In My Backyard: Creationism in California


In the spring 2005 issue of California Wild, the magazine of the California Academy of Sciences, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, a Fellow of the Academy, discussed creationism in California, in a piece entitled "In My Backyard." A section of the article briefly described controversies over evolution education in the Roseville, California, schools over the last few years.

Subsequently, Larry Caldwell, a Roseville resident active in those controversies, filed suit against Scott and NCSE, alleging that "false statements about Caldwell in the Scott Article are defamatory per se, since they expose him to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy ...." Scott and NCSE obtained pro bono legal representation from Robert Mahnke and Warrington Parker III of the San Francisco office of Heller Ehrman LLP.

Caldwell also threatened lawsuits against California Wild and a number of people who quoted from or posted links to the article on California Wild's website. In response, California Wild removed the article from its website in June. Caldwell also has an ongoing suit against the Roseville Joint Union High School District for allegedly violating his civil rights during those controversies.

Scott corrected a small number of errors in a letter to the editor published in the summer 2005 issue of California Wild, including some of which Caldwell had complained. When that letter appeared, various creationism-promoting institutions accused NCSE of a "campaign of disinformation" and a "pattern of making false claims and character attacks," uncritically repeating Caldwell's allegations. On the contrary, NCSE contends that it has well earned its reputation as the most important and reliable source for information on the creationism/evolution controversy.

NCSE is pleased that California Wild has now posted a corrected version of "In My Backyard" on its website. To enable readers to decide for themselves whether the corrected errors were minor, as Scott contends, or outrageous, as Caldwell contends, NCSE is posting the following corrected version of the article with the changes indicated. We believe that the evidence speaks for itself.

Deletions are shown in strikeout and additions in green.

In My Backyard


Creationism in California


by Eugenie C. Scott

In November 2004 March 2002, a school district in Cobb County, Georgia, pasted an antievolution disclaimer into its biology textbooks. The disclaimer read, in part, "Evolution is theory, not fact," meaning that evolution was speculation, rather than a foundational idea of science.

Evolution, after all, is the idea that the universe has had a history: that stars, galaxies, planets and living things have changed through time, and that living things have a genealogical relationship. Although scientists argue about the details of how evolution occurred, none argue over whether evolution took place. That a school board felt it had to make an antievolution gesture just seems so nineteenth century. Many Californians chalked up this example of the persistent creationism/evolution controversy to the fact that it happened in, well, Georgia. They were no doubt thinking, I'm glad this problem is not in my backyard.

But alas, no. California has had its share of creationism/evolution clashes too.

The state is in fact the home of the largest creationism organization in the country, the Institute for Creation Research, based in Santee, east of San Diego. And, lest northern Californians start feeling smug, two of the leaders of the Intelligent Design (ID) creationism movement have connections with the University of California, Berkeley. Retired Boalt Hall law professor Phillip Johnson is a chief architect of the ID political and rhetorical approach, and Jonathan Wells, author of the best-selling antievolution screed Icons of Evolution, received his PhD from the university's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. ID up and comer Jed Macosko, now in the department of physics at Wake Forest University, also did postgraduate work in Berkeley, where he taught a class (which, gratefully, did not carry science credit) called "Evidence for Design in Nature."

At the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), we monitor the creationism/evolution controversy and provide information and advice to those who want to keep evolution in classrooms and creationism out. Over the years we have seen school board candidates run on creationist platforms. We have seen textbooks declared to contain "too much evolution," or rejected because they don't "balance" the teaching of evolution with teachings from the Bible. We have had calls from teachers wondering what to do about the instructor down the hall who refuses to teach evolution, or who brings personal religious views into the classroom. And we have had calls from students complaining about teachers openly proselytizing during class time.

Local school districts are where most curriculum decisions are made. Because our center has had considerable experience advising school boards and parents on creationism/evolution issues, we receive many calls about school boards that want to limit the teaching of evolution in some way, including passing "theory not fact" policies such as were recently the issue in Georgia. Parents often pressure board members to add intelligent design to curricula, while some ministers invited to school assemblies use the opportunity to gain converts to creationism.

Charter schools, freed from some bureaucratic constraints, sometimes try to stretch the science curriculum to include creationism. Problems don't occur only at schools: informal science centers like zoos, science museums, aquaria, and national parks are also sites where evolution gets questioned. Visitors may protest evolution being presented without qualifiers ("some scientists believe") or argue against the presentation of the Earth's age as ancient.

These incidents occur across the country, not just in Bible belt areas. They are more likely to arise in small towns and suburbs than large urban settings: problems in California occur more frequently in places like Hemet, Vista, Morgan Hill, San Juan Capistrano, Chester, and Weed, than in San Diego or San Francisco. Small towns and suburbs are naturally more homogeneous. If that homogeneity includes a sizeable degree of religious and political conservatism, the environment is ripe for the eruption of a creationism/evolution controversy. Battles are usually triggered by events such as science textbook adoptions, the writing or revision of state science education standards, and school board elections.

During the early decades of the 20th century, creationists made it a crime to teach evolution. In 1925, the statute's legitimacy was tested when John Scopes was tried in Dayton, Tennessee for defying the law. Scopes lost, the laws stayed on the books, and publishers swiftly eliminated evolution from high school textbooks. It returned in the 1960s thanks to a movement to reform science education. In 1968 the Supreme Court struck down antievolution laws – which weren't being enforced anyway – and the teaching of evolution brought forth a new form of antievolutionism, "creation science."

Creation science proposes that the universe appeared all at once in its present form a few thousand years ago, and that this biblical literalist view is supported by scientific data. No substantial change in astronomical or biological phenomena has taken place since then, they say. The face of the earth was shaped by a real Noah's Flood, which deposited all the sedimentary deposits in the world, carved the Grand Canyon, pushed up the Rockies and the Himalayas, and gouged out the oceans.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, so-called "equal time" legislation was introduced in at least 24 states – including California – that would require the teaching of "creation science" if evolution were taught. The argument was that if creationism could be made scientific, it deserved to be taught in the public schools.

Conservative Christians, whose theology requires some degree of biblical literalism, are the driving force behind American antievolutionism. They make up a substantial number of Americans: polls estimate religious conservatives comprise anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the population. However, the majority of American Christians belong to denominations rejecting biblical literalism. Catholics, according to official doctrine, believe that God created through evolution, while mainstream Protestants accept some variants of this idea.

Because no empirical evidence supports such views, creation science concentrates instead on the supposed shortcomings of evolutionary science. Evolution didn't happen, they claim, because the second law of thermodynamics supposedly prevents natural phenomena from becoming more complex over time. This law is used to argue against the universe originating in the "Big Bang," the evolution of complex life, and the development of biological diversity. Gaps in the fossil record are regularly trotted out, while the gradual transitions in the fossils of birds, whales, humans, and many other animals are ignored. Natural selection, based on random variation of genetic material and adaptive differential reproduction, is said to be too weak a mechanism to account for complexity. Any argument against evolution is considered evidence in support of creationism.

Creation science literature presents the teaching of both creation science and evolution as good pedagogy. Teach the students both views, and let them decide, they urge. But science is not a democratic process. All theories are not created equal. Science, in fact, is highly discriminatory. It discards explanations that don't work. The idea that everything appeared all at one time in its present form was rejected as science even before Darwin. It is not good pedagogy to teach students erroneous information: it wastes time, and confuses students as to the scientific consensus.

The "fairness" argument has been extremely successful for antievolutionists. Fairness and equal time deservedly are important American cultural values, and most Americans respond favorably to them. Many citizens do not realize that these otherwise valuable sentiments are irrelevant to decisions about what to teach in the science classroom. If there were other scientific theories explaining what evolution explains, scientists would be teaching them.

Efforts to mandate the teaching of creation science were brought to a halt by the Supreme Court's 1987 Edwards vs. Aguillard decision concerning a Louisiana equal time law. The Court declared creation science to be a religious idea and that advocating it would unconstitutionally promote religion in the public schools. Creation science as a legal strategy was over, although creation science as a social movement has continued to grow and spread.

Since then, a new strategy known as "Intelligent Design" has come into being. It grew out of the Edwards decision itself, which noted that it was legal to teach "scientific alternatives to evolution." Proponents of ID proclaimed it to be one such alternative.

Unlike creation science, ID makes no fact claims about the origins of the universe, or the history of Earth, or of life on Earth. Instead, it proposes that some things in nature are too complex to have been formed from natural causes and therefore must have been produced by "an intelligence." Some structures showing an unexpectedly high level of organization (e.g., the first life forms, or cellular structures such as the flagella of bacteria) are inferred to be too complex for chance to have brought them about.

Of course, no evolutionary biologist ascribes the bacterial flagellum or other complex structures to the chance assembly of parts: natural selection is a mechanism that can generate complexity, and there may be other mechanisms not yet discovered. This last brings up another problem with ID: most scientists appreciate that we do not yet understand everything there is to know about the natural world. But if a natural cause for something is not known (indeed, there is no scientific consensus on the origin of life, or the evolutionary assembly of the bacterial flagellum) it's not helpful to throw up one's hands and say, "I don't know! God must have done it!" The scientific approach would be to say, "I don't know, yet," and keep looking.

ID does not identify the "intelligent agent" and nothing is said about how or when or with what this agent created life. This "creationism lite" makes no claims about the origin of Grand Canyon by Noah's Flood, or a 10,000 year old Earth. This avoids immediate rejection by the scholarly community, and accommodates a wide variety of antievolutionists, including biblical literalist/young earth supporters as well as more moderate Christians. But most ID literature merely asserts the failure of evolution to explain complexity, and makes no attempt to provide an alternative model. It is a variant of the creation science maxim that "evidence against evolution is evidence for creationism."

In recent years, the main think tank of ID, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, has shifted to advocating that "evidence against evolution," or EAE, be taught rather than ID. It's a tacit admission that there is no evidence for their position. Perhaps ID proponents began to realize that design implies a designer, an agent, and that judges would figure out pretty quickly that the intended agent was God. Once proposals for teaching ID were recognized as a back door way of teaching "God did it," the Center realized, such policies would be declared unconstitutional. Better to convince students that evolution didn't occur and let them conclude that the only reasonable explanation left is creation by God.

The history of creationism has followed a pattern. First, creationists attempted to ban evolution, then to teach creation science, next to teach ID, and now (most commonly) they lobby to teach EAE. The creationism/evolution controversy that occurred in the northern California community of Roseville during 2004 is a microcosm of this history.

Roseville is a community of about 92,000 people about 20 miles from Sacramento. For several years a school board split between moderates and conservatives has argued over evolution, sex education and other hot educational issues. In 2001, one school board member proposed requiring the teaching of creation science. In a letter to the community she wrote, "I believe God has given us these scientists and this information at this time to use for this exact purpose."

In June 2003, the Roseville district was choosing a textbook for high school biology courses. One local citizen, Larry Caldwell, protested that the book favored by teachers took a "one-sided" approach to teaching evolution. Like all commercial textbooks, the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston textbook includes evolution but no creationist or antievolution content. Caldwell said that the textbook did not invite students to "think critically" about the subject of evolution and he and other citizens offered a stack of supplemental books and videotapes instructional materials that would redress the book's deficiencies. These were an odd mixture of ID and creation science: DVDs including: a videotape promoted by the Discovery Institute; a young-earth creationist book, Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Safarti Sarfati; and the Jehovah's Witness book Life: How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or Creation? Thanks to its free distribution, this book is probably the most widely-circulated creation science book in the country. It is unknown who submitted the creation science materials, while Caldwell submitted the video as well as materials written by ID proponent Cornelius Hunter. Reportedly, the creation science books were not considered further by the district.

District teachers strongly opposed these materials. The board, even with a 4-1 antievolutionist majority, found it difficult to mandate promote their use over strong educator rejection, but they persevered. At the next meeting, they declared that the creationist materials would be "recommended" but not required, and that each school could decide whether or not to use them the submitted materials. This was to provide an opportunity for creationist parents to lobby teachers and administrators. The board district office also organized an "information session" for teachers on the supplementary materials led by Caldwell and ID supporter Cornelius Hunter, a local engineer and author of several religiously-oriented antievolution books and articles.

The polite but unconvinced teachers suggested the supplementary materials be sent to scientists at the University of California, Davis, California State University, Sacramento, and Brigham Young University (one of the school board members is a Mormon) to review the materials and Caldwell's analysis of the Holt textbook.

The scientists' report unanimously declared Caldwell's supplementary materials unscientific. His Hunter's comments about evolution in the textbook analysis did not express professional scientists' view of evolution. One scientist wrote of Caldwell's Hunter's "gross misunderstanding of the nature of science." Another, in exasperation, wrote, "... consider that the thousands of us who practice evolutionary biology daily might just not be such blind fools as to miss the ‘flaws' that Hunter thinks are fatal to what we do." The most "positive" comment from the scientists' critiques was that one of the ID videos might have some educational value as "a tongue-in-cheek example of weak argumentative strategy and pseudo science." The school district administration agreed not to adopt the materials.

But the district administration's rejection was not the same as rejection by its board of education. Caldwell filed a complaint against the district and claimed that the adoption of the Holt textbook did not follow the rules because parent input in the process was inadequate. He also proposed that the board consider a policy he drew up, which he called the "Quality Science Education" policy, which was an EAE approach couched in the language of critical thinking. Quoting the California State Board of Education Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences (1989), it read, in part,

…because "nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically [and] scientific theories are constantly subject to testing, modification, and refutation as new evidence and new ideas emerge" teachers in the Roseville Joint Union High School District are expected to help students analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, including the theory of evolution.

Months passed while the board studied the issue, heard citizen commentary, and repeatedly postponed the vote. Letters to the editors of regional newspapers appeared in abundance. Citizens complained that the board was spending too much time and money on creationism, and not addressing bread and butter issues such as funding and class size. Twenty-eight of the 32 science teachers in the district signed a petition against the policy and a sister proposal to set up antievolution centers in libraries. The board, apparently exhausted from the almost year-long struggle, voted 3:2 against instituting the policy.

In the November 2004 elections, one of the anti-evolution incumbents was voted out of did not run for office re-election and two new members were elected. The board shifted its focus to what they considered more pressing issues. Creationism in Roseville seemed, finally, to be a dead issue.

But in January of 2005, Larry Caldwell sued the district and certain administrators for not providing him due process. A district teacher sighed, "here we go again."

Meanwhile, back in Cobb County, Georgia, parents angry at the inclusion of the textbook disclaimer sued and won the first round in Federal District court. The school board has appealed the decision. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, parents sued their school board over its policy requiring the teaching of ID and EAE (worded as "gaps/problems in Darwin's theory").

Although California is on the cutting edge of scientific research, proponents of teaching creationism in the public schools are nonetheless banging on the doors. Even in the Bay Area, we have small towns and suburbs with substantial minorities of religious conservatives who do not like evolution. If a parent asks a teacher, "you aren't going to teach evolution, are you?" the teacher may decide — because the curriculum is overstuffed with topics anyway — that it is easier to not get around to teaching evolution.

Antievolutionists recently ran for school boards in Castro Valley and Modesto. California is not immune to creationism and antievolutionism – it is in our backyard.

Eugenie C. Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, which actively supports the teaching of evolution in schools and fights a constant battle against the dark side.