As the nation debates the role of creation and evolution in the classroom, a research paper assigned in a 10th-grade biology class at Franklin High School in Macon County has sparked a local controversy on the issue.
Students were asked to compare the scientific evidence for both creation and evolution.
“The student is to present SPECIFIC SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCES for BOTH SIDES of the debate,” according to the teacher’s instructions. Students were given specific topics to expound on: the age of the earth, radiometric dating, dinosaurs, Darwin’s theory, and the fossil record, among others.
Students were then instructed to pick the side they believed and write a conclusion.
“Make your argument using SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCES to support your stance,” the teacher’s instructions stated.
One parent feels the assignment was a subversive attempt to teach religion in school. Two national organizations have questioned whether the assignment is Constitutional.
School officials support the assignment, however. They claim the teacher was not promoting a religion, merely allowing students to explore it and thereby develop an inquisitive mind — a tenet of science.
Macon County School officials are standing behind a research paper assigned in a 10th-grade honors biology class that requires students to research the merits of both evolution and creation and explain which one they support.
“To me this is a school assignment about two theories that exist in our world,” said Kevin Corbin, chairman of the school board. “You are asking students to evaluate those and come to their own conclusion.”
Corbin, 44, said the assignment does not violate the separation of church and state.
“The Constitution says the government should establish no religion. Period. This is not establishing a religion,” Corbin said.
Corbin said the research paper acknowledges the fact that religion exists, but does not promote it.
“The reason people get so messed up is because they think you can’t even talk about religion anymore,” Corbin said. “Any time you discuss religion or politics, it’s a touchy subject. Is it unconstitutional? No. Could it create controversy. Yes.”
But that’s no reason to deny students the chance to expand their mind.
“If the teacher wanted to assign the Bible as a book, and say ‘Read this as a historical work and write a paper on it,’ they could do that,” Corbin said. “Take something controversial in history, like Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. If you assign a paper on that, it doesn’t mean you are for or against it. Whether you agree with creationism or biological evolution, the fact is they are out there and exist. You aren’t going to do away with that.”
Gary Shields, principal of Franklin High School, also said he had no problem with the assignment.
“In the high school arena, we have to allow students to explore all sides,” Shields said. “They are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions.
“We are not here to alter anybody’s beliefs,” Shields said. “This is neutral ground. Research is fine, but if you start moving to one side or another, you’re proselytizing.”
Shields said this assignment falls into that neutral area.
“He’s assured me he does not have a personal agenda,” Shields said of the teacher, John Cantrell. “As a teacher, he wants them to research this as a topic.”
When the assignment was brought to Shields’ attention, he did a little research of his own and found a philosophy he agreed with on the Web site of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm founded to represent Christians in church-state cases.
“Students should be permitted to examine all sides of an issue — and that includes the origins of life. Don’t put up road blocks to knowledge,” wrote Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. “Information is knowledge and there is nothing wrong or unconstitutional about presenting students with alternatives — especially when studying the origins of life.”
A place in science
Patti Nason, a science professor with the Institute for Creation Research in Texas, said evolution is the teaching of a religion just as much as creationism is. Evolution is the religion of humanism, the belief that life on earth is all a big coincidence rather than led by a divine being, Nason said.
“They regard the universe as self-existing and not created,” Nason said. “It believes that man is just a part of nature.”
Creationists believe the earth is only a few thousand — not billions — of years old. Nason points to the recent discovery of intact bone marrow in a dinosaur bone. Bone marrow cannot last millions of years, but instead of re-examining the purported age of the dinosaurs, scientists are re-examining how long bone marrow can survive, Nason said.
“We interpret evidence according to what we believe,” Nason said. “They say that science equals evolution. Creationists use the very same data that evolutionists use.”
But they come up with different conclusions. Nason said creationists believe there was a massive upheaval of the earth that created all the layers of fossils and rocks quickly, not over billions of years. Nason said the Institute for Creation Research also has disproved radiometric dating, a method scientists claim can date the age of rocks and bones to hundreds of millions of years ago.
“A creationist’s reasoning is that the earth is not that old and that God did it,” Nason said. “Just because God did it doesn’t make it not scientific.”
Nason said teachers that only teach evolution are brainwashing students.
“It is taught so dogmatically. They don’t want kids to start thinking because they would realize how ridiculous it all seems,” Nason said, citing the evolutionist idea that life randomly cropped up of its own accord. Nason said students should be taught creation science.
Corbin, the Macon County school board chairman, agrees that creation has scientific merit.
“I believe there is scientific evidence for creation,” Corbin said.
In the right
Rodney Shotwell, superintendent of the Macon County school system, said the assignment does not violate state teaching guidelines.
“When I looked at the assignment, it is asking for logical scientific evidence to support the student’s position, whether they support one system over another,” Shotwell said. “I think what he is asking is to put things in a logical order and support your statement.”
State curriculum requires the teaching of evolution in high school biology. Shotwell said the assignment strikes a balance between teaching evolution, but at the same time not discriminating against those who object to evolution on religious grounds.
“We teach evolution. It is in the standard course of study,” Shotwell said. “But there are some students who don’t believe in evolution. So on an individual basis they can take what they believe, and if they want to refute that theory, they need to use scientific proof to do it. I think it is important in the development of children to ask them to be critical thinkers, to ask them. ‘OK if you believe this, why do you believe it?’”
In fact, developing critical thinking is also part of the high school biology curriculum, Shotwell said.
“‘Inquiry should be the central theme in biology,’” Shotwell said, quoting from state curriculum standards. “‘The essence of the inquiry process is to ask questions that stimulate students to think critically and to formulate their own questions.’”
Shotwell said the question of creation and evolution is something the students will encounter in life, and this assignment will prepare them for that.
“People have Web sites and books out there that say they can prove creation scientifically and then there’s another side that says they can prove evolution scientifically,” Shotwell said. “I was told one way you can make your belief stronger is to defend it and have it challenged. It’s another way of using facts they can find to represent their side.”
Shotwell said if a student objects to the assignment, they should be entitled to an alternative research paper topic. Shotwell said similar exceptions were made for students opposed to dissecting frogs in biology.
Tommy Cabe, a member of the Macon County school board, is not quite as comfortable with the paper as his counterparts. Cabe questioned whether there is scientific evidence for creationism.
“I think about anything could be brought into question if you worked at it enough,” Cabe said.
Cabe said he does not plan to challenge the teacher’s assignment, however.
“It’s not really part of the curriculum, but it’s kind of a grey area,” Cabe said. “If a parent complained, then we would have something to go on.”
Shotwell said he received an anonymous letter from someone complaining about the assignment. Unless that person comes forward to talk about their concerns openly, Shotwell said the school system does not plan to address the issue nor ask Cantrell to drop the assignment in future years.
A research paper assigned by a high school biology teacher at Franklin High School requiring students to delve into the scientific merits of creationism could potentially be unconstitutional, according to religion watchdog groups.
“This is a real constitutional problem,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director for the National Center for Science Education, upon seeing a copy of the assignment. “This is a bad idea on any number of grounds.”
Jeremy Leaming, spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“It looks constitutionally suspect, quite frankly,” Leaming said. “There is no such thing as scientific evidence for creationism. If you are teaching students that there is, you are not only giving them a poor education, you are also violating the Constitution.”
The teacher John Cantrell, has assigned the research paper in the past but remained under the radar. This year, a parent has spoken up about the assignment, however.
“My main thing when I saw the assignment was that creationism was put on par scientifically with evolution,” said George Hasara. “I think the fact that it is in a science class, it gives it credence.”
Hasara said the assignment was akin to proselytizing. If students failed to produce scientific evidence for creationism, they could not get a good grade on the paper, according to the scoring system outlined on the assignment sheet.
Kathy Tinsley, a retired biology teacher who taught at Franklin High School for 23 years, said approaching evolution can upset students who feel the concept violates their religious beliefs.
“I tried to make students feel comfortable that I wasn’t trying to challenge their faith. I tried to be very sensitive,” Tinsley said.
Tinsley said she did not elevate religious ideas to an academic plane, however.
“I kept issues of faith and issues of science separate,” Tinsley said. “We were in the classroom to look at evolution as a key component of biology. Faith is a personal journey and I wasn’t comfortable trying to address any one certain faith or story of creation.”
“Theories like evolution are powerful, powerful explanations of what we see, and are backed up by years of documentation and data,” Tinsley said.
Scott said there is a red flag in the language of the assignment that could indicate the teacher’s motives. The teacher, John Cantrell, repeatedly used the term “scientific evidences” in the plural form in his instructions for the paper instead of simply “scientific evidence.”
“You will have to look long and hard in a scientific journal for the word ‘evidences,’” Scott said. “The word ‘evidences’ is a term from Christian apologetics. The only place you pick up ‘evidences’ in the plural form is if you’ve read a lot of the creation science Web sites.”
Leaming also said the assignment appeared to be driven by religious motives.
“Science doesn’t have the tools to tell us whether there is a divinity or not,” Leaming said. “To me it looks like an effort to support creationism. He is saying creationism is science. It is disingenuous for him to claim all he has done is ask students to write an academically objective paper.”
In the beginning
Scott said the assignment is designed to mislead students that scientific facts are not real.
“For teachers to represent to students that there is a scientific dispute going on over the age of the earth is extremely bad education,” Scott said.
Leaming said the assignment presents evolution and creationism as dueling theories in science, which is not correct.
“In science, a theory is not just a hunch or a guess,” Leaming said, citing the theory of gravity as an example. “In a mathematics class, would you argue whether two plus two equals four? That would be awfully strange in a math class.”
The teacher had a DVD on creation science that students could borrow.
Greg Adkison, a biology professor at Western Carolina University, said the topics students were asked to debate — such as the age of the earth and whether dinosaurs lived tens of millions of years ago — are not a matter of debate in the scientific community.
“Are we talking 3.5 billion or are we talking 4.2 billion? That’s debatable,” Adkison said of the age of the earth. “But there’s no debate between whether the earth is 10,000 years old or billions of years old.”
The same goes for radiometric dating, something creationists consider a fallacy, but no reputable scientist disputes, he said.
“If you date a rock and it is 98 million years old, maybe it’s 100 million or 96 million, but it’s not only 10,000 years old,” Adkison said.
Adkison did not always think that way.
“I was a junior in college before I thought, ‘Oh, this evolution stuff is real,’” Adkison said. “I traveled the path of thinking it was a bunch of hooey to totally embracing it.”
Adkison assigns a paper similar to Cantrell’s in his introductory biology course at WCU. But Adkison does not require students to argue which side they believe – something that was worth 30 out of 100 points on Cantrell’s paper.
“I just want them to see where both sides are coming from,” Adkison said.
Another difference is that Adkison follows his paper up with lots of teaching on evolution. Otherwise, such a paper could be seen by students as validating creationism as an equal theory, when in fact it is not a theory, but a hypothesis or personal belief.
“I do acknowledge there are other ideas out there, but I think it is a real disservice to society to teach something that is wrong,” Adkison said.
Cantrell’s paper was turned in on the last day of class, which was a semester long on the block schedule.
By the book
High school students are required to learn about evolution, according to the curriculum set by the North Carolina State School Board. The curriculum calls for the teaching of “current scientific theories” on evolution and the origin of life, earth and the universe.
The curriculum specifically cites fossil evidence, radiometric dating, and natural selection of species — all of which Cantrell asked students to debate when writing their paper.
The state curriculum also requires science teachers to stick to “evolutionary process as outlined in the National Science Education Standards,” which don’t include creationism.
“Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific,” according to the National Science Education Standards.
The North Carolina State Board of Education has an ethics policy that requires teachers to recognize “the diverse views of students ... and not proselytize for personal viewpoints that are outside the scope of professional practice.”
The assignment could cross that line, according to Scott.