Schools Still Debate Evolution

The battle over teaching evolution in the classroom is an old one. In 1925, America was preoccupied by the so-called Scopes monkey trial, triggered when a teacher wanted to teach Charles Darwin’s theory, that humans were the biological descendants of apes.

"Blasphemy," cried those who believed the Bible. "God created the universe and man in just six days."

To suppress this new theory of evolution, traditionalists in Dayton, Tenn., passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution. But as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jacqueline Adams reports, one determined high school teacher volunteered to test that law. He started a battle that is still being fought 74 years later.

In 1925, John Scopes was that science teacher and athletic coach in Dayton, a town that H.L. Mencken once described as "full of charm and even some beauty."

At age 24, Scopes accepted his first teaching post here, after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1924.

The Tennessee legislature had passed the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

The American Civil Liberties Union subsequently recruited Scopes to expose students to Darwin’s theory of evolution. He drove around the town square in the back of a taxicab, reading Darwin’s hypotheses to groups of students.

The upcoming battle was facetiously dubbed the monkey trial.

The Johnny Cochran of that day, Clarence Darrow, defended Scopes. But he lost to the equally famous William Jennings Bryan. A three-time presidential contender, Bryan was considered a radical politician, in part, because of his spirited Bible-thumping on the campaign trail.

Now, 74 years after the Scopes trial, the argument between creationists and evolutionists is still going strong. And the fight is as much over politics as it is over science and faith.

The issue then was no longer the innocence or guilt of Scopes, but rather a struggle between two basic human philosophies: fundamentalism vs. modernism.

These days, Linda Holloway, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Education, has been getting a lot of hate mail since she led a majority of the panel a couple months ago in a controversial rewrite of the state’s science standards.

"You gutless, spineless cowards, letting fascist, religious fanatics determine what children get taught," one letter reads. "You deserve what you get. Your children will grow up as stupid as you."

Kansas law says that every three years, the Board of Education has to look at what’s being taught in the public schools. But critics insist that this time, the politicians went too far. They deleted virtually any mention of evolution from state guidelines for science teachers, and they’ll no longer include the sbject in statewide exams.

Holloway claims she wasn’t trying to sneak Bible teachings into the classroom. The Supreme Court forbade that in 1987. All the board wants, she says, is for science teachers to be more open-minded.

"What they wanted was a very, very narrow view of evolution, a very narrow approach. No room for questions. No room for, 'Is there a problem with this?'" says Holloway.

"There is no room to even mention that there might be any kind of divine intervention, or to even have that thought," she says.

Science teachers were outraged by the board’s rewrite, especially since it tossed out paragraphs on evolution that the teachers themselves had drafted. At the fall meeting of their Kansas association, biology teachers worried that their kids won’t be able to compete nationwide if they don’t have to learn evolution in high school.

"I’m not trained to be a Sunday school teacher for all these different ideas and interpretations," says Brad Williamson, who has been teaching science in the public schools for 27 years. As far as he’s concerned, the subject of evolution isn’t open for debate.

"If you were to go around and ask scientists around the world for the five biggest ideas in all of science, physics, chemistry everything, I would wager that evolution will show up in those five," he says. "That puts it up there with things like atomic theory….It puts it up there with Newton’s work."

"I’m sorry. I think every theory should be open to investigation, particularly…if there’s new evidence or new thought," Holloway maintains. She contends there are also scientists who don’t think evolution has been settled.

One of those scientists is Kurt Wise. He teaches in Dayton, at the Christian fundamentalist college, named for prosecutor William Jennings Bryan.

While Wise may have a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard University, long before he studied there, his faith convinced him the Bible is right. He says the Earth isn’t billions of years old, as evolutionists claim.

The Earth is only several thousand years old, he argues, and there’s plenty of proof that the rock formations in a coal mine near the college were created during Noah’s flood.

"During the flood, we’ve got volcanoes going off, mixing volcanic ash in with accumulated plant material," Wise explains. "In the course of probably just a few weeks of time after the flood, it gets coalified into our modern layers of coal….It defies what is taught in geology."

Despite his beliefs, Wise thinks the Kansas Board of Education was wrong to suggest taking evolution out of the classroom. He contends that creation theory isn’t ready to replace it.

In Kansas, many children say the controversy over evolution has taught them more science than they’d ever learned before.

And for Kansas scientists, evoluion isn’t a fit subject for politicians to monkey around with, largely because of Castle Rock. The mysterious 150-foot cliffs are a shocking interruption on the flat, hard prairie.

For half a century, though, fossil hunters have been combing the chalk formations, finding proof that an ocean covered the plains 150 million years ago, in the final days of the dinosaurs.

Proof like that, they say, stood up to attacks during the Scopes trial. And now, it might even survive the Kansas Board of Education.

To learn more about the Kansas decision, read "Evolution's Fight for Survival."