One Town’s Battle Over Creationism

With its glossy cover, full-color illustrations, and chapter titles like “Homology” and “Genetics and Macroevolution,” “Of Pandas and People” sure looks like a science textbook, and a classy one at that.

By Leon Lynn

But get past the flashy packaging and start digging into the text, and it soon becomes clear that it’s not. “Of Pandas and People” is a creationist treatise dressed up to look like a legitimate discussion of science.

“Pandas” is published by a group called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, based in the Dallas suburb of Richardson. Advocates of creationism have tried to get “Pandas” adopted as a state textbook in Idaho, Alabama, and Texas, and pro-creationism school board members have sought its local adoption in numerous school districts, including Vista, CA and Louisville, OH (See the related article on Louisville in this issue). Conservative groups such as Concerned Women for America and Citizens for Excellence in Education have championed “Pandas,” portraying it as a factual scientific analysis that tears gaping holes in the theory of evolution.

“Pandas” claims to offer evidence for the so-called “theory of intelligent design.” Simply put, “intelligent design” is the belief that life is so complex and remarkable that it could not have developed without an intelligent, purposeful guiding hand. According to the book:

When we find “John loves Mary” written in the sand, we assume it resulted from an intelligent cause. Experience is the basis for science as well. When we find a complex message coded into the nucleus of a cell, it is reasonable to draw the same conclusion. … To say that DNA and protein arose by natural causes, as chemical evolution does, is to say complex, coded messages arose by natural causes. It is akin to saying “John loves Mary” arose from the action of the waves, or from the interaction of the grains of sand. It is like saying the painting of a sunset arose spontaneously from the atoms in the paint and canvas.

The identity of the “designer” is never specifically discussed, thus providing creationists with grounds to claim, however transparently, that “Pandas” isn’t arguing for the existence of God or promoting a religious view. The 170-page book claims to present data from different scientific disciplines which discredit evolution and support the “scientific rationale” behind intelligent design. Page after page of professionally prepared charts and illustrations appear to show how concrete scientific evidence supports the existence of the unnamed “designer.”

The emphasis is on presenting intelligent design as a legitimate scientific theory, one that’s at least as credible as the theory of evolution. Readers, presumably students, are told in the book’s introduction that if they don’t read “Pandas,” they will “miss a lot of interesting science.” The introduction also says that the authors hope readers “finish this book respecting good scientists of all persuasions; we do.”

“Worthless and Dishonest”

A lot of good scientists, however, don’t have any respect for “Of Pandas and People.” Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, termed the book “worthless and dishonest” in a 1989 review. Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the authors of the science framework for California’s schools, called “Pandas” no less than “a wholesale distortion of modern biology.” He said: “It is hard to say what is worst in this book: the misconceptions of its sub-text, the intolerance for honest science, or the incompetence with which science is presented. In any case, teachers should be warned against using this book.”

Gerald R. Skoog, an education professor at Texas Tech University, a former biology, teacher and a past president of the National Science Teachers Association, has a similarly low opinion of “Pandas,” saying; “It’s just not science.” Even if you gloss over inaccuracies and misrepresentations of scientific theory in Pandas, he says, “the claim that life is the result of intelligent design can’t be tested by scientific means, and it has no power to explain the natural world.”

While “Pandas” claims to be a science book, it’s really a political tool, says Raymond Vasvari, a lawyer in Ohio who works with the American Civil Liberties Union and who has been involved in issues involving creationism. “I call ‘Of Pandas and People’ the intellectual Trojan horse of the religious right,” Vasvari says. “It looks and feels and acts like a science textbook, but it’s not. It’s a message aimed at the seventh-grader who doesn’t know science or understand the controversy over evolution and creationism.”

Leon Lynn is an education journalist in Milwaukee.

Controversy Strikes Louisville, Ohio

By Leon Lynn

Andrew Aljancic is persistent.

It’s been more than seven years since he started actively campaigning against the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Louisville, Ohio. Two years ago, he even left his seat on the town council and successfully ran for the school board in hopes of furthering his agenda.

Aljancic has pushed repeatedly for the inclusion of so-called “creation science” in the district’s science curricula. He’s tried to get the school district to adopt the creationist treatise “Of Pandas and People” as a science textbook. (See the related article for more information about this book.) He wants the district’s science curricula to include creation-science doctrine, and he’s also hoping to get disclaimer stickers plastered into biology and life-science textbooks which call evolution “a controversial theory.”

Fortunately, James Bollas is persistent too. A 70-year-old retired teacher, whose five children and four grandchildren graduated from Louisville schools, Bollas is a self-described political conservative who has a fondness for the U.S. Constitution. He’s outraged at the thought of “someone using my tax dollars to teach their religion in the public schools.” And he won’t accept any effort to include creationist materials in the school’s curricula. He’s been a fixture at Louisville school board meetings for years, using the designated public-comment time to speak against the various anti-evolution resolutions the board has considered. Bollas doesn’t recall a single occasion when anyone else has stood up at a school board meeting to agree with him. But that hasn’t stopped him from speaking his mind and from calling in the American Civil Liberties Union to help keep the school district in compliance with the law.

As is often the case in skirmishes over constitutional rights such as the separation of church and state, it can be a lonely battle. Constitutional principles are revered more in theory than in practice, and many people fail to adequately understand that the very heart of the Bill of Rights involves protecting constitutional rights even when the majority in a locale or state may disagree.

“The problem is that most of the people in Louisville agree on creationism,” Bollas says. “It’s what they believe and so they don’t have a problem with seeing it in the schools. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights say they can’t do that, that it’s wrong, but in Louisville nobody seems to know about that, or maybe nobody wants to know. So I consider it my duty to stand up.”

“A Community of Nice Folks”

The small Midwestern town of Louisville provides a concrete example of how issues such as creationism often play out in our nation’s schools. Located about 10 miles northeast of Canton in the rolling farmland of Ohio’s Stark County, Louisville (pronounced LEWIS-ville) is home to about 8,000 people. The virtually all-white community includes farmers, people who work at the few local factories, and many who commute to jobs in Canton and other nearby communities. The Louisville school system — four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — serves about 3,100 students from the town and the surrounding area.

“It’s a community of nice folks,” says James Warner, another Louisville school board member. “Close-knit, basically conservative.”

Warner, who has served on the board for 12 years, says evolution has long been an issue in Louisville. In 1986, the district’s science curriculum directed teachers to “contrast, compare and discuss alternatives to the evolutionary theory, particularly creationism.” This was before a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down a Louisiana requirement that creationism receive the same attention as evolution in school curricula. The directive was later withdrawn, Warner says, after the ACLU threatened to sue the district, but the curriculum still directed teachers to present “alternatives to evolutionary theory.” The evolution issue became more prominent in Louisville in about 1990 when Aljancic, as leader of a local fundamentalist group called the Origins Committee, began pressing the district to include more creationist material in the curriculum.

Originally from Cleveland, Aljancic has lived in Louisville for most of his 55 years. He teaches English and speech at a local Catholic school, though his own children have all attended the town’s public schools. Aljancic says he grew up in “kind of a borderline Catholic family.” Today he believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, and that Christianity “is really the only faith that answers the questions of life, why we die, and how we can live again.” He also believes that the theory of evolution “is in contradiction with the Bible” and that if students are taught only evolution they’ll accept it “because that’s all they’ll know.” Like many creationists, he puts forth the “theory of intelligent design,” the supposedly secular idea that life is too complex and remarkable to have sprung up purely by chance. Aljancic asked the school district to start using the controversial book “Of Pandas and People” as a science text. He and the Origins Committee even raised $13,000 to help defray the costs of any legal challenges the district encountered over the book. When the district refused — officially because “Pandas” is not on Ohio’s list of acceptable textbooks — the Origins Committee bought 100 copies of the book and donated them to the school district to be used as a supplemental text and reference.

Ongoing Skirmishes

Since joining the board two years ago, Aljancic has “pushed a very focused agenda, all about public schools getting more value-oriented, more traditional,” says Clyde Lepley, the Louisville district’s superintendent. “I think he’d like to see more religion in our schools. …”Creationism remains at the heart of that agenda, Lepley believes, but he says Aljancic “has backed off a bit” in light of the legal restrictions and the rules of decorum that the district and its board members must follow.

But the struggle continues. In November 1997, for example, the five-member school board unanimously passed a resolution that “scientific evidence both for and against evolution” should be presented whenever evolution is taught. This summer, when the district presented the board with the science curriculum for the coming year, Aljancic objected. “They were treating evolution as fact,” he says. “There was no other side at all. They were basically ignoring the (November) resolution.”

Aljancic even wanted the board to vote on whether the section on evolution should be deleted from the curriculum. But during the meeting the board president, Mark Sigler, “asked me if I trust the superintendent and the curriculum director,” Aljancic says. “I agreed that I did, and so I withdrew my amendments.” The board then approved the science curriculum 3-2, with Aljancic and Warner dissenting. The district’s curriculum officials, in turn, have agreed to examine a list of Aljancic’s “pros and cons” on evolution and decide whether any of them warrant inclusion in the district’s course of study. A report was due back to the board at the end of December 1997.

Also, during the summer of 1997, Aljancic asked the board to adopt the Alabama science-book stickers. His motion died for lack of a second but Warner predicts the sticker question will come up another time.

The Damage Done

How has this ongoing controversy over evolution affected the school district? To begin with, Lepley thinks some teachers, fearing for their jobs, simply avoid teaching evolution at all. “I do think some of them are afraid,” he says. “There’s so much content in biology, you could really let that go and move on, so I think that the easier road to take here is not get into that at all.”

Overall, Lepley says, “I think this is having a negative effect on the school district. … It’s continually putting the board off course. We’ve got teacher negotiations we’re going through right now, we’re trying to do a facilities study, and see what our needs are going to be for the next century. This issue is taking the focus away from that. It’s not just the time spent on it, but it’s an overriding cloud that everybody’s always thinking about.” Lepley also suspects that Aljancic has other plans. “My job is to keep the board out of the courts, I’ve tried to keep them out of trouble,” he says. “I’m not so sure Mr. Aljancic thinks that’s appropriate. I think he thinks he can win, that Louisville can be a leader of the pack, a shining star.”

Raymond Vasvari tends to agree. A Cleveland-area lawyer who volunteers his time to the American Civil Liberties Union, Vasvari has kept an eye on Louisville since 1993. He started following events there after Bollas complained to the ACLU about the board’s pro-creationist activities. “I’ve been calling it the test case that wants to be,” Vasvari says. “The people there seem determined to start something.” Several times since 1993, Vasvari has written letters to the Louisville school board on the ACLU’s behalf, threatening legal action over pro-creationist policies.

Vasvari believes that the situation in Louisville is part of a national, often times orchestrated push for creationism and for breaking down the separation of church and state. He also believes that many town residents don’t understand the full implications of the controversy, and are therefore unable to adequately ward off the agenda of people such as Aljancic.

Bollas, the retired teacher who has opposed creationism in Louisville, concurs. “I really don’t think the situation is ever going to be resolved without someone coming in from outside, like the courts,” Bollas says. He adds that there are plenty of people in Louisville “who are doctors and lawyers, who know something about the world. But they aren’t getting involved in the schools. They aren’t at the meetings. Maybe they don’t care, or maybe they’re afraid to stand up. I’m the only one who opposes them” (the creationists).

A big part of the problem is that a lot of people in Louisville agree with Aljancic about creationism, Bollas believes. “It doesn’t matter to them what the Constitution says, or what science says. What matters is what they believe, and that they all believe the same thing. It’s hard for outsiders to understand. But in the town, there’s no one to challenge them, no one who’s willing to stand up for anything different. I can understand it though. Most of the people here in town would say you’re either a creationist or an atheistic evolutionist. That can be pretty hard to take.”

Bollas laughs. “I guess my problem is that I’m an idealistic old man. But I believe in the Constitution. I believe in the Bill of Rights. And I won’t just sit there and watch them push their religion into the schools. It’s not just me against Andy Aljancic. It’s me against all those people who would take away my citizenship.”

Leon Lynn is an education journalist in Milwaukee.