Forgetting Darwin

Georgia’s proposed science curriculum protects children from the e’ word”

The PC Police have descended on Georgia schools.

As part of state School Superintendent Kathy Cox’s much-ballyhooed overhaul of Georgia’s K-12 education curriculum, someone decided that Charles Darwin and the word “evolution” were very naughty.

Except for one reference, they’ve been blotted out in the state’s proposed teaching guidelines.

The goals and benchmarks for the new curriculum, which the state rolled out on its Department of Education website in December, follow nearly word-for-word the guidelines in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061 — an intellectual framework to advance science, math and technology studies in American schools — except when Darwin is name-checked or evolution is mentioned.

The official story is that evolution and Darwin were omitted so that they wouldn’t distract parents or students from the ideas being taught. The word evolution, for example, is replaced with the phrase “biological change over time.” Darwin is mentioned just once, under a section that compares him to scientists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who is famous for the discredited theory of the “inheritance of acquired traits.” Darwin, after all, provided the organizing principle of biology. Lamarck is a curious historical footnote.

“You won’t find the word evolution itself, but the concept and the theory is throughout the curriculum,” says Kirk Englehardt, spokesman for the Department of Education. “We wanted to focus on the theory, and the theory is being taught, and there’s nothing in here preventing a teacher from using the word evolution when he or she teaches it. In fact, we pretty much expect that they will.”

Furthermore, Englehardt says, the state is not arguing about the existence of Darwinian evolution. “If you take the theory out altogether, what you’re going to have is scientifically illiterate students coming out of Georgia.”

So why omit the words, and where was the groundswell of public opinion that forced curriculum writers to dance around Darwin? If anything, the words’ very absence focuses attention on them, which is the opposite of the stated goal. Meanwhile, one would think it signals a political victory of sorts for Biblical fundamentalists.

“They also removed any reference to how old the earth really is, because creationists think that it’s 6,000 to 10,000 years old, depending on which group of creationists you talk to,” says Sarah Pallas, a biology professor at Georgia State University.

Pallas says that to avoid discussion of Earth’s age, “there’s some clever ways of phrasing things around dating techniques, like, ‘If dating techniques could be relied on, then you could determine the age of Earth, but you have no idea if they can be relied on or what the age of Earth might be.’ They removed anything that would conflict with the young-Earth creationist view of biology.”

The “they” Pallas refers to is a group of teachers and other experts assembled by Stephen Pruitt, Cox’s science curric- ulum specialist.

James Rutherford, who has taught at Harvard and NYU and is the author of Science for All Americans and originator of Project 2061, helped guide the group as an outside consultant. He isn’t ready to condemn the curriculum. There’s still opportunity for public input, and he says he does not want to comment on the omission of the words until the process is complete.

Pruitt and Cox did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cox has already caught flak for a history curriculum that, in high school U.S. history classes, starts in 1876, ignoring biggies like the Civil War. In world history courses, students won’t cover anything earlier than 1500 — you know, material like Socrates and Roman civilization. The goal — have students cover fewer subjects in greater depth — is something a number of critics have urged for some time.

With evolution, the question is: Does eliminating two words matter? Local school boards still have to choose their own textbooks. And those textbooks talk about evolution. So if this is a victory for fundamentalists, it may only be symbolic and a way for Cox to prove her bona fides with the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party.

“[Evolutionary theory is] not any different than using ‘atomic theory’ for physics or using ‘germ theory’ for microbiology,” Pallas argues. “If we’re going to use a euphemism for evolution, then why aren’t we using a euphemism for germs or atomic theory? It’s all religion. And religion doesn’t belong in the classroom.”

After the 90-day comment period, Pruitt’s group will reconvene to consider public response before finalizing the draft curriculum and sending it to the 13-member state Board of Education for approval.

The Department of Education’s website is You can access the proposed curriculum by selecting Georgia Performance Standards under the Headline News heading.