based more on
commitment to the Darwinian paradigm than on actual knowledge of
macro-evolutionary mechanisms. Few biology texts even mention the sudden,
unexplained "explosion" of animal body plans that took place 530
million years ago in the Cambrian period. Facts that biologists believe
they will someday establish should not be taught as facts that are already
established. Otherwise, an "ism," not science, is being taught.
The Hemet Solution: Teach Evolution as Science
The document on Science Instruction (HUSD 6142.3) adopted by the Governing
Board of the Hemet Unified School District begins with a one-page Policy
statement. Its first two paragraphs lay out the goal of giving students
"an understanding of key scientific concepts and a capacity for
scientific ways of thinking," while pointing out that "science,
mathematics, and technology are human enterprises, with strengths and
Three final paragraphs distinguish between scientific facts, hypotheses,
and theories; bind science teachers "to limit their teaching to
science," and prohibit any discussion in science classes of
"philosophical and religious theories" based "at least in
part, on faith" and "not subject to scientific test and
refutation." The wording of all five paragraphs comes from the 1990
Science Framework for California Public Schools.
The Policy statement is followed by a two-page Regulation on how the
evolution/creation controversy is to be handled. It begins by noting that
sensitive issues of evolution and religion must be handled within "the
current policy statements of the California Department of Education and
within the constitutional principles enunciated by the United States
Supreme Court." Five numbered paragraphs are quoted from either the
California Science Framework or U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Edwards v.
Aguillard ( 482 U.S. 578, at 591, 594).
These paragraphs specify in summary that
1. Only scientific evidence and theories are to be taught in science
A final paragraph spells out how these principles are to be applied in
2. Nonscientific explanations of origins should be taught elsewhere;
3. No theory should be taught dogmatically and no student should be
compelled to believe or accept any theory;
4. Science classes may include relevant scientific evidence concerning
origins, including scientific evidence critical of current evolutionary
5. Scientific terms must be precisely defined and used with consistency
Therefore, the terms evolution and theory of evolution will
be carefully defined and used consistently. Further, to make classroom
instruction more stimulating, while guarding students from ideological
indoctrination, the teaching of evolution will include: (1) forceful
presentation of well-established scientific data and conclusions; (2)
clear distinction between scientific evidence and inference; and (3)
candid scientific discussion of anomalous scientific data, and unsolved
problems and unanswered questions.
The second page of the Regulation provides explicit definitions (see page 2
of regulation at the end of this document).
How It Played in Hemet
The September 5 meeting of the board included the legally required
"third reading" of the proposed Policy and Regulation. School
superintendent Stephen Teele explained that he had formulated the document
as part of a "remedy" for certain complaints made to the board.
In June 1995, two parents had filed complaints that a teacher at Hemet High
School and at a middle school had given assignments in which students were
asked to defend evolution or debate its validity.
Those who had requested to speak included the complainants and the teachers
whose actions led to the complaint. A high school teacher, who had for
several years given the same research project without complaint, said he
would be willing to remove from his resources some objectionable materials
from ICR. A middle school teacher had made available to inquiring students
a supplementary text questioning evolutionary theory but not endorsing
"scientific creationism."4 Both denied trying to introduce
creationism into science classes and said that in their attempts to teach
critical thinking they were following guidelines laid down in the 1990
California Science Framework.
Two University of California professors had come to speak at the request of
the complainants. One was U.C. Berkeley biologist Kevin Padian, NCSE
president and a primary author of the California Science Framework. The
other was biologist David Reznick of U.C. Riverside. When Padian said he
didn't like everything he saw in the superintendent's proposal, one board
member asked if he could quickly make some changes, which Padian penciled
in on a copy of the proposed document.
Another teacher reminded the audience that Hemet ranks high in sending
students to the state science fair and thanked the board for working out a
clear-cut policy that expressed trust in the district's teachers. Some
tension arose when Padian's hasty emendations came up for a vote. Among
other changes, he deleted the sentence requiring inclusion of the
"clear distinction between evidence and inference" and of
"candid scientific discussion" of anomalous scientific data,
unsolved problems, and unanswered questions. He also deleted 2(c) of the
Regulation substituting unspecified "mechanisms of evolutionary
change," in place of the specific definition and question of
extrapolation from minor variation to major innovation cited therein (see
page 2 of regulation at the end of this document).
With some board members wanting to defer to the two professors as "the
experts," another proposed inviting Berkeley law professor Phillip E.
Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, to Hemet to debate the issues.
Few really wanted to do that for fear of becoming "another Fox TV
special." One board member read from an article written by Padian soon
after his work on the Science Framework.5-7 The article almost gloated over
the fact that "the term evolution appears more than 200 times in the
document." Padian had also written that "as for the religious
right itself, the new Framework leaves them totally disenfranchised from
the public educational system in California."
Sensing that he was among conservatives, Padian quickly responded that he
had not been talking about board members who, like himself, didn't want
creationism taught; he meant the people who do want creationism
taught. Then he complimented Dr. Teele for being "in control of the
situation" and said, "I think you're headed toward a good policy
here." Padian's changes were rejected, 4-3; the Policy and Regulation
were then adopted.
After the final vote, reporters seemed to recognize that a workable
solution had been achieved. A story in the Press-Enterprise
("It's Final: Religion, Science Can't Mix") emphasized that board
policy now "keeps creationism theories out of science
classrooms." A story in the Hemet News ("HUSD Ducks Scopes
Trial") quoted Professor Padian as acknowledging that on the whole the
policy adopted was "pretty good."
Important factors in getting the Hemet document adopted were hard-working
school board members willing to think for themselves and search for a
broadly acceptable solution; a relatively united conservative community
willing to put aside differences to support the board majority; the backing
of many teachers dedicated to teaching good science but concerned about
their academic freedom if harassed by parents with an axe to grind; and the
holding of some training sessions in advance of the final meeting to advise
supporters on what kind of opposition to expect.
Help is Available
Help is available for your community. The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA)
is an organization of several thousand Christians in scientific work. The
Science Education Commission of the ASA promotes teaching evolution as
science rather than ideology. The Commission stands ready to offer as much
assistance to local school boards as its resources will allow.
For starters, the Commission recommends that board members read Teaching
Science in a Climate of Controversy, which now has over 100,000 copies
in circulation. Though written for teachers, this ASA guidebook has been
welcomed by school board members and parents as well. The 4th (1993)
edition contains the text of a 1991 resolution, "A Voice for Evolution
as Science," which served as a model for key parts of the Hemet
Regulation. Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy can be
ordered for $7 postpaid (quantity discounts available), from the American
Scientific Affiliation, P.O. 668, Ipswich, MA 01938. Tel: (508) 356-5656.
FAX: (508) 356-4375.
For extra copies of this report or copies of the complete Hemet document,
contact ASA's Science Education Commission: John L. Wiester, 7820 Santa
Rosa Road, Buellton, CA 93427 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wiester or others may be
available to conduct training sessions in your community similar to those
that proved effective in Hemet.
1 "Statement on Teaching Evolution," p. 1, March 15, 1995.
Available from NABT, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., #19, Reston, VA 22090.
2 K. R. Miller and J. Levine, Biology, p. 658, 1993, Prentice Hall.
3 The complete text of the first four paragraphs was drafted by attorney
David Llewellyn, Dean of Simon Greenleaf U. School of Law.
4 P. Davis and D. H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People (2nd edn.), 1993,
Haughton Publishing Co., Dallas. Available from Foundation for Thought and
Ethics, P.O. Box 830721, Richardson, TX 75083.
5 K. Padian, "The California Science Framework: A Victory for
Scientific Integrity," NCSE Reports, pp. 1, 10-11,Vol. 9, No.
6, Nov-Dec 1989.
6 John L. Wiester, "Teaching Evolution as Non-Science: Examples From
California's 1990 Science Framework," PSCF, Vol. 43, No. 3,
7 M. Hartwig and R. Nelson, Invitation to Conflict: A Retrospective Look
at the California Science Framework, Access Research Network, P.O. Box
38069, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80937-8069 ($5).
Hemet Unified School District INSTRUCTION Regulation 6142.3 R
Elementary and Secondary: Curriculum Science Instruction Page 2 of 2
The Evolution/Creation Controversy (continued)
1. Evolution: In a general sense can be described as change through
time, and virtually all natural entities and systems change through time.
But it is not just the history of natural things, it is also the study of
patterns and processes that shape these histories. These patterns and
processes may be astrophysical, geological, biological, or behavioral, and
all contribute to the evolution of the universe as we know it. (Science
2. Meanings of Evolution:
("The Meanings of Evolution," by Keith Stewart Thomson, American
Scientist, Sept./Oct. 1982, pp.529-531)
- a. Change Over Time: For example, observed change in the gene
frequencies of closely related types of organisms such as finches or
peppered moths (microevolution); or observed changes in the types of
life forms that have existed over time as represented in the
sedimentary rock record (fossil succession). Because such changes have
been repeatedly observed, evolution of this type is a fact.
- b. Common Descent: the view that all (or most all) life forms,
extant and extinct, are related by common ancestry: a theory about the
history of life. An inference made from several different types of
observations, such as fossil succession, the biogeographical
distribution of organisms, the existence of rudimentary and
(apparently) imperfect organs and the existence of homologous
structures and embryological similarities in disparate organisms. These
lines of evidence, combined with the common-sense observation that all
offspring have parents, have led many scientists to treat the inference
of common ancestry as though it were a fact.
- c. Natural Selection: The theory (acting upon genetic
variations, such as mutation) has been the primary mechanism for the
biological changes described in definitions one and two. In the case of
small variations, such as those observed in peppered moths or finches,
this neo-Darwinian mechanism is accepted as well-established. Whether
this mechanism can be extrapolated to account for major innovations,
such as new complex organs and phyla level body plans is an open
question in biology and paleontology.
3. Theory of Evolution:
- Like other theories, it is more than the sum of the facts from which
it is derived. It is the best explanation for the facts, and it has
predictive value. How evolution has worked its patterns, processes,
mechanism, and history comprises the theory of evolution, which is
constantly being modified as new evidence emerges. (Science Framework,