Connecticut may seem like a surprising place to find creationism being promoted, but that's exactly what's happening these days. The recent election of Chester Harris to the school board serving the Connecticut towns of Haddam and Killingworth is very troubling and worthy of widespread attention.
Harris defines himself as a creationist, and in his first weeks on the job he's already met with science teachers to discuss the issue. There are serious problems with every aspect of this situation, from his discussions to the reasons he articulated for his anti-science position.
Let's start with the fact that he met with teachers to discuss the science curriculum. An article in the Hartford Courant quoted Charles J. Macunas, principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School, as defending Harris's actions. "As a new board member, he was just trying to get a handle on content that's taught in an area he's very passionate about." Given the power imbalance between principal and board member, could anyone possibly expect the former to do anything other than defend the actions of the latter?
The balance of power is skewed even further when science teachers are pitted against a board member. The fact that Harris is "very passionate about" creationism just raises the stakes even higher and makes it unlikely that this was just a friendly chat.
A while back, I published research examining the opinions high school biology teachers held on the evolution/creation controversy. That research has something important to teach us about the current situation. High school biology teachers reported that members of the administration were one of the leading sources of pressure to alter the teaching of evolution. From the people on the ground, the ones responsible for teaching our students, there simply can't be any idle conversations about this topic with a passionate member of the school board.
What about Harris's reasons for this position -- a position completely at odds with that of the world's scientific community and with the State of Connecticut's Core Science Curriculum Framework?
He asserts, "Evolution is basically an assumption that there is no God."
Evolution simply notes that alleles, alternative forms of genes, change in a population over time. More importantly, though, evolutionary theory, like all scientific theories, is silent on the existence of any god; such an issue is well beyond the boundaries of science. Religious leaders as well as scientists fully understand this point. Indeed, more than 13,000 religious leaders in the United States have joined The Clergy Letter Project and have signed one of three Clergy Letters imploring school boards to teach evolutionary theory in science classes.
Harris goes on to note that proponents of evolution "haven't proven anything. It's all still theory and faith."
Wrong! Wrong! And Wrong! It is amazing that Harris can make three significant errors in a mere nine words.
First, biologists have most certainly observed evolution in action in both the field and the laboratory. Second, since theory is as good as it gets in science, saying that evolution is "still theory," is actually quite a compliment. After all, it takes a huge amount of data for an idea to rise to the level of a scientific theory. Evolutionary theory is as comprehensive and robust a scientific theory as exists in any discipline; it offers us far more insight, for example, than does gravitational theory. Third, faith has nothing to do with evolutionary theory. If the data were to pose problems, scientists would be compelled to leave evolutionary theory behind. But the data, from genetics to developmental biology, from physiology to molecular biology, from every corner of the biological world, provide support for the theory of evolution.
Finally, Harris proclaims that "it's time for balance."
In fact, there's simply nothing to "balance." Evolutionary theory is the framework for all of biology -- it is the one thing that ties all portions of the subject together in a meaningful manner. As the great population geneticist Theodosious Dobzhansky said in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." For teachers today to imply that evolution is a controversial topic within the scientific community would be doing our students a grave disservice.
Even though Chester Harris's opinions are so very wrong, that doesn't make them unpopular. State legislatures around the country continue their political assault on evolution -- often in the name of religion. Just since the start of this year, for example, troubling bills have been introduced in Kentucky and Missouri.
Those of us who want our children to be scientifically literate and for our public school curricula not to be controlled by proponents of a single, narrow religious persuasion need to be vigilant. We need to educate our neighbors when people like Chester Harris make pronouncements that are so far from the facts. And, oddly enough, in this battle to protect science education, we need to heed the words of thousands of clergy members who have come together to proclaim , "We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."