Inherit an Ill Wind
"Intelligent design" theory as an alternative to evolutionary theory
BY: Edward Larson and Larry Witham
In the nation's capital, meanwhile, under the banner of "Goals 2000," the new Clinton Administration had accelerated the national education reform movement. The Educate America Act, passed by the Democratic Congress in 1994, put teeth behind the call for state education standards. Under the new law, standards written by states had to be reviewed in Washington to insure quality and uniformity in English, history, math, and science. That backfired, however, when a federally funded set of history standards came out that conservative critics denounced as replacing "the Founding Fathers" with multicultural heroes. The new Republican Congress responded by deleting federal control of the content of state education standards in 1996.
The states have great flexibility now, although they still tend to follow national trends. Yet, from Washington's point of view, the Kansas outcome is well within the state's authority. "We don't review standards for substance, only process," notes Melinda Kitchell Malico, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "We won't be reviewing the Kansas standards."
Like other states, Kansas began with the model science standards drafted by the National Research Council, a public policy arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Various national science and teacher groups had asked the NAS to develop model national science standards. Nearly every state then used them in drafting their Goals 2000 state science standards, notes Rodger Bybee, who helped draft the NAS document. "They are called national standards, but it is not a mandate," he says, "It is not a law. Their use is voluntary. The states see the comprehensiveness of the standards, and then use portions of them."
The standards cover physical, life, and earth science, and it is in the latter two areas that the concept of evolution falls. Further, "Evolution and Equilibrium" is presented as one of five "unifying concepts and processes in science." The other four pillars-from systems and evidence to measurement and form-appear devoid of ideological content.
Bybee, now director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in Colorado, said he visited eight or ten states to give presentations on the NAS document. "It's by invitation," he said. "It's usually to the committee reviewing the standards." He made such a visit to Kansas in early August of 1998, a month after the state commissioner of education, a gubernatorial appointee, had formed a committee of Kansas scientists and science educators to write the state's new science standards.
"I spent a morning with them," Bybee recalls. The topic of evolution invariably came up, a concern of some Board of Education members but not of the science writing committee. "The committee anticipated there would be some conflict," Bybee said after the board vote in August. "But I don't think they understood it would end up this way."
In working through similar processes over the past few years, controversy has erupted over evolution in thirteen other states besides Kansas. Only three of them, however-Alabama, Illinois and Nebraska-ended up diluting the teaching of evolution. Alabama, for example, required a disclaimer in biology and geology texts stating that evolution "is theory, not fact." Illinois put evolution in its "controversial issues" category. That allows each local school district to decide how to approach it. Nebraska did not go that far, but after an assistant attorney general argued that teaching evolution might violate the religious freedom of some students, the state school board added cautious caveats.
"I really believe the good things that come out of schools happen in classrooms and locally," said Scott Hill, one of the conservative board members. "It was a huge issue for us." That sort of thinking led the board last year to demand a role in actually drafting the science standards. That startled the state education establishment, but it conceded five slots on the twenty-seven-member writing committee to the conservative board members. Evolution was not a major issue in anyone's thinking yet.
In the early nineties, amid a backlash in local schools against process-based science education, the board had voted to make process-style assessment tests optional. Going into the 1998 science standards, conservatives' main concern had been to roll back the focus on process. A board appointee to the writing committee explains, "One of the charges was to make these standards more content-oriented, or fact-oriented. Forget the process. Get us back to what content these kids have to know when they get out of school." It was only after board members saw the emphasis given to evolution by the NAS model that they began adding opposition to Darwinism to their concern that science should study "facts."
The leader of the anti-evolution wing of the board is Steve Abrams, a Baptist lay leader and veterinarian who has been active on the religious-right wing of state GOP politics. He stresses fact-based science, but there is no denying his belief in young-earth creationism. "In the scientific field, we should be studying science: facts that can be documented, observed, and measured," Abrams told the news media. "Evolution is not good science, and, as such, we don't believe it should be presented."
In all, the science writing committee had nine meetings from mid-1998 to June 1999, with the first public comments solicited in December and January for version 2 of the standards. Kansas teachers' groups, which were already supportive, tended to write in with accolades, while conservatives were the ones showing up at the otherwise poorly attended public comment sessions. By this time, however, it became clear that the committee's intent was basically to follow the NAS model. Revised versions 3 and 4 did just that. "We were not going to remove the theory of evolution from the document," said John Staver, co-chairman of the writing committee and professor of science education at Kansas State University.
Abrams led a threesome on the board that Staver viewed as the only probable negative votes to the writing committee's version 4. Then, at a May board meeting, Abrams suddenly announced that an ad hoc "subcommittee" had produced an alternative set of standards called Trial 4a, which had the fingerprints of young-earth creationism all over it.
The rift became openly political. The education commission sent a mediator to urge peace, but public hearings in May and June became vociferous showdowns between science educators and religious parents. Nearly every science and education organization in the state sent petitions to the board and letters to newspaper editors.
With the board vote still uncertain, the science committee offered a compromise fifth draft, which deleted all reference to the age of life on the earth and substituted "patterns of cumulative change" for "evolution" as a unifying concept of science. Responding to widespread ridicule of his creationist Trial 4a draft, Abrams also went back to the drawing board by taking the committee's fifth draft and excising the offending content, such as macro-evolution and the Big Bang. "What we did was delete language," board member Hill explained; yet the final product contained evidence of its creationist path by recommending study projects on recent dinosaurs and abrupt geological events. It was broad enough to attract support from Kansans worried about issues of evolutionary naturalism raised by Johnson and Behe.
In the days leading to the vote, various "alerts" went out among leaders on the science writing committee warning that the Abrams proposal was "speaking to powerful emotional needs" found in the religious public. Staver argued that most religions accept evolution; he noted that the Roman Catholic Church did, and he even quoted the Pope. The Kansas Catholic Conference disagreed, however. Taking a leaf from Behe's book, state Catholic education officer Mary Kay Culp said, "A major concern here is teaching evolution as a fact protected from any valid scientific criticism." She complained that the NAS standards seemed to put "science as a way of knowing" above religion, which it associated with superstition and myth.
Tensions rose to fever pitch as the matter moved toward a final vote by the Board of Education in early August. Local, state and national science educators lobbied board members, especially wavering moderates. Local religious conservatives lobbied their board members. An NPR Weekend Edition on the pending showdown featured a string of moderate state Republican officeholders, including Governor Graves, denouncing the anti-evolution effort, but more telling was an interview with a local student. "No one was there that's still alive today that actually witnessed creation or evolution," he commented. "It's just what a person believes. I mean, we have no right to say what exactly is true." That's fact-based education with a postmodernist twist, and a scientist's worst nightmare.
The final 6-to-4 conservative victory came as no surprise. One swing moderate, a devout Mennonite, had let on that he would follow his conservative constituency in voting for the anti-evolution standards. Apparently in Kansas, teaching nothing about origins is a political compromise between young-earth creationism (three votes) and evolution (four votes). The decision on August 11 generated headline news stories across the country, and soon even rock singers were talking about it onstage.
Johnson and Behe tried to sound conciliatory. "In context," Johnson wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "the Kansas action was a protest against enshrining a particular world view as a scientific fact and against making `evolution' an exception to the usual American tradition that the people have a right to disagree with the experts." Behe added in the New York Times, "Teach Darwin's elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems." Speaking in Topeka only a week after the vote, however, Johnson saluted the bravery of the conservatives on the state Board of Education, saying that the controversy has led to an "unrestricted debate about the scientific and philosophical issues."
Many media commentators and scientists denounced the Kansas board's action. "The Kansas skirmish marks the latest episode of a long struggle by religious fundamentalists and their allies to restrict or eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools," current president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Stephen Jay Gould responded. "The major argument advanced by the school board-that large-scale evolution must be dubious because the process has not been directly observed-smacks of absurdity and only reveals ignorance about the nature of science." According to Gould and the NAS, creation science is bad science, and intelligent design is not science at all. Gould has planned a speaking trip to Kansas for October, when he surely will have more to say about the Kansas Board of Education. Four conservatives on that body stand for re-election next year, in what promises to be a hotly contested fight.
Politicians can spot a tide from miles away, however. When asked about the Kansas action, campaign spokespersons for all the leading GOP presidential candidates said that such decisions should be left to states and localities, with a Bush spokeswoman adding that her candidate "believes both [evolution and creationism] ought to be taught." Democratic front-runner Al Gore apparently agreed, because his spokesman immediately commented that the Vice President "favors the teaching of evolution in the public schools" but cautiously added that "localities should be free to teach creationism as well." REM's Michael Stipe has good reason to be puzzled about more than just Kansas and creationism.