The Senate bill included a last-minute, nonbinding 'sense of the Senate' amendment that in part specified, "where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." Offered by Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.), the amendment received enthusiastic support from the bill's floor manager, Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and other key senators. The amendment passed 98-1, but since the House version did not include the Santorum wording, the conference committee had to decide what to do with it.
"To someone not familiar with the rhetoric of the antievolution movement, it looked like a straightforward, 'let's all be critical thinkers' approach," says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif. (See Profile, page 60). But, "the fact that evolution is singled out from all other potentially controversial topics shows that this is an antievolution measure," she adds. Besides, evolution is not controversial among biologists, insisted Ellen Paul, public policy representative for the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).
Judging by the overwhelming vote in favor, senators were not as concerned about the amendment. Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W. Va.) commented that the amendment "will lead to a more thoughtful treatment of this topic in the classroom." He added, "it is important that students be exposed not only to the theory of evolution, but also to the context in which it is viewed by many in our society." The senator also explained that "I personally have been greatly impressed by the many scientists who ... have concluded that some divine force had to have played a role in the birth of our magnificent universe." Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kans.) saw the amendment as payback to "many in the global community, who presumably knew the facts, spread misinformation as to what happened in Kansas," referring to recent state school board actions on evolution. Kennedy thought that Santorum, who invoked intellectual freedom in his remarks, made "eminently good sense," adding, "We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories ...."
Was it Really About Science?
|Courtesy of Phillip Johnson|
Santorum specifically cited intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. His remarks about materialism and naturalism parrot statements on the Web site of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CSRC), a division of the Seattle, Wash.-based Discovery Institute. CSRC is intelligent design's biggest booster. Phillip Johnson, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor and adviser to CSRC who launched the intelligent design movement about 10 years ago, helped draft the amendment's language. According to Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman, "the amendment was the idea of Sen. Santorum," but institute spokesperson Mark Edwards acknowledged Johnson's role in crafting it. Santorum supported the bill on the floor of the Senate by citing opinions of David DeWolf, Gonzaga University law professor and CSRC senior fellow.
Richard O'Grady, executive director of AIBS, says the amendment uses standard intelligent design arguments. "ID proponents are trying to make an end-run around legal prohibitions on the teaching of creationism by espousing a version that avoids mention of a creator," claims O'Grady. In turn, Chapman blasts "overly insecure people in academia" and others, saying "they apparently can't stand the idea that students might be allowed to hear both Darwin's theory and also the scientific criticisms of it."
Call Out the Troops
Leading societies including AIBS, NCSE, the Association of American Universities, and the American Geological Institute (AGI) quickly organized to kill the amendment in conference committee. E-mail and Internet postings flew fast and furious. According to Scott, eventually "officers of almost 100 scientific societies representing over 100,000 scientists" called on the committee to drop the wording. Said Cindy Warkovsky of the National Science Teachers Association of the amendment, "We do not support this. It leaves the door open to pseudoscience and religion."
But amendment opponents also walked a tightrope—they did not want to give intelligent design a lot of attention, fearing it would further legitimize the cause. "We don't want to create a debate on the floor of the House on intelligent design," admitted Paul of AIBS.
Scientists particularly worried about the amendment's potential fallout for biological research as well as teaching. "We're communicating with the conferees and meeting with Kennedy's staff," said Warkovsky. "We hope they hear our voices and clearly understand the amendment's implications." A Kennedy aide told The Scientist, "The senator is a big supporter of science education. I assure you he is aware of the implications."
But was Kennedy really informed? When asked about the way evolutionary principles are used in biomedical research, including pharmaceutical design (Kennedy is a big supporter of affordable drugs), press secretary Jim Manley responded, "That's news to me." Manley insisted Kennedy knows the arguments for and against creationism and evolution, saying, "he doesn't have any problem with it [evolution]." Manley also maintained that the senator actually supported the Santorum amendment for strategic reasons—in his words, "to expedite an important piece of legislation."
All's Well That Ends Well?
The Discovery Institute ignored the distinction, however, claiming in a press release, "the new bill represents a substantial victory for scientific critics of Darwin's theory." Chapman also pointed out that the bill was strongly supported by intelligent design advocates.
Amendment opponents spun the outcome in different ways. Scott sees the cup as half full, saying "the inclusion of a modified and watered down form of the amendment with no force of law, buried deep in explanatory material, was probably intended to appease religious conservative constituents," she noted. "The law itself doesn't mention evolution. Teachers do not have to alter how they teach evolution as a result of the education bill."
Others were not as optimistic. According to David Applegate, head of legislative affairs for AGI, "the explanatory report has been parlayed by creationists into an even better propaganda tool. They were not trying to enact legislation that supported their viewpoint—they simply wanted their supporters to be able to stand up in a school board meeting or state legislature hearing and say that Congress has gone 'on record' in support of teaching alternatives to evolution"—which is what they can, in fact, say. AIBS's O'Grady agrees. Paul worries that "the general public won't make the distinction" that the wording wasn't in the law itself.
Applegate says design proponents are already using the Santorum language to challenge school boards. "In Ohio, Washington state, and New Mexico, evolution opponents are using the Santorum amendment as evidence that Congress supports their efforts. They repeatedly state that the bill contains the Santorum language, which is simply false," he says. A group called Science Excellence for all Ohioans, which promotes inclusion of intelligent design in the state's science curriculum, carries a statement about the Santorum amendment on its Web site. When asked about plans to use the amendment to push intelligent design, Kennedy's press secretary Manley retorted, "If people at state and local school district levels want to misuse it, I can't do anything about it. It's up to scientists to correct it."
Down the Road
Congressional intent would be important in establishing intelligent design's legality. The conference report is important "because it can be cited, much like any other legislative history, such as debates and speeches found in the Congressional Record, to support varying interpretations of the law," says O'Grady. Adds Paul, "as I recently said to someone who thought we did a good job in getting the Santorum amendment reduced to report language, 'litigation to follow.'"