Florida will teach evolution but only as theory

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida education officials voted on Tuesday to add evolution to required course work in public schools but only after a last-minute change depicting Charles Darwin’s seminal work as merely a theory.

Bending to pressure from religious conservatives, the State Board of Education on a 4-3 vote included the “theory” language as part of a retooling of the state’s science standards for public school education.

The compromise would require teaching that Darwin’s proposal -- that natural selection has driven the evolution of many species from a few common ancestors over billions of years -- has yet to be conclusively proven.

“To say there is no debate is ridiculous,” said board member Phoebe Raulerson. “Then why are we here today?”

The panel includes the word “evolution” in state science standards for the first time, but it is relegated to a place among a host of ideas, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. By contrast Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is taught as undisputed fact.

During more than two hours of testimony, scientists and religious representatives argued over whether teaching that humans evolved from a single-celled species over hundreds of millions of years should be taken as gospel.

Some religious groups believe that evolution conflicts with the Biblical account of creation, though others contend there is no conflict. These contentions have driven debates in several states, including Kansas and Pennsylvania, as to how the subject should be taught in public schools.

Proponents say the body of research is replete with data backing up evolution as the major driving force in biology, noting that the prestigious National Academy of Sciences approved the original language that said “Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.”

The language in Florida was changed to refer to “The scientific theory of evolution.”

“Why are we even considering this?” said board member Roberto Martinez, who voted against the watered-down measure.

Some religious groups called on the board to endorse “academic freedom” in the new guidelines.

“I’m not saying it’s a fact or not a fact,” Raulerson said of Darwin’s theory. “I’m saying that it is open to further discussion.”

The topic will not appear on Florida’s standardized tests until 2012, but school districts will be required to adjust their lessons by next year.

The new standards followed a series of international reviews that berated the state’s science curriculum as inadequate.

Backers of stronger evolutionary language called the vote a regrettable compromise that would nonetheless boost the instruction of evolution as a basic tenet of modern biology.

“Sooner or later we’ll get there,” Martinez said.

Editing by Jane Sutton