So last week, the 'Pipe dropped in on an advanced-placement biology class at Ely High School in Pompano Beach where the subject was (scary sound effects here): ev-o-luuu-tion.
In a third-floor laboratory, a diverse group of 20 students was engaged in a lively reconstruction of the way Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, one of the pillars of modern science, developed and continues to be refined. "Science as process," biology teach Myra Frank called it. Each student played a historic theorist, from Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece to Darwin himself in mid-19th-century England to such modern scientists as Stephen Jay Gould (who died in 2002) and Ernst Mayr (who died last month) in America.
The notion of "natural selection" as a guiding principle in evolution clearly didn't just pop into Darwin's mind like a light bulb lighting up. There were earlier thinkers who laid the groundwork, challenging superstitions, finding evidence of prehistoric species, studying the Earth's geology, drawing conclusions from new discoveries.
One of Darwin's precursors was Jean-Louis Lamarck. "Time and favorable conditions are the two principal means which nature has employed in giving existence to all her productions," said student Yarlie Nicolas, portraying the 17th-century French botanist. Nicolas gave it the full treatment, complete with French accent and hand-waving Gallic attitude. What she was talking about were the conditions for a species to evolve -- say, from a horse-like quadruped with toes to a modern horse with hooves. It takes time, a lot more than the paltry 6,000 years allotted to our world by the creationists.
"All my work shows that the world is very old," added old Darwin himself, portrayed by Christal Carson. (It's actually 4.6 billion years old, molecular geologists have since found.)
Because of the students' sheer energy and absorption in their subject, the class was riveting, something like a theater piece. Frank is one of those rare teachers who, when things are churning along in the classroom, can hold back, letting the kids discover things on their own.
No matter the teaching style, though, the study of evolution is the same in high schools across the county, insists J.P. Keener, who's in charge of the high school science curriculum for the Broward County School District. Evolution is a longstanding part of the Broward County curriculum. What about creationism? Beside the point, Keener says. "It's not a state standard on which students are tested," he said. "That doesn't mean you can't have a lively discussion about it."
Tailpipe heaved a sigh of relief.
There were a few troubling moments in the wide-open discussion at the end, though. Frank says she rarely gets complaints from parents who object to the teaching of evolution, but some students are obviously feeling the pressure from religious dogma. Amir Valliani, a thoughtful young Plato, raised the specter of the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee teacher was prosecuted for teaching about evolution. "If it creates so much controversy," Valliani said, "my feeling is: Just leave it alone."
This didn't sit well with Nicolas, who, despite being a committed Christian, wanted all the facts. "If you don't know your history," she said, "you don't know where you're going." Amen.
Battle of the Frankensteins
You mentioned evolution? How about the new political beasts created in the thunder and lightning of the slot machine ballot initiative, which comes to a vote next week in Broward and Miami-Dade counties?
In this corner, the stitched-together creature from the anti-slots lagoon: animal-rights activists, the Seminole Tribe, the City of Hollywood, Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Christian Coalition! Yikes.
Wearing the purple trunks, the pro-slots humanoid: horse- and dog-track owners, the Broward Police Benevolent Association, the teachers unions!
May the best monster win.
In its February issue, OUTLOUD, a free monthly newspaper written mostly by teens and distributed at more than 100 high schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, printed an editorial titled "OUTLOUD Trumps Viacom." According to the story, Viacom alleged the monthly's name infringed upon the corporation's trademark for a block of films, shorts, and other programming on the Sundance Channel.