THE century-old dispute over teaching evolution in the public schools is erupting again in California, with implications for districts across the country. In recent months, Christian fundamentalists have made gains in their drive to see a literal reading of the Bible's version of man's origin - creationism - taught in public schools.
In Texas, they won an amendment to new science education guidelines this spring requiring that evolution and ``other reliable scientific theories, if any,'' be taught on man's origin. In Alabama, they got a letter sympathetic to their cause sent to all science teachers from the state director of education. They have also been active in Missouri and Florida.
Court rulings in the 1980s, including a landmark 1987 US Supreme Court decision, upheld the right to teach evolution and struck down state laws that required the teaching of creationism.
Worried by this new battle, civil libertarians, the National Education Association (NEA), and other proponents of teaching evolution are fighting back.
A showdown is shaping up in California, where guidelines are being drawn up for science textbooks through the eighth grade.
California and Texas are always important on these matters. And as the nation's largest textbook markets, they help shape publishing standards nationwide.
``Textbook publishers are measuring the political winds to see what they are going to write,'' says Michael Hudson, western director of People for the American Way, a group that advocates the study of evolutionary theory. ``That's why Texas and California send such an important signal.''
The current dispute centers around proposed guidelines that exclude religious theories and recommend that evolution - the theory that higher forms of life, including humans, evolved from primitive forms - be taught as accepted fact. The requirements were proposed by a science committee of the California Curriculum Commission, an arm of the state Board of Education.
California selects new textbooks every seven years. Before schools buy the books, the state writes guidelines that tell publishers what material is to be included in them. No science texts currently include theories of creationism, though some teachers around the country bring them up in class.
Evolutionists won round 1. Despite fervent opposition from fundamentalists, the science committee decided after recent hearings not to substantively change its strong pro-evolution policy.
The full curriculum commission will vote on the proposals in September, after which they go to the state board, where the real battle will be fought.
Mr. Hudson considers the guidelines the most ``affirmative'' statement on evolution he's ever seen.
But Robert Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education and the National Association of Christian Educators, calls them a ``gag order.''
``Whenever evolutionary theory is being taught,'' he says, ``there should be an opposing theory taught that is scientifically validated.''
Proponents of teaching evolution argue that biblical teachings cannot be tested by scientific methods. Thus they don't belong in the science classroom.
At the recent hearings, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig urged the curriculum commission to carry through and exclude creationism in science classes. He argued it is important that books not confuse religion and science.
Mr. Honig has been an advocate of reversing the ``dumbing down'' of textbooks. This, he and others assert, occurs as publishers try to sell books as widely as possible and thus seek to avoid controversy.
Creationists counter that the only thing dumb is not presenting competing ideas on a subject, including the theory of creation or the sudden appearance of the universe. They don't accept evolution as fact.
Although evolutionists prevailed with the science committee, no one knows what the Board of Education will do.
In January, the board established a new science teaching policy that took a strong stand against creationism. Yet even in this statement, creationists found some comfort. They believe that for textbooks to teach evolution exclusively would violate the policy's statement that ``nothing shall be taught dogmatically.''
The composition of the 11-member board has changed substantially since last winter, and several members have made statements suggesting that evolution should not be too strongly emphasized.
``We'll win in the end,'' says Mr. Simonds.
``I think it is close to 50-50 right now,'' Hudson says.
Both sides are lobbying the board and textbook publishers hard. Fundamentalists say they have the support of 15,000 churches in California, and if they don't win they will go to court.
People for the American Way is counting on its 50,000 members here, as well as groups like the NEA and the National Association of Science Teachers.