2016-06-30
The media version of the Kansas controversy was created on Sunday, August 8, 1999--four days before the Kansas board voted on the state's science education standards--in a front-page Washington Post story by reporter Hanna Rosin; this story also ran in many newspapers around the country.

Apparently relying on reports from members of the original drafting committee, who were bitterly at odds with the new majority on the board, Rosin wrote that the Kansas board seemed about to "pass a new statewide science curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade that wipes out virtually all mention of evolution and related concepts: natural selection, common ancestors, and the origins of the universe." Rosin explained that "the new curriculum will not explicitly prohibit the teaching of evolution. But its exclusion will severely undermine such efforts when they come under attack from students, parents, principals, or local school boards." The story gave the impression that the creationists were the aggressors in a programmed nationwide campaign in which Kansas was merely the latest target. This was the spin that would be adopted by most of the establishment media.

The final compromise was to require all Kansas schools to teach microevolution, but leave it up to local districts to decide whether to teach macroevolution.

According to The Washington Post account, the pending expulsion of evolution from the curriculum reflected a change in tactics by a persistently aggressive national creationist movement. Blocked by Supreme Court decisions from inserting Biblical creationism into the school curricula, creationists were now publishing books and encouraging high school students to form clubs where they learn to resist what is being taught about evolution in science classes. This activity has apparently been so successful that Rosin began her influential story by quoting a biology teacher who complained that a third of the students in his suburban high school did not believe a thing their teacher said about evolution. At the nationwide political level, creationists had induced several state legislatures or school boards to enact measures that required evolution to be taught as theory rather than fact, or attempted in some way to open the curriculum to criticism of evolution.

The Post account explained that this partial success rested on a substantial degree of public support among Americans for creationism's basic principles. According to Gallup polls, about 44 percent of Americans believe in a Biblical creationist view, that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." About 40 percent believe that God oversaw and guided the millions of years of evolution that culminated with humankind. Less than one in 10 of those surveyed agree with the standard scientific position that humans (as well as plants and animals) evolved by a process in which God played no part. Polls also show that about two-thirds of Americans think that both creation and evolution should be taught in the schools.

Only if you read far into The Washington Post story, however, did you find the paragraph that acknowledged that in fact it was science educators, not creationists, who had sparked the Kansas controversy by proposing to revise the state's standards for science education. Following the lead of national science organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, a drafting committee of Kansas educators had proposed to greatly increase the importance given to evolution as a basic concept of science. The essence of the science educators' proposal was the requirement that students be taught that the same processes that explain microevolution (e.g., insect resistance to DDT) also explain macroevolution (appearance of new species or new complex organ systems).

The educators' draft also added evolution to the list of basic "unifying concepts and processes" that underlie all areas of science, while defining science itself as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus linking scientific investigation explicitly with philosophical naturalism. Naturalism is the doctrine that "nature is all there is," and nature alone created life. Scientific authorities generally say that science must assume naturalism as its methodology, but that this assumption does not exclude the possibility that God exists, perhaps as the author of the laws that govern nature.

What the science educators described as "replacing blind memorization of facts and figures with broad central concepts" looked to some members of the board more like a campaign to extend scientific authority to questions of religion. After all, defining science as the search for "natural" explanations all but formally places science in opposition to faith. From the point of view of some board members, the science lobby had gone beyond the available scientific evidence and stepped into the area of religion by insisting that nature can be proven as the sole source of creation. The board's standards redefined science as the search for "logical" explanations for the observed world.

The board's primary action was not to remove virtually all references to Darwin, as so many media accounts claimed, but to create a distinction between micro- and macroevolution. Descriptions of random variation, natural selection, and other details of the evolutionary process remain in the Kansas guidelines. The board majority decided, however, that only microevolutionary variation was supported by scientific evidence, and that extrapolation to an entire "molecule-to-man" evolutionary scenario was more like a statement of philosophy than a conclusion of science. The final compromise in the standards the board enacted was to require all Kansas schools to teach microevolution, but leave it up to local districts to decide for themselves whether to teach macroevolution. This was the decision that, in most media accounts, got twisted around into "banning Darwin."

Many stories also implied that the Kansas board permitted or even required the teaching of creation-science, but that is false: the standards say nothing about creationism. The Kansas board couldn't have required the teaching of creationism even if it wanted to, because the Supreme Court threw out creationism statutes in a 1987 decision. And whether you agree with the Kansas decision or not, in some respects the board's standards contain more substance than the science educators' draft, because they call attention to one of the greatest unknowns of all science -- that no one, certainly not even the most devoted Darwinian biologist, can explain how life began.

The controversy is far from over. In the wake of the Kansas media attention, the National Academy of Sciences withdrew its permission for the Kansas board to use copyrighted material in the state standards. This means that the Kansas board must re-draft its standards again: for the moment, the project is in limbo. It also means that in the name of defending science, the National Academy of Sciences has ordered Kansas not to use, as state educational guidelines, material written by the National Academy of Sciences. It is sure to mean, as well, that the debate will go on and on.

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