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Darwin exhibition isn't designed to be the origin of controversy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2010 - Don't expect a new exhibition at the St. Louis Science Center on the man behind the theory of evolution to prompt a revolution in local science classrooms.

"Darwin," opening at the science center on Saturday, is billed as "an engaging and enlightening exploration of the extraordinary life and mind of Charles Darwin," whose observations 150 years ago led to a new way of looking at how life evolved.

It also has led to an often bitter debate over how that process should be taught and how science and religion can be reconciled, if at all.

As part of its educational outreach, the center offers local schools programs that promise "a respectful and thought-provoking conversation about the relationship between science and religion." Doug King, president of the center, notes that the idea of the exhibition itself evolved from his viewing of a movie about Darwin and his wife, "Creation,"  whose own tagline is "Faith evolves."

"It taught me a lot about the personal story that he and his wife went through," King said. "Both of them agonized. They were deeply religious people. He saw things that conflicted with what he had believed previously, and he wrestled with it in his own mind about whether this went against religion, but he said he had to write it down and tell people what it meant.

"His wife thought that if he did that, they would be separated in the afterlife. That relationship between the two of them ends up being a great love story, a positive story because they were able to reconcile the deep division between them."

In science classrooms, that division has not always been so easily bridged. In many states, notably Kansas, the debate has often become bitter over whether science students should learn evolution only or should also be exposed to other theories of how today's world came about. The divisions dramatized by the famous Scopes monkey trial can remain surprisingly raw.

Missouri does not mandate how the subject should be taught, state officials say; it does have general standards and grade-level expectations for the teaching of science. Inquiries are met with a recommendation that schools follow the guidelines of the National Science Teachers Association

That position states flatly that "evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K-12 science education frameworks and curricula. Furthermore, if evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy they need."


Charles Granger, a biology professor who has been involved in science education for decades, says that is the proper approach, not only for the students individually but for the nation as a whole.

"It is a very sophisticated topic," said Granger, who is a curators distinguished professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "If you go to a high school textbook and look at the glossary, you'll find 103 concepts, 103 terms a person would have to know to understand the scientific basis of evolution. So when you try to teach that, if students aren't grounded in those concepts, the idea of evolution sounds just like a fairy tale to them, or a faith-based belief.

"But once the students capture those 103 concepts, then evolution begins to make scientific sense to them. It's kind of hard to convince someone who doesn't understand evolution, in an hour lecture or even a series of hour lectures and discussions, that evolution is a reasonable explanation of origins. You can't just say well, evolution is the change of organisms over time. That doesn't mean anything to anybody."

Granger said that in his own time, Darwin himself faced a similar challenge.

"It took many, many, many years before anybody began thinking about origins in a scientific manner," he said. "To gather the evidence and basics of how the evolution works took another 100 years - actually, we're still working on it. So you can't expect someone exposed to it overnight to understand the principles involved.

"Historically, the universe has centered around human beings, so it's kind of hard to move away from that idea. That's scary to people. The idea that we could be related at all to a pig, so closely related to a pig that we can use their hearts in transplants, is not very palatable, particularly as you sit down for your ham on Easter."

But with scientific literacy in the United States pegged at about 25 percent of the population -- half of that in such countries as England, Germany and Japan -- Granger says a better understanding of concepts like evolution is crucial.

"That's not outstanding if your economy is based on science," he said. "Our economy and our quality of life are based on our science, and to turn around in our next breath and make disparaging remarks about science or not accept it, that doesn't fit into our worldview.

"You can't go into a school board meeting and in 10 minutes of time, which is what they usually allow you to have, explain evolution and expect them to make any sense of that."



One local man who says he succeeded in such an act of persuasion -- in the opposite direction -- is John Chaikowsky of Godfrey. He said that back in 1979, he persuaded public schools in Alton to add the teaching of creationism to instruction in evolution.

Chaikowsky -- who taught math and science in Florida before moving to the St. Louis area to join the federal government at what is now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency -- wanted students to know there were other ways to think about how the world reached where it is today.

He called evolution "more dogma than anything. I wanted to give teachers an alternative if they wanted. If anyone wanted to teach just the scientific evidence, with no scripture or religion at all, they could do that."

Chaikowsky said he persuaded district officials at the time to keep the discussion at a scientific level but introduce the notion that while science may explain how changes occurred, it did not go to the origins of where the changing species came from in the first place.

"If I was an intelligent designer," he said, "I would say that science does not tell us who, it just tells us what. It doesn't tell us who the designer was, but I preach the God of the bible when I can do that.

"There are things that evolutionists have to explain away. Change has limits. Microevolution doesn't transfer to macroevolution. Where does the information come from? I would want the public schools to see the scientific evidence. You can't give the biblical side of that. I agree with that. If they had the bible as literature, you could throw it in there, I reckon."

Chaikowsky, who said his own children were home-schooled, said he wants to make sure students get both points of view.

"I would teach the evolution side," he said. "Kids have to know that. We're not being hard-nosed about that. But I'd like them to know the problems, too. It's called teaching the controversy."

Today, says Kathleen Bredenkoetter, curriculum coordinator for Alton schools, science teachers present evolution.  She notes that the discussions usually begin at the high school level, and if students bring up creationism, it becomes part of the classroom give-and-take, but teachers don't raise the topic on their own.

"For the most part," she said concerning evolution, "the discussion is that people have personal beliefs and we respect them, and this is not something you have to believe, but this is content addressing state goals and standards." 




Bringing creationism into public schools isn't always controversial, at least not in your own backyard. Randy Davis, superintendent of schools in Potosi, recalled that in 2006, a man named Mike Riddle with a group called Answers in Genesis was in town and wanted to talk about creationism to his district's students.

"Our science teachers reviewed the presentation, to make sure there was nothing inappropriate," Davis said. The presentations went on with little attention -- at least locally.

He said he did receive a fax on the Friday afternoon before the scheduled presentations on Monday from the national group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, arguing against Riddle's appearances. But nothing happened beyond that.

"It received national attention, but as far as local there was very little discussion or concern about it," Davis said. "We saw nothing that crossed the line between separation of church and state. There was very little reaction in our community, and we moved on."

Davis said Potosi decided that evolution teaching should be strictly scientific. King, at the science center, said that attitude places the decision where it should be, at the district and school level, and the Darwin exhibition is not trying to do anything to undermine that stance.

He also acknowledges that while the exhibition is more about Darwin the man and his personal beliefs than Darwin the scientist, separating the two may not be possible.

"Science is the explanation of what you see without trying to attribute where it came from," he said, "and religion is the belief about where it came from. That is exactly what we are trying to do in this exhibit -- not trying to challenge anyone's belief. Schools absolutely should think about it, but we aren't telling them what the conclusions should be or what they should teach.

"Science is about what you can see. This is what the science is today, and all scientific evidence supports the conclusions of how life developed on earth. It's not about how it started. We certainly don't purport that science explains everything. It does explain how life has changed over the years. Our job is to present the science."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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