Back in September, before the current debate on how (and whether) to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in schools reached the state legislature and the governor's lips, a group of graduate students wrote to the S.C. Aquarium to complain about the lack of evolutionary material it had on display.
"If the Aquarium is to excel in education, as its mission statement claims, it must devote resources to explaining the central idea of biology. The theory enables us to describe how the Aquarium's 10,000 plants and animals are related," wrote Natalie Renew, a graduate student in Public Administration at the College of Charleston.
"An aquarium or zoo without an explanation of evolution is like an art museum without mention of the artists, or a place of worship without mention of a divine being."
When asked about the letter last week, Whit McMillan, the Director of Education at the aquarium, claimed to have never seen or heard about it. After a quick read, he acknowledged their points, but defended the aquarium's approach to education.
"This is not a science museum," says McMillan. "There are no exhibits on photosynthesis or nitrogen cycling, although these are important processes in any aquatic ecosystem. Evolution is an important part of understanding marine biology, but this is not the appropriate place to interpret it."
Nonetheless, some, like Renew, find it alarming to find no acknowledgement of the evolutionary process within any exhibit in the aquarium, considering life began in the sea — if "scientists" are to be believed.
The aquarium's only display that might slightly contradict a literal, Biblical Creationist's view of the world's origins is a revolving map that shows the coastline of South Carolina 65 million years ago.
McMillan is "fairly certain" there wasn't any conscious omission of evolutionary material during the aquarium's creation.
"This is the first aquarium in the country to have an interpretive, education-based master plan prior to opening, reviewed by educators and scientists from throughout South Carolina. The themes and ideas in our exhibits are based on what state educators thought was important."
Last Monday, the state's Education Oversight Committee (EOC) rejected proposed changes to the Science Curriculum Standards for Grades K-12. The current standards, in place since 2000, teach evolution as the method by which the Earth's diverse life forms came to exist.
State Rep. Bob Walker (R-Landrum) and state Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville) had hoped to add the phrase "by using data from a variety of scientific sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" to the end of the current requirement that a student be able to "demonstrate an understanding of biological evolution and the diversity of life."
This change would require public school teachers to prompt debate on the validity of Darwin's theory.
The decision over the proposed compromise "analysis line" now lies with the state Board of Education and seems destined for infinite stalemate.
While State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum thinks critical analysis of Darwin's theory is a good thing, she told The Post and Courier after the vote that she worries that by "singling out evolution with critical analysis, you imply a controversy that does not exist within the scientific community."
As Natalie Renew points out, and a review of the 2000 Standards verifies, South Carolina has in fact surpassed its neighboring Southern states in its recognition of evolution as valid science. Although unmentioned until eighth grade, evolution is a central theme of the current high school standards, moving away from the "one man's theory" way of presenting it to a broader, multifaceted understanding of life's interconnectedness.
So why would South Carolina take a step backwards, denying students a full understanding of a theory commonly accepted as fact? Because a growing number of people are beginning to question both Darwin and the Genesis story, seeking to reconcile their childhood understanding of Adam and Eve with the facts we know about the Earth's and fossils' ages.
Reasons to Believe (RTB), a nationwide Christian movement of scientists and theologians, is at the forefront of a movement to end the "science vs. religion" debate, and spur a "science vs. science" discussion of our origins. Essentially believers in intelligent design, they argue that while evolution exists, Darwin's theory is incorrect.
Last weekend, the Charleston RTB chapter hosted a conference titled "Cosmic Fingerprints: Evidence of Design," at St. Andrew's Church in Mt. Pleasant, where skeptics and believers attended a Friday evening lecture, and 300 people attended Saturday's day-long conference.
Tim McGlame founded Charleston's RTB after 40 years as a Darwinist. His realization that scripture and science could coexist without contradiction led him to embrace a theory of "microevolution." This allows for adaptations and differing within species — i.e., humans with different color eyes, Galapagos birds with different beaks, varied "breeds" of dogs — but denies Darwin's "macroevolution," in which species can adapt into new species.
"The only proven evolution is variation," stated McGlame. "We need a more meaningful debate in which other scientific models become mainstream science."
RTB has done its research in its 20-year history, and its representatives are prepared to answer and counter most arguments. Members explain that God created life on a progressive scale. Rather than one animal evolving into a new one, God created a new one when another came to extinction.
McGlame cites Psalm 104, which reads: "When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust. When you send your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth," implying a progressive creation not limited to a "day."
Asked about the seven-day creation story, McGlame refers to the Hebrew word yom in the original text of the Bible, meaning either the period of light in a day, the 24-hour day cycle, or a "long period of time."
RTB scoffs at those "young Creationists" who follow the human lineage in the Bible, add six days, and conclude that the world is around 6,000 years old. By acknowledging that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago and the Earth 4.6 billion years ago, RTBers hold that much of modern scientific knowledge lines up with the Old Testament account.
Perhaps the most credible aspect of RTB is their effort to create a creation/evolution theory that can be tested by the scientific method. The premise still requires that one believe in a creator, but greatly expands on the simple intelligent design explanation of "this is all just too complicated to evolve." Evolution itself requires a belief in an unproven "mechanism" that constantly generates more complicated and diverse life forms. RTB explains this mechanism as God, the creator, who renewed and produced new species until the appearance of Eve, when creation ceased.
As Darwin Week at the College of Charleston continued last week, South Carolina and the nation, in general, did not appear to be reaching any consensus on our origins. A July 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press found that 42 percent of Americans said they believed that life forms have remained the same since the dawn of time. Thirty-eight percent of those polled said creationism should replace evolution in public-school curricula, while 64 percent said creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution.
Then perhaps it's no wonder why the predominantly Christian legislators in Columbia can't figure out how to balance children's weekday education with what many of them are taught on Sunday.
The aquarium, which brings 10,000 K--12 students to its education programs each year, free of charge, takes flack for not teaching evolution, yet it follows the required state education standards.
"There is evidence of evolution in our exhibits," claims McMillan. "We talk about adaptations and changes over time."
In a time when evolution remains a dirty-monkey word here in South Carolina, perhaps it's no surprise the floundering aquarium decided to stick to its "adaptation" guns.
"Our mission is to teach appreciation, not biological theory," concludes McMillan. "We want to be an inspiration. Our exhibits are meant to inspire people to protect the environment."
With the planet currently suffering a mass extinction of insects and amphibians across the globe, especially among the "bioindicator" animals most susceptible to environmental degradation, like frogs, all sides of the "science vs. religion vs. a mixture" debate better hope either Darwin was right or God steps in for some sort of "re-creation."