Kansas curriculum is focal point of wider struggle across nation
TOPEKA, Kan. — This story contains corrected material, published May 24, 2005.
Eighty years after the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the battle between those who support the validity of biological evolution and those who oppose it rages on in Kansas–and in more than a dozen other states around the country.
The controversy may appear to be simply about the teaching of science in the classroom. But it represents a far more complex, widespread clash of politics, religion, science and culture that transcends the borders of conservative, so-called red states and their more liberal blue counterparts.
“This controversy is going to happen everywhere. It’s going to happen in all 50 states. This controversy is not going away,” said Jeff Tamblyn, 52, an owner of Merriam, Kan.-based Origin Films, which is making a feature film about the current fight over whether to introduce a more critical approach to evolution in Kansas’ school science standards.
So far in 2005, the issue of evolution has sparked at least 21 instances of controversy on the local and/or state level in at least 18 states, according to the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although such controversies have occurred regularly over the years, some attribute the recent wave to the success of conservatives in 2004 elections.
At the national level, one attempt to diminish the prominence of evolution in public school curricula and introduce alternative views came in the form of a proposed amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. Sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the amendment suggested that evolution is in question among scientists and recommended that a “full range of scientific views” be taught. But it was cut from the bill.
Seeking to explain the passion that the issue often ignites, Tamblyn said: “Partly, it’s the mixture of religion and politics. If that doesn’t get you going, what does?”
Indeed, the theory of evolution, which some opponents say is consonant with atheism because it provides no role for the divine, has been provoking controversy since 1859, when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”
And if the contentious nature of the Kansas State Board of Education’s recent public hearings here on evolution is any indication, the issue remains as explosive today as it was in Tennessee 80 years ago.
Root of the controversy
In the summer of 1925, Clarence Darrow entered a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom to defend biology teacher John Scopes against charges of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution after it had been banned by the state. The highly publicized trial was the basis of the 1955 Broadway play “Inherit the Wind” and the 1960 film of the same title.
Then as now, the controversy over evolution revolved around two Darwinian theories that contradict the biblical version of creation: Darwin’s assertion that all life, including humans and monkeys, descended from common ancestors and that it is all the result of natural selection and random mutation. While fundamentalists may recoil from those concepts, many religious authorities, including those in the Roman Catholic Church, hold that belief in God and evolution do not conflict.
As there was in 1999, when Kansas de-emphasized evolution in its school science standards–a move reversed by a more moderate board in 2001– there has been snickering by critics over the state’s “backwardness” and head-shaking over the idea that the validity of evolution, one of the foundations of modern science, is in question.
That has prompted many references to the famous question posed in an 1896 editorial by William Allen White, editor of Kansas’ Emporia Gazette. Listing examples of what he deplored as the backwardness of the state, he wrote: “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
But if Kansas is “backward,” it’s not alone.
Year to date, at least 13 states have entertained legislation requiring a more critical approach to evolution in the classroom and/or allowing discussion of alternative explanations of the origins of humans, including the supernatural.
The most recent addition is New York, a true “blue” state, where an Assembly bill was introduced May 3 requiring schools to teach both evolution and intelligent design.
Intelligent design, which some critics consider an attempt to get around the Supreme Court’s ban on teaching overtly religious creationism, credits an unnamed intelligence or designer for aspects of nature’s complexity still unexplained by science.
Whether any of this proposed legislation concerning evolution passes, it is evident that many Americans share the thinking behind it, according to poll after poll, including a recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll.
Partly in response to concerns expressed by such conservative Christian groups as the Illinois Family Institute, the Illinois State Board of Education eliminated the term “evolution” from its science standards in 1997 and substituted the phrase “change over time.” However, the word “evolution” does appear in the board’s Science Performance Descriptors, a list of grade-specific material over which students must demonstrate mastery.
The Tribune/WGN-TV poll of 1,200 Illinois registered voters, conducted May 5-10, found that 58 percent favor teaching Darwin’s theory but 57 percent also are open to teaching views opposed to it. In fact, 57 percent said they believe that both evolution and creationism should be included in school curricula. The poll by Mt. Prospect, Ill.-based Market Shares Corp. has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
And 58 percent of Illinois voters polled said they believe teaching creationism does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
Supreme Court prohibition
But in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to the contrary in Edwards vs. Aguillard. The court held that to teach creationism, or so-called creation science, in public schools implies a state endorsement of a religious view and thus violates the 1st Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.
Nonetheless, the views on evolution expressed by Illinois voters mirror those of Americans overall, according to earlier polls by Gallup and others.
According to a November national Gallup poll, “only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence.” The rest said they didn’t know.
A CBS News poll taken the same month found that two-thirds of Americans want creationism taught with evolution. It also indicated that 55 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form and only 13 percent think that humans evolved without divine guidance.
Kansans will learn this summer whether schoolchildren will study evolution alone or in conjunction with criticism of Darwin’s theory. Schools are not bound to teach by standards set by the state board. However, teachers, already sometimes nervous about teaching evolution, know that board-recommended material may appear on state science assessment tests, said Steven Case, assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas and chairman of the state’s Science Standards Writing Committee.
The majority of the 26-member committee recommended retaining current standards regarding evolution, while eight members disagreed and presented their own minority report, advocating not only a curriculum more critical of evolution but a redefinition of science that goes beyond explanations rooted in nature.
Should the board approve the more critical approach, as is considered likely given its conservative majority, it would open the door to alternative explanations for life on Earth that go beyond natural causes, including intelligent design.
That infuriates many scientists, the majority of whom solidly support Darwin’s theory and deny there is any scientific controversy surrounding it. They point out that in science, a “theory” is not merely a guess but a tested concept based on long-term observation and evidence. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with the rest of the national scientific community, refused to send witnesses to the Kansas hearings, claiming that the event was rigged against mainstream science and that its participation would confer the kind of scientific credibility that intelligent design seeks (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
However, the reasoning behind its position may have seemed confusing, and even condescending, to some Kansans. Past arguments over evolution often have been cast as a culture clash between the Darwinist scientific elite and ordinary, less-educated citizens.
This conflict was neatly summed up by the headline at the top of a news release issued by the Discovery Institute at the close of the hearings: “Darwinists Snub Kansas, Refuse to Answer Questions about Scientific Problems with Evolutionary Theory.” The Seattle-based Discovery Institute advocates criticism of Darwin’s theory and supports scholarship on intelligent design.
To represent mainstream science at the hearings, the state recruited Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, a supporter of Darwin’s theory, who cross-examined the nearly two dozen witnesses appearing on behalf of those advocating the revisions. His counterpart was John Calvert, an attorney and managing director of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network, a non-profit organization promoting intelligent design.
In September, what promises to be a test case on intelligent design will come to trial in Pennsylvania, where Dover-area schools last fall decided to require that students be made aware of intelligent design and of criticism of Darwin’s theory. Parents have filed suit against the school board, arguing that intelligent design is not science but creationism in disguise.
Evolution critics cite science
Proponents of intelligent design assert that there is a scientific rationale to their criticism of evolution. One who testified at the Kansas hearings is Jonathan Wells. A molecular biologist, Wells also is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.
“We can infer from evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes,” Wells said in a phone interview. “Among the latter would be random mutation and natural selection. They’re factors, but not sufficient to give a full account.
“I think Darwinism is pseudoscience,” he said.
Supporters of the theory of evolution say the same thing about intelligent design.
“Despite how they want to redefine it, science itself appeals only to natural explanations. It doesn’t say there are no other explanations,” said Harry McDonald, a retired biology teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science, a pro-evolution group formed during the fight over standards in 1999.
The Kansas Board of Education will take a preliminary vote in June and a final vote later this summer on revisions to the science standards. But given the 6-4 advantage of conservatives on the board, few believe the outcome is in doubt–although any revisions can be reversed if the composition of the board changes, as happened in 2001.
“I fear that there will be a lack of logic, that emotion is going to rule and, as a result, our science standards will be severely compromised,” said Irigonegaray, slumping into a seat in Topeka’s Memorial Hall after delivering a 108-minute argument on behalf of mainstream science on May 12, the last day of public hearings.
He paused, then added, “I warn America to be on the lookout for this problem because it’s a national phenomenon, not just a Kansas problem.”
Alternative theories to evolution
Since Charles Darwin published the theory of biological evolution in 1859, his assertions that humans share common ancestry with all life on the planet and that they evolved to their present form through natural selection and mutation have clashed with the beliefs of those who adhere to the Bible’s story that God created the world and created Adam and Eve in his image.
Opponents of evolution have their own vocabulary list. Among the key terms are:
CREATIONISM–Advanced by religious conservatives in response to Darwin’s theory, creationism holds that God alone created the world and all life in it as it is today. “Young Earth” creationists take the Bible’s Book of Genesis literally and believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. “Old Earth” creationists do not take Genesis literally but dispute evolution. “Creation science” claims scientific evidence for the biblical version of creation.
INTELLIGENT DESIGN–Considered a successor to creationism, intelligent design became popular in the early 1990s after the U.S. Supreme Court banned the teaching of creationism in public schools in 1987. Framed in scientific language but devoid of biblical or theistic references, intelligent design posits that there are weaknesses in Darwin’s theory and suggests that an unnamed intelligence must have designed complex aspects of nature still unexplained by science.