Evolution and Creationism
GSA member Les McFadden was part of a group of science advocates that was instrumental
in reversing the "anti-evolution" bias put into the new New Mexico State Science
Curriculum Standards. Here, Les details the reversal process, and ends by describing
some ways in which geoscientists can help stop the spread of Creationism.
Scientists Speak Out: The Battle to Win Back New Mexico
by Les McFadden, Chairman, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University
of New Mexico
Reviewed by Coalition
for Excellence in Science and Math Education President Kim Johnson
Until quite recently, many geoscientists did not perceive "creationism" to
be a threat. They assumed it was a minor problem associated with a few religious
zealots that would surely be dealt with appropriately in an advanced, civilized,
increasingly high tech country. They assumed the problem had been addressed by
the U.S. Supreme Court case closed. They assumed that the creationist movement
mostly targeted the evolutionary biologists, and could not possibly impact what
they were doing as professional geologists. However, what many geoscientists did
not realize was that the great age of the earth a concept fundamental to biological
evolution and other core concepts in geoscience is also under political attack.
And now the battle is being waged in our school systems.
Table of Contents
Compiled by Wendy Cunningham
Because many geoscientists have, until recently, felt "untouched" by the Creationist movement, many of us are relatively ignorant of the processes associated with the development and adoption of school curricula and policies. We are not aware of what School Boards really do and who is on them. We have never voted in a school board election or worse, we end up voting for political candidates who in fact are creationists due to ignorance of our representative's beliefs. I suppose I could be classified as somebody who fit this profile up until 3.5 years ago at that time, I don't think I even knew there was a state school board, and I certainly did not know anyone on it! But one day I picked up the morning paper to discover that the NM State School Board was considering implementing new "creationism friendly" standards, which would eliminate the word "evolution" entirely. Of course, several of my colleagues (a few geologists, engineers, physicists, local science teachers) were appalled, and we decided to fight back.
We immediately began by initiating discussions with School Board Members and presenting testimony at a School Board Meeting open to the public. However, our attempts to block implementation of the new standards failed we lost the vote, 14-1. Why? We were too late. A few, very knowledgeable and able Creationists understood the system much better than we did, and had been politically active well before we were. A few of them had run for the Board, and one had been appointed by the Governor. They used a few important, key positions to push their agenda through, aided by the fact that many on the Board, however well meaning, knew little about the concepts or process of science.
A few months after the Board voted to remove biological evolution and all standards associated with age of the earth/universe from the new standards, we decided to try another tack: we joined up with a state senator who was trying to pass legislation to "put evolution back into the standards." We showed up at the Capitol, attended key subcommittee sessions, and presented testimony on behalf of the amendment. A colleague and I in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences persuaded the University of New Mexico Faculty Senate to unanimously pass a resolution supporting our stand and condemning the actions of the School Board. All, again, to no avail. The bill was passed in the senate, but died in committee in the house.
So why did these initial attempts fail? The answer is fairly simple. We were not familiar with and had not been active in the political process. We did not appreciate the true magnitude of the threat Creationists pose to science and science education. It all comes down to this simple fact: in the democratic system of government at the state, local, and (arguably) national levels, a great deal can be accomplished by a relatively small, but well organized and motivated minority. The Creationists are just that. Moreover, the Creationist movement is in some respects like life on earth: constantly evolving, becoming increasingly more effective at advocating their position. Here are some examples:
- They got rid of the now politically loaded term "Creationism" and replace it with "Intelligent Design". How many geologists (or policy-makers, for that matter) have heard or understand the significance of this latter term? Yet basically, "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design" mean the same thing.
- They appealed to the "good old American sense of fairness" by advocating "balanced treatment" in science classes for Evolution and Creationism - present both views, and let the students decide which one is best supported by the evidence; what could be more fair?
Most scientists are wholly unfamiliar with these and many other advances in the strategies employed by the Creationists, and are therefore largely unprepared to debate them effectively. As we found out in New Mexico, just showing up and expecting officials to accept our word as scientists does not work. In fact, often it ends up confirming politician's/citizen's image of the stereotypical scientist as an elitist snob who "knows better than everyone else".
So how, in the end, did we win? We accepted the fact that the threat is real,
and we got involved at many levels, in many different ways. The key to our "victory"
was largely attributed to the development of the Coalition
for Excellence in Science and Math Education. Starting with a core group of
approximately a dozen individuals, we used the internet to spread our message
among those positively inclined towards 'good science' (note that we do not focus
strictly on evolution the term's not even in our title). Our organization grew
quickly to a membership that now exceeds 400. Included in the group are geologists,
biologists, engineers, physicists, public school teachers, rabbis, liberals, conservatives,
and many others. Through use of the internet, we kept abreast of Creationist attempts
to implement their view of the world through science classes. Within a year of
forming we had:
- Identified key committees involved in selection of textbooks and
placed members on those committees.
- Identified pro-science candidates in an upcoming school board election
and helped in their campaigns (2 of them won, defeating pro-Creationism candidates,
including an incumbent).
- Identified CESE members who had an interest in running for State and local
School Board elections. Our first President (Dr. Marshall Berman), ran and won.
He, along with other pro-science members, played key roles in re-introducing modern
biological and earth sciences into the curriculum.
- Created a newsletter.
- Got behind and became involved in efforts to improve science education in
public schools (via volunteering presentations, helping create teacher preparation/professional
training curricula; etc.).
- Sent out questionnaires to various candidates for election to local and state
- CESE is now a tax exempt, non-profit organization and cannot actively participate
in politics. This provides a number of benefits regarding the larger task of help
to make the general public more science literate. However, a large number of its
members remain politically active.
Although we have won the fight to re-introduce strong science standards into New Mexico's Curriculum Standards, we have only won one battle. The Creationists view this as a war, and they will never give up. As geoscientists, we must engage in this war. We must take our cue from the Creationists, and constantly "evolve" our strategies so they are increasingly more effective. The Creationists WILL be back and when they are, the geoscience community (through efforts such as CESE) must be ready to meet their challenge.
If you are interested in joining or receiving more information about CESE,
contact CESE in care of Kim Johnson, at:
9906 Loretta NW
Albuquerque, NM 87114
(505) 897-3364 (H)
(505) 247-9660 (W)