Evolution of a Controversy
What happened in Kansas shows why scientists must defend the search for truth
BY: Robert Hemenway
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.
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 That version, however, was quickly superseded by new drafts written by some members of the board.
In recent years, the board has been a very controversial body. Independent of governor and legislature, it comprises 10 members who are elected directly from geographic districts that encompass the state. For the past two years, the board has been so deadlocked, with five conservative and five moderate members, that very little educational business has been conducted -- to the great frustration of Kansas's citizens.
Steve Abrams--a veterinarian from Arkansas City and a member and immediate past chairman of the board--read the committee's proposed standards for science education and found them objectionable. He took it upon himself to rewrite the standards, enlisting the assistance of a Missouri group called the Creation Science Association for Mid-America.
Abrams not only wanted to rid the standards of evolution; he also wanted to relegate all science to the status of unproven "theory." His version stated: "Since science today is defined as empirical, and therefore inductive, no one can rationally claim that any scientific theory has been certified to be true." Under that assumption, even the laws of gravity failed to qualify as scientific fact. According to Abrams, the theory of gravity "has been tested very few times, has at least a modest body of evidence against it, and was (and is) not accepted by notable scientists, e.g., A. Einstein."
The Abrams standards created great consternation among the board and the public. The board rejected them-perhaps because of a 1987 Supreme Court decision, Edwards v. Aguillard, which held that requiring the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution was an impermissible endorsement of religion, violating the principle of separation of church and state. Or perhaps the board simply felt that the Abrams draft was too extreme.
Abrams and two other members of the board then prepared another draft, including material from the committee's version and Abrams's original version. That draft eliminated evolution, as normally defined by biologists; any references to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe; and all references to the earth's being billions of years old. The three board members even removed almost all mentions of famous scientists and scientific achievements of the past. They included assignments designed to promote creationist views. For example: "Analyze hypotheses about characteristics of and extinction of dinosaurs. Identify the assumptions behind the hypothesis and show the weakness in the reasoning that led to the hypothesis."
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