Modesto science teacher's plan to teach intelligent design sparks debate

September 26, 2010 

  • Intelligent Design

    As explained by the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture:

    • WHAT IT IS: Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars. The theory holds that features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.

    • WHAT IT IS NOT: Unlike creationism, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to prove the intelligent cause is supernatural.

    • IS IT SCIENCE? Yes. The scientific method uses observations, hypothesis, experiments and conclusion. Intelligent design uses that process, focusing on "irreducible complexity" -- when biological structures require all of their parts to function -- to conclude such structures were designed.


    Web Links

    • Discovery Institute:

    • Center for Science and Culture:

    • The Dark Side of Darwinism:

    • Foundation for Thought and Ethics:

    • Kitzmiller V. Dover:

    Theory of Evolution

    As explained by the National Center for Science Education:

    • WHAT IT IS: Evolution is a scientific theory that explains the emergence of new varieties of living things in the past and in the present through the action of biological processes such as natural selection, mutation, symbiosis, gene transfer and genetic drift.

    • WHAT IT IS NOT: Evolution is not a "theory of origins" about how life began.

    • IS IT SCIENCE? Yes. Evolution has been subjected to scientific testing for over a century and has been (and continues to be) consistently confirmed by evidence from a wide range of fields. Evolution is included in national science standards and most state science standards.


    Web Links

    • Understanding Evolution, sponsored by the Museum of Paleontology, University of California at Berkeley:

    • FAQs about evolution, PBS:

    • Evolution Primers, National Center for Science Education:

Of all the much-wrangled issues in public school education, the case of evolution may be the most fragile peace.

Last month, a Modesto science teacher announced at a back-to-school night that he would teach the theory of intelligent design alongside evolution. Modesto City Schools district officials say that will not happen.

However, some trustees and other science teachers say it should. Parents on both sides of the divide are discovering that it is.

"I agree that some science and other teachers (teach intelligent design), yes, and it is unethical when they do so," retired science teacher Mike Kennedy of Oakdale said in an e-mail.

Intelligent design is the theory that living things are too complex to have happened randomly in nature. Proponents say science proves there was a master designer.

Skeptics argue a theory that can't be disproved is not science, it is faith, and as such does not belong in science class.

"The problem is that intelligent design is trying to somehow wed science to faith and it can't because in intelligent design you start with an assumption and it's unquestionable," said Central Catholic High School science teacher Chris Wilde.

Wilde's classroom has a life-size cutout of Albert Einstein by the window and a crucifix over the door. The 34-year teacher, who holds master's degrees in physical sciences and theology, said there is no conflict between evolution and her faith.

"I love this quote by Pope John Paul II: 'Let science tell us what and how. Let religion tell us who and why.' Truth is truth. We just answer different questions," she said. "We believe in a God that is so powerful he could create it all, then allow it to unfold. To me, that is a far more awesome God."

Wilde added, "I think it's so wonderful that I'm related genetically to every other creature that's ever lived. ... I think it's an honor."

Schools standards differ

At Big Valley Christian High School, science teacher Francesca Orr works within a more conservative Christian standard. The school is attached to Big Valley Grace Community Church, which states on its Web site, "We believe that man was created by God in His own image, and not the product of evolution or animal ancestry."

Orr said in an e-mail, "All of our content subjects are taught in accordance to rigorous California state standards, while our instruction is delivered from a Biblical world view."

Wilde and Orr teach in private schools, where religious instruction is approved and high-stakes state tests are not such a driving force.

In public school, teachers don't have time to expound on personal views, said Megan Gowans, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association.

"Typically, in these days of testing, the district has looked askance at that. You really can't deviate from that (pacing) calendar," Gowans said.

She said the union was not notified of any problem in the case of Roosevelt Junior High teacher Mark Ferrante, the instructor who last month told parents of his intention at back-to-school night. Ferrante did not answer e-mails seeking comment.

"He will not be teaching intelligent design. He has been instructed to teach the state standards and intelligent design is not in the state standards," Modesto City Schools spokeswoman Emily Lawrence said last week.

The administration hews to the official policy, set by the board a decade ago, of not teaching intelligent design. Today, as then, the Modesto City Schools board is divided on the issue.

"The current curriculum states that the evolution of man, Darwinism, must be taught as a theory. I feel we do our students a disservice by not helping them become critical thinkers when we forbid the teaching of competing scientific theories, such as intelligent design," trustee Nancy Cline said in an e-mail.

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Board President Kim Spina said she believes creation theories belong in Modesto's world religions class.

"About 11 years ago my son was given a book about Noah's Ark. ... The author had a picture of the Ark stuffed to the gills with animals, and a dinosaur. I was aghast. I had never heard of intelligent design and had no idea there existed people who actually would put dinosaurs on the Ark," she said.

A former teacher, trustee Steve Grenbeaux sees both sides.

"When the subject came up in my fifth-grade class, I explained both theories as best as I could. Then I told them that if they wanted more information on the Biblical theory to talk to their parents or pastor. As far as I know the only place intelligent design is taught is in Comparative Religions in ninth or 10th grade. I agree with concept of it being taught there. ... I believe that teachers should have the right to briefly explain other theories than what the book covers," Grenbeaux said.

Board Vice President Sue Zwahlen said she believes intelligent design belongs in the religions class.

"Even that topic is ambivalent. (Intelligent design) means different things to different people," Zwahlen said.

Shannon Johnson, Modesto mother of three, said she doesn't want her children taught religion in science class.

"Science versus religion is a false dichotomy. They are coming from two entirely separate spheres, as religion doesn't seek answers, it has them. Science is an ever-learning body of knowledge; it is the application of that same objectivity that gives us heart transplants, blood transfusions, and theorizes about our origins based on data," Johnson said.

Dilemma for devout teachers

Still, deeply devout Christians become teachers and find checking their faith at the door is a moral dilemma.

In Turlock, Dutcher Middle School teacher Don Moon, who teaches a math-science block, said he believes in intelligent design, but teaches evolution.

"I teach macro-evolutionary theory because it has much evidence supporting it to establish a possible explanation for some of the diversity of life found on earth. I do not teach intelligent design because it implies probable creation, which implies a creator, which is strictly forbidden in science ... Is there evidence that intelligent design has taken place? I certainly think so," Moon said in an e-mail.

"If intelligent design were to be viewed as simply aliens seeding the earth to accomplish a living planet, it certainly should be considered a viable alternative theory to evolution. Even that would be more probable than macro-evolution's explanation," Moon wrote.

Students now in high school said there was discussion of intelligent design in his class, which makes sense to Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto.

"There's never been any discussion that talks about limiting discussion (about evolution) or broadening discussions at the district level," Da Marto said. "To the broader question of 'do you look at different theories,' well, that's what we do all the time. ... We want individual youngsters who think for themselves."

He added that he did not know if any Turlock teachers brought up the theory.

"You don't know what happens when the door closes," Da Marto said.

The same is true in Modesto schools, said Barney Hale of the Modesto Teachers Association.

"The truth is, most administrators don't know if it's being taught. They don't have the manpower to watch every class," Hale said.

One trustee, who did not wish her son identified, found out while speaking with a reporter that he learned intelligent design theory in science class.

The debate over intelligent design is a national one.

Intelligent design proponents, through the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, are waging a national campaign to include the view in science classes on equal footing with evolution.

Scientists, through the National Center for Science Education, are waging a national campaign to block their efforts.

The Oakland-based organization worked on a 2005 Pennsylvania lawsuit, Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which federal district Judge John E. Jones ruled intelligent design was religion, not science, and declared teaching it unconstitutional.

'A responsibility to respect'

Modesto High teacher Ron Vincent said he doesn't need a court case to tell him to stick to the material. Vincent, who holds bachelor's degrees from Oral Roberts University and Texas A&M, and a master's degree from Notre Dame, has taught Advanced Placement biology and philosophy courses.

"My job there is to teach curriculum and not to convert anyone to my views," Vincent said.

"Everyone has an abiding right to their point of view. ... Philosophy can be somewhat antagonistic to a person of faith," he said, adding "the diversity is staggering," in his classrooms.

"Parents basically want someone who would not be unkind to their kid, would not put down their point of view. ... There's a responsibility to respect." Vincent said. "Respect and kindness go a long way."

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or 578-2339.



Ruling by Judge John E. Jones III, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

CASE BASIS: The Dover school board in 2005 required ninth-grade science teachers to read a statement to students that included:

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. ... Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students. ... The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families.


• Teachers reading a statement are still teaching.

• Intelligent design is, at its heart, a religious point of view and prohibited from being taught as science by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

• Students and families of other religions were ostracized, and therefore harmed, because of this teaching.


To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.



Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. As a basis for understanding this concept, students know:

• Both genetic variation and environmental factors are causes of evolution and diversity of organisms.

• The reasoning used by Charles Darwin in reaching his conclusion that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution.

• How independent lines of evidence from geology, fossils, and comparative anatomy provide the bases for the theory of evolution.

• How to construct a simple branching diagram to classify living groups of organisms by shared derived characteristics and how to expand the diagram to include fossil organisms.

• That extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient for its survival.

Source: California Department of Education

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