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Teacher shows that science, religion don't have to clash

Fla. educator takes gingerly approach

By Amy Harmon
New York Times News Service / August 24, 2008
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ORANGE PARK, Fla. - David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote "Evolution" in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as truth. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

"If I do this wrong," Campbell recalled thinking, "I'll lose him."

In February, the Florida Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, public schools to teach evolution, calling it "the organizing principle of life science."

Spurred in part by legal rulings against school districts seeking to favor religious versions of natural history, more than a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other Christian traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with "Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution," a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory.

Other students scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out.

With a mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how, science teachers are contriving ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan. How they fare may bear on whether a new generation of Americans embraces scientific evidence alongside religious belief.

"If you see something you don't understand, you have to ask 'why?' or 'how?' " Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.

Yet their abiding mistrust in evolution, he feared, jeopardized their belief in the basic power of science to explain the natural world - and their ability to make sense of it themselves.

Passionate on the subject, Campbell had helped to devise the state's new evolution standards, which will be phased in starting this fall.

A former Navy flight instructor not used to pulling his punches, Campbell fought hard for passage of the new standards. But with his students last spring, he found himself treading carefully as he tried to bridge an ideological divide that stretches well beyond his classroom. He started with Mickey Mouse.

On the projector, Campbell placed slides of the cartoon icon: one at his skinny genesis in 1928, one from his 1940 turn as the impish "Sorcerer's Apprentice," and one of the rounded, ingratiating charmer of Mouse Club fame.

"How," he asked his students, "has Mickey changed?"

Natives of Disney World's home state, they waved their hands and called out answers.

"His tail gets shorter," Bryce volunteered.

"Bigger eyes!" someone else shouted.

"He looks happier," one girl observed. "And cuter."

Campbell smiled. "Mickey evolved," he said. "And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is 'selection.' "

Later, he would get to the touchier part, about how the minute changes in organisms that drive biological change arise spontaneously, without direction. And how a struggle for existence among naturally varying individuals has helped to generate every species, living and extinct, on the planet.

For now, it was enough that they were listening.

The morning after his Mickey Mouse gambit, Campbell bounced a pink rubber Spalding ball on the classroom's hard linoleum floor.

"Gravity," he said. "I can do this until the end of the semester, and I can only assume that it will work the same way each time."

He looked around the room. "Bryce, what is it called when natural laws are suspended - what do you call it when water changes into wine?"

"Miracle?" Bryce supplied.

Campbell nodded. The ball hit the floor again.

"Science explores nature by testing and gathering data," he said. "It can't tell you what's right and wrong. It doesn't address ethics.

"But it is not antireligion. Science and religion just ask different questions."

He later explained to the class, "Faith is not based on science," Campbell said. "And science is not based on faith."

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