Evolutionary biologist Don Waller on creationism vs. evolution in schools
(CNN) -- Don Waller is professor of Botany and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He teaches genetics, plant breeding-plant genetics, conservation biology and sustainable development in the university's graduate program.
Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN.com, Professor Don Waller. Could you give us some basic background about how this debate arose in Kansas?
Don Waller: The debate is one that's been around the U.S. along time, but one that has not occurred in other countries. We are all familiar with the Scopes trial that occurred in the 1920s when Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution.
The Supreme Court of the United States struck down a law that Arkansas passed in the 1990s, declaring that it violated the separation of church and state, but the creationists have not given up.
It is interesting that a certain group should consider their religious beliefs so threatened by science, but it is not true of most Christians. Christian theologists do not feel threatened by evolutionary biology, yet this one group does, and they have taken extraordinary steps to try to block the teaching of evolution.
Because of the Supreme Court decision in the Arkansas case, creationist tactics have changed. They are now trying to block science standards and textbooks they feel promote the teaching of evolution.
Question from chat room: How could teaching creationism possibly be legal under constitutional separation of church and state?
Don Waller: That is a good question and it is not legal. This is what the Supreme Court struck down in the Arkansas case, and it is why the creationist tactics have changed. Because it is illegal to teach creationism, the creationists have devised other tactics to promote their views. These other tactics include promoting what they call creation science.
Chat Moderator: What is the Kansas Board of Education voting on tomorrow?
Don Waller: The issue in Kansas involves science standards. As you know, nationwide, we've become increasingly concerned with the quality of education. One tool we are using is science standards to ensure the quality of education.
In the late 1990s, creationists successfully elected representatives to the Kansas Board of Education that blocked the approval of science standards in August of 1999. In particular, the Kansas Board of Education insisted that all mention of evolution and evolutionary biology be removed from the science standards. This brought immediate national attention to Kansas.
Chat Moderator: What has happened to science teaching since then?
Don Waller: It made Kansas and the Kansas Board of Education the butt of jokes across the country and around the world. Since then, those concerned with education and with science have succeeded in electing moderates to the Kansas Board of Education.
Question from chat room: I do not see that creationism and evolution are in conflict with each other. How do you see it as so?
Don Waller: As I said before, most Christians do not view evolution as a threat, and I certainly don't see Christianity as in conflict with evolution; neither does the Pope. Yet, a small minority has worked very hard to defeat the teaching of evolution in Kansas. It is obvious that there is a conflict, but the conflict exists only for this group.
Question from chat room: When the Louisiana creation science case went before the Supreme Court, and the court struck it down, the vote was 7-2. The two dissenters were Renquist and Scalia. What are the chances that the Court will revisit the issue, and your thoughts on the potential outcome?
Don Waller: Seven to two is still a strong decision. Although the Court has become more conservative, I consider it highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would reverse itself on this decision.
Question from chat room: As a Catholic, we don't interpret the Bible as do fundamentalists; is there room for compromise?
Don Waller: Definitely. There is a broad spectrum of religious beliefs. There are theistic evolutionists, for example, who believe strongly in the compatibility of evolution and their religious beliefs. Catholics, in particular, find compatibility between their beliefs and modern biology.
Question from chat room: Professor Waller, during the time of Darwin and Agassiz, the natural history museum was an integral part of the debate about evolution. Why do you think that today's museums devote so little space to DNA, genetics, and the molecular basis of evolution?
Don Waller: Well, many museums do pay attention to DNA evolution. There is a wonderful exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago on the history of life with heavy emphasis on the molecular, as well as the paleontological record.
But I think many museums tend to emphasize physical artifacts and things people can see easily. I predict that with today's news about the human genotype and further discoveries regarding the genetic similarity between people and other animals, that we will see more museum exhibits in the future on this.
Question from chat room: What do the creationists wish to have taught in place of evolution--I don't imagine people of other faiths would accept the teaching of creationism. Do they simply want the whole concept of human biological history to be blacked out?
Don Waller: That is a good question. Most creation scientists spend more of their time telling teachers what not to teach than to provide constructive suggestions on what to teach instead. If you look at their Web sites, they've indicated an interest in topics like "intelligent design." Intelligent design is an argument that claims that adaptations and complexity must reflect the action of an intelligent creator.
Question from chat room: What is creation science?
Don Waller: It is not a science. It is an attempt to replace free inquiry and experimental approaches with a doctrine based on faith. Creation "scientists" dispute particular findings, but have no alternative theory to present that scientists can take seriously.
Question from chat room: Isn't it necessary in the way we teach children to at least give them many different theories or ideas so that they can decide for themselves what they want to believe?
Don Waller: Of course. But we must also teach them critical thinking, rigorous thinking and, especially with children, we should make efforts to emphasize free and open inquiry rather than insisting on doctrine. The evidence is overwhelming, the evidence is a tidal wave, and the evidence has demolished the argument of creationists. They are a small minority who refuse to accept this evidence.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?
Don Waller: The broader issue is really about quality education for our children. The U.S. ranks high in terms of science education through the elementary grade, and then, for reasons I don't understand, the ranking of U.S. science education falls during middle and high school.
We have an obligation to our youth to train them in the best way possible, and in the 21st Century, this demands quality biology education, which in turn demands an understanding of evolution.
Biotechnology is emerging as a major industry. Biomedicine has been a major industry for a long time. You cannot be an effective doctor today without understanding evolution, how the body was put together and its relationship with other animals, and how pathogens evolve. We live in a world that is changing rapidly -- emerging diseases, the rapid spread of weedy exotic invaders, and the biomolecular revolution.
Don Waller: Evolution is fundamental to all of these. We don't expect lectures on creation myths in our biology courses. It is fine to teach creation myths in courses like history, but don't take the precious time in science and spend it on something other than biology.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining our discussion today, Professor Don Waller.
Don Waller: Thank you.
Professor Waller joined the chat via telephone from Wisconsin, and CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat on Tuesday, February 13, 2001.
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