Evolution of a Controversy

What happened in Kansas shows why scientists must defend the search for truth

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 29, 1999

The Kansas Board of Education decided in August to impose upon the rest of us in the state its doubts about evolution, its aversion to scientific explanations for the origins of the universe, and its disbelief in geological evidence for the age of the earth.

Kansas is a proud and progressive state with good schools, common-sense government, and an excellent system of higher education. It is neither as flat nor as unsophisticated as some people claim. Today, many Kansans are working busily to protect Kansas schoolchildren from the poor science of the Board of Education.

The board declined to include evolution in its optional teaching standards for public schools in the state, and decided that students need not be tested on the subject. But that does not mean that the teaching of evolution will be banned in those schools. In fact, most local school boards in Kansas proudly endorse the teaching and testing of evolution. In Lawrence, for example, the board voted unanimously, on the day after the state board acted, to continue the teaching of evolution.

The process leading to the Kansas Board of Education's action is instructive, however, and worth consideration by all who believe that such events could never happen in their own, more-enlightened locales. In fact, 13 other states have fought some version of the Kansas battle. One of them, Alabama--the native state of Harvard's E.O. Wilson, one of the most distinguished biologists in the United States--sticks a disclaimer into every biology textbook handed to students, saying, in effect, that you don't have to believe in the evolution taught here if you don't want to.

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What happened in Kansas is relatively straightforward. In 1998, the state Board of Education appointed a blue-ribbon committee of 27 scientists, educators, and other citizens to prepare standards to guide the teaching of science in the state's public schools. The committee created a 100-page draft document, using standards prepared by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and other reputable scientific groups. With the board's approval, the committee held hearings on the draft standards at public forums. Last summer, the committee submitted the final draft of its standards to the board. That version, however, was quickly superseded by new drafts written by some members of the board.

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