Monday, February 13, 2006 | Few names in history elicit such passion as that of Charles Darwin. Not since Galileo turned his newly minted telescope toward the heavens in 1610 and observed scientifically – and most radically – that the earth revolved around the sun, has a scientist been so maligned.
Yesterday was Darwin’s birthday. He was born in Feb. 12, 1809 – exactly the same birth date as Abraham Lincoln, another man of courage, vision and intellect, in whose honor many schools are closed today. Both men embarked on a volatile road that turned the world upside down, but only Darwin remains controversial.
At the age of 50, Darwin presented to the world what some have called one of the greatest books of all time – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Anticipating how explosive his theories were, the British naturalist observed, researched and experimented again and again for over 20 years before publishing in 1859.
“Evolution is the guiding theory of all biology,” said Larry Woolf, a physicist at San Diego’s General Atomics. “There is incontrovertible evidence of its truth.”
Yet there are those who read the Bible literally who would disagree. Vocal anti-Darwinists have resurfaced and recently made their case in public schools in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Kansas and California, putting forth in classrooms across the country their newest version of creationism – intelligent design – as an alternative to science-based inquiry.
Intelligent design claims that the world is so complex that life must have been designed by a higher power. Supporters of ID would receive little attention if the issue were being debated exclusively by adults. But when the discussion affects children and how public education teaches science, the decibel level becomes deafening.
Fortunately, at San Diego City Schools and most other school districts in the county, the rancor over ID has been minimal.
“We believe evolution is the foundation of modern biology,” said Kim Bess, Director of Science for SDCS. “We teach what’s based on evidence. There is no other side.”
All biology and life sciences classes at SDCS teach evolution, Bess said, and there have been no complaints. “It’s a small, very vocal segment of the American population that has this issue,” she said.
Bess also serves on the board of directors for the San Diego Science Alliance, a non-profit consortium of local leaders from the business, education and science communities whose mission is to promote science literacy in K-12 education.
Bess said the California content standards for biology and life sciences for ninth through 12th grades are very clear, extensive and specific, and do not accept ID as a valid scientific theory.
The state’s rigid content standards provide relief for Bess, who was Vista Unified School District’s science director when a fundamentalist school board repeatedly made national front-page news in the early 1990s with its attempts to have creationism taught in its schools.
Even the seemingly innocuous act of adding a sticker to textbooks proclaiming evolution as just one theory among many is unacceptable, said Bess, because it suggests that Darwin’s ground-breaking work is simply an untested idea.
“This is a commonly misunderstood vocabulary problem,” she said. “The difference is understanding in science what is a theory. A theory happens after a hypothesis that has been tested scientifically. After a certain period of time, you can call it a theory. We have no evidence there is a creator, so intelligent design is considered a belief.”
The definition of the word theory is critical to the discussion, agreed Woolf, who works with the National Science Foundation, has provided hundreds of workshops for San Diego County teachers, has served as a curriculum reviewer and state science advisor, and has participated in San Diego Science Alliance events for the past 15 years.
The “theory of evolution” is not really a theory and is fully accepted by the scientific community, Woolf said. “Darwin didn’t even know about DNA. We now know that there is a common set of genetic material which shows a common origin.” To call evolution just a theory is like saying that gravity is just a theory, he said.
The theory part of the concept, Woolf explained, is natural selection, which is “the means by which evolution occurs.” Natural selection is defined as the force that promotes changes in a species over generations and the force that produces new species from the changes in a population over long periods of time.
California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, issued a statement on the subject in December after a federal judge ruled that intelligent design is not science. “This ruling is an appropriate rebuke to those who advocate inserting ‘intelligent design’ theory into the teaching of natural sciences,” he said, vowing that any attempt to inject “non-scientifically based theory” into California curriculum will be unsuccessful.
O’Connell said the proper place in public education to discuss divine creation is in history, social science or English/language arts courses. “But because religious beliefs are based on faith and are not subject to scientific test and refutation, these beliefs should not be taught in the realm of natural sciences.”
Consistent with many other scientists, Bess said she believes in God and appreciates “just how wonderful and incredible this universe is. And I believe in evolution. The two beliefs are not something that can’t be compatible.”
To honor Darwin and his enormous contribution to the understanding of evolutionary science, tributes were held yesterday on his birthday in support of his seminal work – including one of the more interesting celebrations called The Clergy Letter Project, organized by Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.
Zimmerman believes that “strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science.” According to Zimmerman, the public should know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.
To prove his point, Zimmerman asked clergy from across the country to endorse The Clergy Letter, which expresses support for the scientific process and counters the shrill voices on the other side that would label Darwin a heretic. Zimmerman’s intent was to demonstrate that “the very loud fundamentalist voices demanding that Christians must choose between [science and religion] are not representative of the broad Christian community.”
The Clergy Letter was signed by more than 10,000 Christian clergy from throughout the country who support Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe its tenets are fully compatible with Christian philosophy – including 780 from California and 26 from the city of San Diego.
Yesterday, labeled “Evolution Sunday,” thousands of Christian churches in the U.S. discussed the compatibility of religion and science with congregants and advanced the belief that religion and science are not adversaries.
The Clergy Letter further states: “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.”
Further support for Darwin came recently from the Vatican newspaper, which published an article Jan. 19 saying intelligent design is not science and should not be taught alongside evolutionary theory in school classrooms.
According to the Associated Press, Facchini “lamented that certain American ‘creationists’ had brought the debate back to the ‘dogmatic’ 1800s and said their arguments weren’t science but ideology. ‘This isn’t how science is done.’”
Giving students biology lessons grounded in scientific fact doesn’t necessarily exclude God from the process of creation. Faith and science can coexist peacefully, as thousands of Christians demonstrated yesterday by celebrating Evolution Sunday.
Bess said a Catholic nun, who was a staunch supporter of evolution, once told her that she believes God made the world in seven days, just as it states in the Bible. “We just don’t know what kind of watch He was wearing,” the nun said.
Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at