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Response to Dr. John E. McCosker Regarding Events in the Roseville Joint Union High School District, California

The following letter was written by Mr. Larry Caldwell, J.D. in response to a letter written by Dr. John E. McCosker, Senior Scientist of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. Dr. McCosker wrote to the RJUHSD to express his concerns over what he believed to be a proposal to teach intelligent design in biology classes. The Sacramento Bee has written a few articles on these events, with what is likely the first article, titled Darwin Faces a New Rival, on these recent events available at Access Research Network. The IDEA Center has hosted similar articles (see for example At Risk: Intellectual Freedom and Objective Science Education) by others in response to those who promote an evolution-only curriculum.

August 29, 2003

John E. McCosker. PhD
Senior Scientist
California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco

Dear Dr. McCosker:

I read your recent letter to the Board of Trustees of the Roseville Joint Union High School District. As you may know, I am the parent who first asked the Board to update its policy on teaching evolution.

I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that –to my knowledge– there is no “proposal to teach ‘intelligent design’” in the District. I and the parents I represent are not asking the Board to include intelligent design theory (“ID”) in the curriculum. We are simply asking them to ensure that our science teachers teach evolutionary theory in a way that helps students analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution.

I agree with you that the theory of evolution is an important scientific theory that we need to teach to our students. That’s why we are asking our District to teach our students more about evolution, not less. We want to give our students the tools to critically analyze some of the “finer details of the theory,” such as the following, among others:

  1. If and how did natural matter turn into the first amino acids and the other building blocks of proteins? Does science currently have any credible theory for how this happened? Did it really happen with lightening striking water, as depicted in one of our District’s biology textbooks?
  2. If and how did amino acids and the other building blocks of proteins organize themselves into the first proteins? Does science currently have any credible theory for how this happened?
  3. If and how did the first proteins organize themselves into the first cells? Does science currently have any credible theory for how this happened?
  4. If and how did the first single-cell organisms turn into multi-cell organisms? Can this transformation be adequately explained by the theory of evolution, i.e., solely by natural selection with random mutations?
  5. Why so many animal phyla “suddenly” came into existence (at least in geologic terms) during the Cambrian era, and why we find no evidence of prior gradual evolutionary change leading up to these new animal phyla in the fossil record of the period preceding the Cambrian era? Is the relative “explosion” of new animal types during the Cambrian era consistent with the “gradual change over time” predicted by the Darwin’s theory of evolution? Is it consistent with the theory that all of those animal types evolved from a single, common ancestor?
  6. If and how macro evolution (i.e., inter-species evolution) has ever occurred, and if so, why we don’t see evidence for it in nature, other than a few finch beaks and a couple of Grand Canyon squirrels? And why, in general, is the fossil record apparently so devoid of evidence of macro evolution?
  7. How did natural selection with random mutations produce the immense quantity of information we find in DNA? Does the theory of evolution provide an adequate explanation of how this information could have resulted solely from natural selection with random mutations?
  8. How did natural selection with random mutations produce complex organs such as the eye, or the liver, or the heart, or the brain?

I note that your letter did not include any examples of macro evolution.

In your letter, you do give a couple of good examples of how micro evolution is important for our students to understand. I assume that is why those examples of micro evolution are already discussed in our students’ textbook. Unfortunately for our students, their textbook also presents bacterial resistance to antibiotics as evidence for macro evolution, which is presented as the explanation for the origin and diversity of life. The other examples of evolution cited in the textbook are the Grand Canyon squirrels and Darwin’s finch beaks.

I don’t claim to be a scientist (although I did take fifteen hours of “hard” science in college, including zoology, chemistry and physics), but it seems like a real leap in logic to jump from those examples to acceptance of the general theory of macro evolution that evolutionary theory entails –that all species evolved from a common ancestor, solely through natural selection with random mutations, and that life itself somehow evolved from dead matter.

After all, the squirrels didn’t turn into chipmunks (let alone elephants); they remained squirrels, albeit with different features. The finches didn’t turn into ostriches (let alone whales or butterflies); they remained finches with different kinds of beaks.

I suspect the apparent scarcity of convincing evidence for macro evolution is one of the reasons why most people can discern a fairly obvious distinction between the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution.

That scarcity of convincing evidence supporting evolution may also explain in part why polls [Editor's note: Here are a few Zogby International polls or article summaries of those polls: National, State of Texas, State of New Mexico,State of Ohio {actual poll results}. Additionally, here is list of scientists who are skeptical of neo-Darwinism: IDEA Club list, Discovery Institute's list.] consistently show that over two-thirds of Americans agree with me that we should be teaching the scientific evidence that shows the weaknesses and limitations of evolutionary theory, along with the scientific evidence that supports evolutionary theory.

I agree with you that a complete understanding of the theory of evolution is essential for our students to have, if they are to make informed political and public policy decisions as adults about science-related issues. But to be informed citizens, our students need to know the whole story about evolution – including its limitations and weaknesses, as well as its strengths, as an explanatory theory. That’s why I am urging our District to adopt and implement the modest policy I am proposing; and that’s why we are urging our District to teach more about evolution – not less.

I believe the policy we are proposing for our district echoes the advice of the United States Congress in the Conference Report that accompanied the No Child Left Behind Act:

“A quality science education should prepare students to distinguish date and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

The two examples of evolution in your letter highlight the importance of teaching our science students how evolutionary theory can impact and inform public policy debates and decisions regarding many important subjects in our society, including medicine and ecology policy. I agree that with you it is appropriate for our high school science classes to include discussion and debate of how scientific theories such as the theory of evolution can impact and inform public and political policies and issues in our society.

I agree with you that the profound impact of science on our contemporary society is far too great to confine that type of discussion to government classes. It belongs in science classes. I believe this is what the United States Congress had in mind in its conference report.

Ultimately, all we are asking of the science teachers in our District is that they give our students a “quality science education.” As a parent and taxpayer in this District, that’s what I want for our children. I’m sure you, as a professional scientist, agree with the sentiment of the United States Congress and the vast majority of the American people that we should give our students a “quality science” education.

By the way, even though we aren’t asking the Board to include ID in the science curriculum of our District, I take issue with the legal advice you offer the District on whether it would be constitutional for a school district to include ID in its science curriculum if it saw fit to do so. In addition to a parent, I am an attorney, who has been practicing in California for nearly 25 years. I received my Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School, in Washington, D.C., where I studied constitutional law under some of the leading experts on First Amendment law in the country. In recent years, I have spent a fair amount of time researching the constitutional issues regarding the teaching of origins science in public schools.

The truth is that not a single reported court case in the country has held that it is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal to teach ID in public schools.

To the contrary, prominent constitutional scholars such as Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D., Associate Director of the prestigious J.M Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, at Baylor University, are of the opinion that it would be constitutional for a science teacher to teach ID in addition to evolution, or for a school board to include ID in its science curriculum. Dr. Beckwith’s opinion on the subject is discussed in Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause of Intelligent Design, Francis J. Beckwith (2003). See generally, "Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, Or Religion, Or Speech?", David K. Dewolf, Stephen C. Meyer, and Mark Edward DeForrest, Utah Law Review, (2000). [Editor's note: Refer to the IDEA Center's Legal Resources page for further resources.]

More to the point, there is absolutely no legal basis for challenging the constitutionality of the policy we are proposing for our district, which simply directs science teachers to teach the scientific weaknesses and limitations of evolutionary theory, as well as its strengths as an explanatory theory.

Let me conclude with a couple of quotations from one of our District’s biology textbooks on the wisdom of teaching our students a balanced view of the full range of scientific views on scientific theories:

“There is, however, no absolute certainty in a scientific theory. The possibility always remains that future evidence will cause a scientific theory to be revised or rejected. A scientist’s acceptance of a theory is always provisional.

In my view, it is important that we teach our students that this principle applies to the theory of evolution, just like any other scientific theory. Unfortunately, that principle appears to get lost in our biology textbooks’ advocacy of evolutionary theory.

That same textbook advises:

“Constructing a theory often involves considering contrasting ideas and conflicting hypothesis. . . . Argument, disagreement , and unresolved questions are a healthy part of scientific research, a true reflection of how science is done.”

Isn’t that what we should strive for in providing a quality science education to our students: to expose them to scientific “argument, disagreement, and unresolved questions” regarding the theory of evolution, so that we will give them “a true reflection of how science is done?”

We owe it to our students to give them a quality science education. That’s all we’re asking our District to do.

Very truly yours,

Larry Caldwell, J.D.