When the Louisiana legislature approved the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) by an overwhelming margin in 2008, supporters of "intelligent design" creationism rejoiced; the LSEA would allow public school educators to introduce "supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials" in the classroom, paving the way for — among other things — biology textbooks that cast doubt on evolution and discussed creationism. Several powerful state interests supported the move, from Gov. Bobby Jindal (who signed the LSEA into law) to the influential Louisiana Family Forum (LFF).
But when Zack Kopplin, a student at Baton Rouge Magnet School, heard the decision, his reaction was "disbelief."
In November, Kopplin appeared before the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), where the Textbook Advisory Council was deciding whether to purchase new biology texts. Since the council only meets every seven years, the information in the books chosen would have long-lasting impact in a state with the fourth-worst graduation rate in the country.
The Rev. Gene Mills, president of the LFF, told the panel the new textbooks under consideration were "biased" toward evolution. Kopplin — wearing an orange hoodie and blue jeans — disagreed. "All the Louisiana Science Education Act does is create an unconstitutional loophole to sneak the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public school science classes," Kopplin testified, saying it would "embarrass our state" and hinder the success of Louisiana graduates. "Please stand tall and endorse life science textbooks that teach real science rather than undermine it," he concluded.
What happened next made news in science circles around the country: The council sided with Kopplin in an 8-4 vote. The next month, the BESE board at large agreed, and the Baton Rouge Advocate wrote an editorial calling the high school senior "the newest giant-killer in state education policy."
But Kopplin doesn't intend to stop there. His next target: overturning the Louisiana Science Education Act.
High School biology itself may be an endangered species, according to a survey analyzed in January by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, political science professors at Pennsylvania State University. Examining data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, they found 28 percent taught evolution, while 13 percent "explicitly advocated creationism or intelligent design." The remainder ("the cautious 60 percent") fell somewhere in the middle. The professors concluded, "Our data show these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy."
Teachers may have good reason to be wary. A December 2010 Gallup poll found four in 10 Americans are creationists, agreeing with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."
Creationism — the belief that all life on Earth came from a divine hand, as described in the Book of Genesis — is a single concept with many subsects. Creationists divide roughly into two camps: "old earth" and "new earth." Old earth creationists believe, as do scientists, that the earth is millions of years old but unlike scientists, they hold that it was created by God, while young earth creationists believe — based on their readings of Genesis — the world was created by God between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which opened in 2007 at a cost of $27 million, teaches young earth creationism, with dioramas featuring men and dinosaurs living side by side, and a baby triceratops for children to ride, Flintstones-style.
Introducing the possibility of creationism into biology classes is referred to by supporters as "teaching the controversy." (Louisiana State University evolutionary biologist Bryan Carstens, who testified at the BESE hearing, disputes that: "The theory of evolution is not controversial among practicing biologists.") At the final textbook vote in December, Dr. John Oller, a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the texts were decades out of date. Oller, who also sits on the board of the Texas-based Institute for Creation Research, has a website on which he posts his theories about creationism and the textbook controversy, such as, "There is no mention of 4-D moving pictures of unborn babies that explode many myths coming from 19th-century Darwinism."
When the BESE committee ruled in favor of the teenager's argument rather than the professor's, Oller told The Acadiana Gazette afterward, "Darwin's too-dull tools can't refute the existence of an intelligent God. It's entirely presumptuous."
Kopplin doesn't look much like a giant-killer; he's a particularly young-looking 17-year-old with the slight build of a soccer player and swimmer (his other hobbies). But when he talks, he's as articulate as any politician, despite having a limited political portfolio. "I volunteered for [President Barack] Obama's campaign and I volunteered for my dad's campaign, but that's it," he says. (Kopplin's father, Andy Kopplin, was the former chief of staff to Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, and ran an unsuccessful 2008 campaign for Congress. Today he's deputy mayor and CAO of the city of New Orleans. In an email, he calls his son "relentless.")
When Kopplin decided he wanted to overturn the LSEA, he contacted Dr. Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Forrest is also the co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, a pro-science, anti-creationist group.
"[Kopplin] emailed me last summer and said he'd decided he wanted to tackle this as his senior project," Forrest says. She had fought the LSEA's passage and similar laws in other states, including the 2005 landmark case in Delaware, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which she was an expert witness. That case resulted in a U.S. District Court ruling that intelligent design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents," and teaching intelligent design in public schools violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — a decision that did little to deter school boards interested in "teaching the controversy."
After the LSEA was passed, the school board of Livingston Parish commissioned a panel to study the possibility of teaching creationism in its science classes. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly howled, and the board backed off, though it didn't table the notion completely. Livingston Parish School Board member David Tate, who introduced the idea, told the Baton Rouge Advocate, "We don't want litigation, but why not take a stand for Jesus and risk litigation?"
Kopplin is optimistic about his chances for getting LSEA overturned in the upcoming legislative session, but the numbers are against him. LSEA was passed unanimously in the state Senate in April 2008 and got through the House on a 94-3 vote. But Kopplin has the promise of a heavy hitter to introduce the overturn: state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. Peterson was one of the three "no" votes on the original bill when she was a member of the House.
Asked to comment, Peterson wrote in an email, "Legislation like the LSEA puts Louisiana's children at a disadvantage when it comes to their potential opportunities in growing fields such as biotechnology and health sciences. Initiatives such as the biodistrict here in New Orleans will offer higher-paying jobs and better futures for our children. Our children will be ill-prepared for those exciting potential careers without a modern education system that respects and celebrates science." Regarding Kopplin, she wrote, "He really is an inspiration to young folks everywhere, because he's been able to leverage his own determination into a real campaign that is garnering considerable attention. It shows one person can really make a difference."
But will Kopplin's zeal make a difference when the legislature convenes? "The support I'm getting is accelerating," Kopplin says, though he admits, "I don't have any specific legislators. We haven't started lobbying yet."
Kopplin also has support from the science world. "I've heard back from a lot of scientists, international scientists," he says. "including John Pearse, the past president of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology." (That group pulled its planned 2011 convention out of New Orleans as a protest against the passage of LSEA.) "After he heard about the [textbook] victory," Kopplin says, "he asked me, 'Is Louisiana OK to come back to now?'"
Kopplin's activism has not gone unnoticed in atheist circles, either. Richard Dawkins, a biologist, bestselling author (The God Delusion) and perhaps the world's most famous atheist, featured Kopplin on his website, calling him "splendid" and saying his testimony was a "rare and extraordinary moment ... when logic and reason won out against typical Louisiana politics."
Which brings up the question: Is Kopplin an atheist?
He declines to discuss his personal religious views. "It's not about my religion. And it shouldn't be about theirs, either," he says. "That's why you go to church, to learn about creationism. In science class, you learn about science.
"It's wrong to take science away from students who will need it to succeed in today's economy. If I applied to Harvard tomorrow, they would be very skeptical of my science education — because I'm from Louisiana."