It’s been a rough Darwin Week for Prof. Robert Dillon, a biologist and professor at the College of Charleston. Classes have been cancelled due to winter storms, ice and rain have put a damper on events commemorating the father of evolutionary theory, and — once again — a South Carolina lawmaker was putting up a fight against the teaching of natural selection, a theory that hasn’t been controversial in the scientific community since the late 19th century.

“It’s like the icy fingers of Satan,” Dillon says, chuckling as he paces between the tables in his lab. “It’s like Satan’s icy grip is trying to stop Darwin Week.”

The latest lawmaker to take a stand against the teaching of evolution is Upstate Republican Sen. Mike Fair, a man Dillon has sparred with several times through the years. Fair, a member of the Statehouse-appointed Education Oversight Committee, made national news Monday when he raised objections to a section of new grade-school science standards that deal with biological evolution. To read the headlines, Fair’s stance had the makings of the next minor skirmish over the hearts and minds of high school biology students.

Members of the EOC who were present at the committee’s Monday meeting say the controversy arose over Standard H.B.5B (p. 78), which reads as follows:

“Biological evolution occurs primarily when natural selection acts on the genetic variation in a population and changes the distribution of traits in that population over multiple generations.”

But by Wednesday evening, a mere two days after Fair pumped the brakes on the S.C. Department of Education’s standards overhaul and sent it back to a subcommittee, Fair said he was dropping his opposition and would seek to expedite the new standards’ approval. “I’ve been given all the information and all the clarification I need, and it’s good, frankly, under the circumstances that we have to operate,” Fair said.

With a brief instant of mild-mannered opposition, Fair had catapulted himself into the national limelight, only to sit at home on a snow day, re-read the offending paragraphs, and drop his fighting stance altogether.

In the meantime, Fair had made the front pages of newspapers around the state, and the Huffington Post had picked up yet another look-at-these-Southern-yokels story: “State Sen. Mike Fair Blocks Evolution From South Carolina Science Standards.”

S.C. Education Superintendent Mick Zais, responding to the mini-controversy, told the Post and Courier that he was not surprised by the “debate” that was allegedly taking place on the Education Oversight Committee. “This has been going on here in South Carolina for a long time,” Zais said. “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.”

Teaching the ‘controversy’

Fair’s opposition came late in the game. South Carolina reviews its standards approximately every seven years, and the set of revised standards currently up for consideration has been in the works since January 2012. According to Barbara Hairfield, vice chair of the EOC, committee members were given copies of the new standards in late summer 2013, so Fair could not have been caught off guard by them in early February 2014.

So either Fair needed two more days to parse the verbiage, or it was all a saber-rattling publicity stunt. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, says the latter is sometimes true with the more off-the-wall anti-Darwinism crusades that have taken place in Statehouses around the country.

“For some of the more blatant bills, I think it is a kind of chest-thumping that is pandering to their base,” Branch says. “So when election season comes around, they can go home and say, ‘Well, I introduced this bill and it didn’t go through, but re-elect me and I’ll introduce it again.'”

The main national advocacy group agitating against the teaching of evolution is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and Dillon claims that Fair “gets his marching orders” from the group. But Fair, who has fought the anti-evolution fight in the Statehouse several times since joining the House of Representatives in 1984, distances himself from the Discovery platform.

“I talk to them regularly, but their views aren’t like mine,” Fair says. While Discovery has advocated for the teaching of intelligent design, the idea that order in the universe implies an intelligent Creator, Fair adheres to a narrower interpretation of the Christian Genesis account. As a young-earth creationist, Fair believes that the universe is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. He says he believes in micro-evolution (that is, evolution within a species) but not macro-evolution between species. Both are fairly common views within certain conservative sects of Christianity, and both have been thoroughly refuted by fossil stratification, radiocarbon dating, biogeography, and genetics.

When asked whether he was more concerned about the scientific validity of the science curriculum or the worldview that could go along with it, Fair gave the following response:

“I’m more concerned about young people embracing the idea that they’re here for a purpose, and the two choices they have to make on the beginning are that they’re products of randomness and chaos, or they’re products of design.”

Federal courts have ruled that both creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories and should not be taught in public schools (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987; Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2005). So, with creationism and intelligent design out of the toolbox, some conservative lawmakers have turned to a third tack: “Teach the Controversy.” Prof. Dillon says Sen. Fair’s public stance this week — “his latest shenanigans,” as he puts it — is taken straight from the Teach the Controversy playbook. The idea, Dillon says, is to suggest that the theory of evolution is somehow controversial among scientists, or that it “needs further study,” without explicitly offering an alternative theory.

“It is the hardest thing to fight, and that is what Mike Fair has been doing since 2005,” Dillon says. “He closely coordinates with the Discovery Institute, and they try various ploys throughout the United States. We’re a proving ground, in a sense.”

Blood on the proving ground

Sen. Fair has fought his share of losing battles on the evolution hill. In 2010, he introduced two Senate bills (S. 873 and S. 875) against the teaching of natural selection, neither of which made its way out of committee.

But sometimes, Sen. Fair wins. Notably, during the last round of standards updates in 2005, he fought to have the phrase “critically analyze” added to a section on evolution. As a result, the current standards include the phrase “critically analyze” in only one sentence: “Summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”

Then-Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum says she fought Fair tooth and nail when he sought to add in “critically analyze,” a tactic that she says was then being employed by state-level anti-evolution advocates across the country. Fair wanted the standards to say that students should “critically analyze” the evidence for and against evolution, but Tenenbaum dug her heels in. “I put up probably one of the biggest fights I ever had as superintendent,” Tenenbaum says.

Ultimately, Tenenbaum claims a victory. In the final phrasing of the current biology standards, students aren’t called to critique evolutionary theory themselves, only to “summarize” how scientists critically analyzed the evidence and arrived at a conclusion. “When you switch it and say the students have to critically analyze it, it opens the door to anti-evolution teaching,” Tenenbaum says.

But while Tenenbaum’s Democratic administration went toe to toe with Sen. Fair, current Republican Superintendent Mick Zais has expressed sympathy for Fair’s cause. In the standards currently being considered by the Education Oversight Committee and Board of Education, “critically analyze” now appears three times — twice in reference to evolution, once in reference to climate change. And this time, the onus is on the student. Standard H.B.5B.1 states that students must be able to “critically analyze and interpret data to explain that natural selection results from four factors.”

Subtle wording changes matter, especially when they open loopholes for public school teachers to teach variants on creationism. A 2007 survey of public-school biology teachers found that one in four teachers devoted some portion of their teaching time to creationism or intelligent design, including 5 percent of teachers surveyed who said they spent three to five hours on the topic. In the same survey, 16 percent of biology teachers agreed with the statement that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Robert Dillon, the irascible biologist, continues to be a thorn in Mike Fair’s side. Both men refer to themselves as “mainline Protestant” — Dillon sings in the choir at First Scots Presbyterian Church — but their views on evolution could not be more different.

In the fall, Dillon sought to have “critically analyze” either removed from the standards or added in 129 other instances across the science curriculum, so as not to single out man-made climate change and evolution as somehow scientifically controversial. He lost that fight.

At the College of Charleston, Dillon says he rarely hears a challenge to evolutionary theory in the classroom. But when he does, he handles the questions gently, asking students to discuss their concerns with him in his office.

“We’ll talk bout religion: Where do you worship? How do you understand the Genesis account? We talk about Jesus,” Dillon says.

To Dillon, the church and the laboratory are two separate realms, and he prefers to engage in “a dialogue between respectful worlds” rather than seek to reconcile two unrelated fields. In an analogy he’s fond of using, he says biology is to religion as bluegrass is to baseball.

“Don’t bring your baseball bat to my jam session,” Dillon says, “and I won’t bring my banjo and stand on first base.”

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