BOE plan would add creationism
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
Some members of the state Board of Education are open to discussing the introduction of creationism in Hawai'i's public schools even though the proposal will likely ignite a firestorm in the community.
The political and religious implications of changing the language in the new science performance standards that relate to evolution the basic principle of teaching the life sciences in Hawai'i from kindergarten through 12th grade are likely to produce an academic and constitutional battle.
The issue of evolution versus creationism pits the theory that living things evolved from earlier species against the biblical theory that God created humans essentially in their current forms. Although it is hotly debated in some areas on the Mainland, the issue has not been dealt with in Hawai'i so far.
Board members Thursday will discuss changing the language in the new science performance standards that relate to evolution. The proposal would emphasize biological evolution as a theory among theories. It would also require that high school students be taught that there are multiple theories of origin.
Board member Denise Matsumoto, chair of the Regular Education Committee that has approved the changes this week, said she suggested it because she was bothered by the science performance standards' current language.
The DOE's science adviser or other science teachers were not consulted about the possible change in policy, she said.
"My concern was that we were teaching this as a fact and not as a theory," Matsumoto said. "Evolution hasn't been validated by any concrete evidence. I had a concern about it being taught as a fact and the only way the world began. It wasn't that the department was mandating that creationism be taught. (Evolution) needs to be a theory amongst other theories. How in depth you go would depend on the individual teacher."
According to Hawai'i's standards, graduating students should be able to explain the molecular and anatomical evidence for evolution, evaluate the theory of natural selection as a mechanism for change over time and explain the basic idea of biological evolution.
Although the proposed change in policy does not mention the word "creationism," Matsumoto has offered that as the competing theory to evolution.
Sheila Conant, professor of zoology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said she was dismayed to hear about the possible change.
"There is no scientific data to support creationism," Conant said. "That's my view as a zoologist. There isn't any question in the minds of the greater scientific community that evolution takes place. It would be a great disservice to the students of Hawai'i to teach, number one, that creationism is a scientific theory and number two, that it is equally deserving of consideration in the schools."
Conant said opening up the discussion of creationism in a science class also would require that schools teach other religious beliefs about the origin of the Earth and humanity in science classes, which she said are an inappropriate forum. Evolution is distinguished from those by its basis in a large body of scientific evidence, she said.
"Evolution is the unifying thread in the biological sciences," she said. "To say it's just a theory among theories is grossly inaccurate in my opinion."
More than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot teach creationism.
Matsumoto, however, said there is no "missing link" to explain evolution. She also said there are differing beliefs about the Big Bang theory and the age of the Earth, which she said people believe can range from billions of years old to just 8,000 years old a belief held by many creationists.
"I just feel like it's not that big of deal if you want to teach it as a theory among other theories," she said. "If they think it's a good theory then they shouldn't be concerned about other theories being taught."
Ed Clark, president of the Hawai'i chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said he is not surprised that the issue came up, but that it made it out of committee so quickly.
"It would cause an enormous stink," Clark said. "Hawai'i is not of one philosophical or religious persuasion as the South is. We have religious and ethnic diversity to a great extent."
Even so, no religious viewpoints should be taught, Clark said. "Science must be taught in our schools without conflicting ideology interfering." Board member Carol Gabbard said she is uncertain of how the proposal would be implemented, but that her initial reaction is that there would be no constitutional issues raised by mentioning the existence of other theories.
"The most important thing that I think students can learn in school is critical thinking," she said. "Debating the origins of life would be very valuable in this regard, as long as no certain religion is pushed."
Board members, however, appear conflicted about how much time would be given to teaching other theories of origin or whether they would simply be mentioned as a part of the teaching of evolutionary biology.
Board member Karen Knudsen said her understanding was that evolutionary biology would be taught as a theory of science and not a fact. "They should teach the predominant theory as the predominant theory," she said.
Knudsen did not see any controversy in the idea. "I would like to not see it sensationalized, but at the same time I know this is a hot topic," she said.
But board member Sherwood Hapa said that exclusively teaching evolution is a mistake. "Young people should be exposed to the creation, evolution, Darwinism and the different kind of thoughts that are coming out now," Hapa said. "One should not be promoted over another."
The schools also should be careful about using the word "evolution," he said. "To bring focus on evolution to me is the department promoting one perspective. I think we need to be careful in terms of the board promulgating a perspective like that."
The National Academy of Sciences calls evolution the most important theory in modern biology, and urges schools to teach it.
Hawai'i's policy of teaching biological evolution in the public schools won it an "A" grade on a December report card from the Thomas Fordham Foundation, a privately endowed Washington research and policy organization.
California, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina also received an "A" for introducing at least some of the basic processes of biological evolution early, building on them later and making evolution the centerpiece of the life sciences.
DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen said evolution would remain the foundation of the district's science curriculum. Students begin to learn about evolution by the third grade in Hawai'i.
The debate over teaching evolution and creationism is as old as the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," which stated that species arise and develop through the natural selection of inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to survive and reproduce.
In the famous 1925 Scopes trial, also known as the "Monkey Trial," Rhea County High School science teacher John Scopes was accused and convicted of teaching the theory of evolution to Tennessee students.
As recently as 1999, a national debate on the issue centered on Kansas when state education officials voted to stop teaching the theory of evolution altogether, as well as the "Big Bang" and all references to the age of the Earth.
Kansas is one of a handful of states including Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Nebraska where, in recent years, school boards have attempted to take evolution out of state education standards or de-emphasize the theory.
The Board of Education will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Queen Lili'uokalani Building.
You can reach Jennifer Hiller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8084.