News from the National Academy of Sciences

A Request to Help Counter the Cobb County, Ga., School Board's Actions on the Teaching of Evolution in Public Schools

From a Letter by Bruce Alberts to Members of the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine Who Live in Georgia

September 18, 2002

Dear Colleagues:

You may be aware of the recent decision by the Cobb Country School Board to place disclaimers about biological evolution in biology textbooks and the recent efforts of some members of that Board to approve a policy that states that "discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education." Although we know that there are numerous controversies in science and technology, the policy includes the "origin of the species" as its only example.

The disclaimer in the textbooks has already been approved. However, a Cobb Country parent, Jeffrey Selman, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, has sued the county in order to remove the disclaimer. A letter circulated by Dr. Carlos Moreno, a professor in the department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, encourages the school board to reverse their decision before the case goes to court.

These kinds of actions by members of the school board are classic approaches to introduce Intelligent Design theory into the biology curriculum. Intelligent Design is a recent permutation of "creation science" that is being touted as an alternative to the modern theory of evolution. It is argued that molecular biology has now revealed that cells are formed from such a complex network of proteins and protein-generating processes that they could not have evolved without the intervention of a special outside intelligence. Proponents of Intelligent Design claim that their approach does not involve religious tenets and therefore does not violate the separation of church and state principle on which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases involving attempts to teach some form of "creation science" in public school science classes. School board members and the public are bombarded with arguments that including more than one approach to origins of life in science curricula promotes fairness, academic freedom, and intellectual openness.

A number of people in Georgia have brought these activities in Cobb County to our attention. Dr. Moreno, whose letter is mentioned above, has begun a campaign to have scientists in Georgia write to the members of the school board urging that these recent actions be reversed. He has also contacted the National Academies, asking us to provide additional resources to support the teaching of evolution in Cobb County public schools.

Of course, our greatest resource is our membership of distinguished scientists, engineers, and health professionals. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences or the Institute of Medicine, and as a citizen of Georgia, your help could be particularly effective in reversing these actions.

The new policy to encourage the "discussion of disputed views" is scheduled for a vote by the Cobb County School Board on Thursday, September 26. Accordingly, I am writing to ask that you consider contributing to this effort through one or more of the following actions:

  • Send e-mails or letters to members of the Cobb County School Board that state your position.
  • Write an op-ed piece for local and statewide newspapers spelling out your position on this issue. Such articles need to present the issues in ways that the general public can appreciate. Highly technical arguments are not likely to be as persuasive.

Given the organizational skills, experience, and political astuteness of those who promote creationism and Intelligent Design, I would suggest that you NOT agree to enter direct debates with the proponents if you have not been involved with such activities before.

The National Academy of Sciences has long been involved with helping individual states resolve these issues. We also have published two recent reports about these issues that may be of interest to you:

Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (1998). Available for reading at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/5787.html

Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd ed. (1999) Available for reading at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/6024.html

The process of confronting challenges to the teaching of evolution is not likely to end soon. Part of our strategy in promoting good science is to enlist the assistance of our members who live in the states where these debates arise.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Bruce Alberts
President
National Academy of Sciences

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