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Friday, February 10, 2012

Bill would protect teachers who want to teach alternatives to evolution

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally presented the wrong party for bill sponsor Gary Hopper, who is a Republican. The error has been corrected.

Joshua Youngkin's letter to the editor: Telegraph article misstated testimony


CONCORD – Obscure-sounding tweaks to the duties of the New Hampshire Board of Education don’t often draw national attention, so it was a surprise to some when the Seattle-based Discovery Institute sent a speaker to a hearing Thursday on a bill titled “relative to scientific inquiry in the public schools.”

“Are you going to other states, too?” asked a surprised Rep. Mary Gorman, D-Nashua, of Joshua Youngkin, program officer in law and policy for the Discovery Institute, a prominent opponent to the teaching of evolution. Youngkin was in Concord on Thursday testifying before a legislative hearing on the bill.

The Discovery Institute advocates for teachers having the right to teach alternatives to evolution in science class, especially “intelligent design,” which says that most or all living things were created by an unspecified intelligence at some time in the past.

“There are non-creationist, skeptical alternatives to Darwinist theory that teachers could bring into their classroom,” Youngkin told the House Education Committee. “We are committed to academic freedom … to critical thinking.”

That is also the general argument put forward by prime sponsor Rep. Gary Hopper, R-Weare, in his bill, HB 1457. It would “require science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire (sic) results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established.”

The committee, which gave little hint of how it felt about the bill, will discuss the legislation next week.

In his presentation to the committee, Hopper made it clear that his concern involves teaching alternatives to evolution. The bill originally was titled “regarding instruction in intelligent design.”

Hopper noted how politicized the topic of evolution has become. He has received various kinds of hate mail since news of his bill came out, to the point that he had to tighten the privacy settings on his Facebook page.

That sort of anger, Hopper said, is why teachers need protection in the form of his bill before they can present alternatives to evolution in class.

“I am confident that if a teacher points out the flaws in evolution, they would have problems,” he said.

Hopper’s presentation was part of 90 minutes of testimony before the committee, including opposition from the New Hampshire Science Teachers’ Association and the New Hampshire School Board Association, who said state science standards already require students to learn that questioning established theories is part of the scientific method.

Hopper cited some pages from a biology textbook used in Goffstown High School as an example of how he says evolution is presented to students as a fact, “more like indoctrination than science.”

He argued that such teaching overlooks “gaps in the fossil record,” which weaken the evidence for evolution, and that even simple creatures like an amoeba are too complicated to have arisen “by chance.”

Mainstream science disagrees, saying the argument overlooks intermediary stages throughout the animal kingdom.

Youngkin said the Discovery Institute doesn’t actually support Hopper’s bill, although it agrees with its intention and its underlying concern about the teaching of evolution.

Youngkin offered the group’s “model language” about academic freedom, which he said also could protect teachers who are leery of discussing other controversial topics about biology, such as stem cells and the end of life.

As far as Gorman’s question goes, Youngkin said this was his first time testifying before a legislative committee but that he recently had been in Indiana advising lawmakers there against a bill supporting creationism, an earlier term for the idea that modern species were created. Courts have ruled that creationism has too much of a religious component to be allowed in public schools.

Evolution, the central tenet in virtually all of modern biology, is a scientific theory that says random genetic mutations produce changes in habit and appearance of plants and animals. Changes that prove beneficial in the environment allow the living thing to outcompete other living things and produce more offspring, which spreads the change.

Over billions of years, scientists say, these accumulated changes have produced all life on Earth, although there is much disagreement about details and no accepted hypothesis about how life began in the first place.

Intelligent design says that some or all living things had to have been created in their current form, although there is no agreement about how this could have happened, who created them or when – nor is it clear how most of these questions could be scientifically studied.

Its similarity to the Biblical creation stories has caused opponents to describe it as thinly disguised theology, not science.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or