Evolution affirmed in Utah


At its meeting on September 2, 2005, the Utah state board of education unanimously adopted a position statement that described evolution as "a major unifying concept in science and appropriately included in Utah's K-12 Science Core Curriculum." The statement, according to the Deseret Morning News (September 3, 2005), was prepared at the behest of board chairman Kim Burningham "by a group of 22 scientists, professors and community members, including members of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee and the Catholic Diocese" in reaction to the ongoing controversy over evolution education across the country.

The vote comes on the heels of on-again off-again threats by state senator Chris Buttars (R-District 10) to introduce legislation that would require teaching "intelligent design" -- which he originally called "divine design" -- in the science classrooms of Utah's public schools. Buttars, who attended the meeting, requested that the board defer its vote until he presented a two-hour exposition of "intelligent design"; the board declined his request. The Deseret Morning News quoted Buttars as telling the board that evolution "has more holes than a crocheted bathtub." According to the Salt Lake Tribune (September 2, 2005), only Buttars and two supporters protested the adoption of the statement.

About a dozen scientists in attendance endorsed the statement, telling the board that "intelligent design" is not good science. Duane Jeffrey, a professor of biology at Brigham Young (and NCSE board member) compared "intelligent design" to astrology and pyramid power, while Gregory Clark, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, told the board, "Intelligent design fails as science because it does exactly that -- it posits that life is too complex to have arisen from natural causes, and instead requires the intervention of an intelligent designer who is beyond natural explanation. Invoking the supernatural can explain anything, and hence explains nothing."

At the meeting, Buttars told the board that he intended either to introduce legislation calling for the teaching of "intelligent design" or arrange for there to be a referendum on next year's ballot. He told the Deseret Morning News that 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"; the newspaper quoted the act as saying, "We believe that excluding recent scientific discoveries simply because they run counter to the Darwinian model of origins is not good educational policy."

It is unclear how much support Buttars's bill would enjoy if introduced. Previously, Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr (R) was reported in the Salt Lake Tribune (August 29, 2005) as disagreeing with President Bush's apparent endorsement on August 1 of teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools. "It is a science class," he told the Tribune. "Our schools are largely secular institutions. ... I would expect my kids in science class to be instructed in those things that are somewhat quantifiable and based on thorough and rigorous empirical research" (emphasis in original). Huntsman said that he had no objection to "intelligent design" as a topic for a sociology or a psychology class.

In its editorial "Resisting temptation: Board stands on firm scientific ground" (September 7, 2005), the Salt Lake Tribune praised the board for its vote, writing, "The board was not only correct, but also refreshingly quick and unanimous, in approving last Friday a new position statement affirming that evolution is, indeed, 'a unifying concept in science' and 'a necessary part of science classroom instruction.'" The editorial also criticized Buttars for dismissing "evolutionary theory as 'a theory, not a fact,' when scientifically literate people know that theories are models for describing facts, not mere shots in the dark," adding, "Shots in the dark such as intelligent design."

Utah State Board of Education Position Statement on Teaching Evolution

The Theory of Evolution is a major unifying concept in science and appropriately included in Utah's K-12 Science Core Curriculum.
This position is consistent with that taken by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and most other scientific and educational organizations. The Utah State Board of Education and these organizations affirm science as an essential way of understanding for all students and the importance of evolution as a unifying concept in science.

Science: A Way of Knowing
Science is a distinctive way of understanding the natural world. Science seeks to increase our understanding through empirical evidence. As a way of knowing, science assumes that anything that can be measured or observed is amenable to scientific investigation. By the very nature of scientific inquiry, there are infinite possibilities for further refinement of current knowledge and understanding.

Understanding may be derived from sources and perspectives other than science such as historical and logical analyses, art, religion and philosophy. These sources rely upon other ways of knowing, such as emotion and faith. While these ways of understanding and creating meaning are important to individuals and society, they are not amenable to scientific investigation and thus not appropriate for inclusion in the science currulum. Science relies nearly exclusively on observation and empirical evidence. Since progress in the modern world is tied so closely to this way of knowing, scientific literacy is essential for a society to be competitively engaged in a global economy.

Evolution: A Unifying Concept
Evolution in the broadest sense can be defined as the idea that the universe has a history and has changed over time. Observation of the galaxies, stars, planet Earth, and life on Earth clearly demonstrates that significant changes have occurred. There is abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology, and other sciences that evolution has taken place. This evidence is found in widely divergent areas, from the geologic fossil record to DNA analysis.

Evolution is an ongoing process with crucial implications for disciplines such as medicine, agriculture and conservation biology. The Theory of Evolution provides a unifying basis upon which the elements of life are understood and upon which predictions can be made. Moreover, viewing present-day organisms as products of evolution provides the most productive framework for investigating and understanding their structure and function. As such, evolution is a unifying concept for science and provides the foundation for understanding nature. The National Science Education Standards from the National Academies of Science and Benchmarks for Science Literacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science identify evolution as a unifying concept across the major disciplines of science. Scientific disciplines with strong historical components -- such as astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology -- rely upon the concepts of evolution to understand the nature of changes that have occurred or can be predicted.

There is little or no debate among credible scientists about whether evolution has taken place. However, since our understanding is still incomplete, there is considerable and productive debate about processes of evolution. Research questions remain, and scientists often disagree about their explanations, as they should. The nature of science encourages ongoing and meaningful investigation of all assertions made by science. Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment and observation as all scientific theories are subject to continued evaluation.

While some describe the principle of evolution as "just a theory," the scientific definition of a theory is far more rigorous than may be commonly understood. In science, a theory is a systematic explanation of observed phenomena. It must be consistent with all natural laws and withstand the scrutiny and inquiry of the scientific community. The National Academy of Sciences has stated, "Evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have." As a fundamental scientific concept, evolution is a necessary part of science classroom instruction, and it will continue to be taught and progressively refined as a key scientific principle.

Student Beliefs and Teaching Evolution
Teachers should be aware that students bring with them a set of beliefs. Teachers and students should respect and be nonjudgmental about students' beliefs, and teachers should help students understand that science is an essential way of knowing. Teachers should encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts with their parents or religious leaders. Science teachers should make available to interested parents their planned instruction and the context for that instruction.

(Transcribed from the PDF [page 1; page 2] available on the Salt Lake Tribune website.)