Cover Story
Cowan with a student in his classroom

Teach the controversy

Two years after Intelligent Design advocates lost a key court battle, some biology classrooms and ID supporters are finding a balanced approach to evolution that-so far-is lawsuit-proof

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

For 15 years Doug Cowan has taught the scientific evidence for and against Darwinism to biology students at Curtis High, a large public school several miles southwest of Tacoma, Wash. Over that time, the popular teacher and athletic coach has drawn periodic criticisms from community activists and local media. But he has faced no lawsuits and never worried over losing his job.

Students in Cowan's classes praise his balanced presentation. And parents rarely, if ever, raise objections. "I haven't heard a thing," he told WORLD. "Kids think it's really neat that I'm allowing them to weigh the evidence from both sides and make their own informed conclusions."

Throughout the country, many other attempts to teach evolution critically have faced stiff opposition. Educators and school board members have lost legal battles and even their jobs. What makes Cowan so different?

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"I don't teach alternative theories, because that's not part of the curriculum," he explained. "There aren't a whole lot of alternative theories other than design theory, but that's not in our curriculum. So unless a kid asks specifically about it, I don't deal with it."

Instead, Cowan deals more thoroughly with Darwinism than most existing biology textbooks, using resources from outside the standard evolutionary syllabus: Darwin on Trial, Icons of Evolution, Darwin's Black Box, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Cowan says the ideas he draws from these extra texts engage his students, challenging their ability to analyze and discern truth from competing sides of a controversial issue.

This fall, the 34-year teaching veteran will restructure his evenhanded presentation around a new textbook from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and Against Neo-Darwinism (Hill House Publishers, 2007) does not address alternative theories of origins but succinctly lays out the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the most critical elements of Darwinism. "It's made my work a lot easier," Cowan said.

Explore Evolution encapsulates a "teach the controversy" paradigm that the Discovery Institute has advocated for the better part of the past decade. Over that time, the institute has advised school boards against the inclusion of Intelligent Design in their science standards. Some boards have heeded that counsel; others have not.

In 2005, a now famous board in Dover, Pa., attempted to mandate the inclusion of ID in ninth-grade biology classes. Backed by the ACLU, parents sued and won a landmark decision in which a federal judge ruled that ID was religion, not science. The shockwaves of that decision reverberated nationwide and have quieted other efforts to push ID into schools.

But the Dover lawsuit also highlighted the effectiveness of the Discovery Institute's approach. State school boards in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Minnesota along with local boards in Wisconsin and Louisiana have adopted science standards that encourage critical analysis of Darwinian Theory. To date, not a single lawsuit has challenged such standards.

"This is an approach that if I were a Darwinist I would be particularly frightened of," said John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. "The policy that we've recommended turns out to be the precise common-ground approach we said it would be. It reduces the decibel level; you don't get sued; you get good education; and the Darwinists don't have a leg to stand on."

In the wake of the Dover ruling, many committed Darwinists declared victory for an uncritical approach to teaching evolution. But, in fact, the ruling has worked to galvanize a previously disjointed movement. Whereas many teachers and school boards might previously have shunned the "teach the controversy" strategy in favor of the more bold step of introducing ID, those groups and individuals are now more willing to listen.

John Calvert, managing director of IDnet, praises Explore Evolution as "enormously important." Since 2005, his organization has focused its efforts on bringing critical analysis of evolution into classrooms, not ID.

In past years, groups like IDnet might have rallied around another new textbook scheduled for publication this fall: The Design of Life, a rewrite of the ID-advancing classic Of Pandas and People. Like Explore Evolution, this 360-page text presents the scientific weaknesses of Darwinism, but it also goes further in outlining the case for ID. Authors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells lay out such noted design arguments as irreducible complexity and specified complexity.

The Design of Life publisher Jon Buell, president of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, has no illusions of his textbook cracking public-school curriculums in the wake of the Dover ruling. "Our book, we fully expect to be taught in university courses," he said. "We will not market to public schools."

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