Educators support teaching evolution

But Buttars may push bill about intelligent design

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 11:06 p.m. MDT

Sen. Chris Buttars may introduce a bill on intelligent design next legislative session. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News) Sen. Chris Buttars may introduce a bill on intelligent design next legislative session. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News)
The State Board of Education on Friday unanimously supported continued teaching of evolution theory in high school biology.
But a Utah senator is countering the vote with his "Academic Freedom Act," a document resembling a draft bill that would inject the so-called "intelligent design" concept of life's origin into public school instruction.
"The only recourse I've got to get my side heard is to take it to the Legislature," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.
The board ignored Buttars' request for a two-hour session discussing intelligent design.
He has not yet opened a bill file.
Intelligent design holds that life is so complex it can't be explained alone by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. It does not name the designer. But critics call intelligent design a thinly veiled reference to creationism, which the Supreme Court barred from public school lessons in 1987. Intelligent design has led to controversy and lawsuits in a handful of school boards that have adopted it nationwide.
Buttars, however, believes intelligent design should be taught in Utah public schools — perhaps in a required philosophy or humanities class — if students are to be taught routinely that humans evolved from lesser species.
Evolution "has more holes than a crocheted bathtub," Buttars told the state board, adding hundreds of scientists agree. He said barring discussion of intelligent design alongside evolutionary lessons is akin to censorship.
Buttars says his stand was spurred by parent complaints that evolution lessons were taught as fact instead of theory. State curriculum director Brett Moulding said his office has received no such complaints.
The Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group, backs Buttars' stand.
"All you have to do is be open to another idea and allow diversity and tolerance in education," Eagle Forum education director Monica Gardner said. "Especially in this community, diversity and tolerance should be accepted."
But about a dozen scientists, many from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, told the board Buttars is taking scientists' comments out of context. They said intelligent design theory has no place in science.
"Science, unlike religion, is not dogmatic. But it is also not democratic," said Steve Nelson, isotope geochemist and associate professor at Brigham Young University. "To get a place at the table, you have to show your research is credible and could withstand . . . peer review."
He and other scientists overwhelmingly supported the state board's position statement on teaching evolution.
That document says the theory of evolution is a major unifying scientific concept and is appropriately included in the high school biology curriculum.
It acknowledges other "ways of knowing," including arts and faith, which differ from the scientific theory that is based exclusively on observation and empirical evidence. It also says beliefs others bring to the classroom should be respected. "Teachers should encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts with their parents or religious leaders."
The document came at the behest of board chairman Kim Burningham in light of national controversy. It was created by a group of 22 scientists, professors and community members, including members of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee and the Catholic Diocese.
Buttars, however, proposes an alternative — offering a glimpse into possible legislation.
His "Academic Freedom Act" would "enhance the effectiveness of science education while at the same time ensuring that students are given credible alternative explanations for the origin of life on earth," he said.
"We believe that excluding recent scientific discoveries simply because they run counter to the Darwinian model of origins is not good educational policy," the act says.
Buttars' act would further intelligent design in public schools by explaining it does not inject religion in lessors and that the Darwinian model is accepted by some scientists but rejected by others.
"It is actually a theory, a possible explanation, a single world view — one which is highly vulnerable to close scrutiny and can only survive in an environment in which alternative views are ridiculed, caricatured or, more seriously, ignored completely."
It's uncertain how much support intelligent design legislation would receive on Capitol Hill. Last week, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told reporters he believes intelligent design should not be taught in science classes and that the time to talk about other concepts comes largely at home or in religious settings.
"If it comes up in sociology or philosophy as differing views on creation, I think that's appropriate," Huntsman said. "But that doesn't happen until college or maybe later in high school."
The State Board of Education took a similar path Friday.
"I personally fervently . . . believe in intelligent design. (But) I believe it needs to be taught in the home and perhaps, religious institutions," board member Bill Colbert said. "It's a personal issue. Even if we try to teach it in a classroom, (I don't think teachers) can do justice to various beliefs that are out there in our communities."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

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