In August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education amended the state's public schools standards statement to remove its requirement that high school science classes teach some aspects of Darwinian theory. Furor ensued. Points worth noting about the decision:
It was non-binding. In Kansas, the State Board of Education has only an advisory role. Local boards of education remain free to teach standard evolutionary theory, and many have said they will.
It was unpopular. Kansas Governor Bill Graves, a Republican, called the Board's action an "embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist" and said he would work to overturn the anti-Darwin rule in the state legislature.
The Kansas board acknowledged what it called "microevolution," or the fact that living things change over time, while rejecting what it called "macroevolution," the idea that life arose through a purely natural process. The terms micro- and macro-evolution are not standard in scientific circles. There is, however, a running debate within science that is close to the Kansas board's point: that natural selection tells us why birds have beaks but not why the sky has birds. Evolutionary theory capably describes changes in established species, but is silent on how life began. And it is currently unsettled on how the key developments of biology--for example, the arrival of mammals--occurred. As The Atlantic Monthly magazine has observed, biologists have "no idea what makes chemicals start living. The origin of life is perhaps the leading unknown of contemporary science."
The National Academy of Sciences condemned the Kansas decision and withdrew the board's legal permission to use NAS-written curriculum material. (In an odd twist, with the same stroke that the Kansas board took out Darwin, it inserted into state guidelines a hefty amount of pro-science material written by the National Academy of Sciences -- but with some references to evolution and the Big Bang theory altered.) Because the NAS has denied Kansas authorization to use its materials, the board must re-draft its guidelines. The upshot of this is that the board's statement is in limbo, not available for anyone to read, much less for any teacher in Kansas to use. In effect, this means that Kansas has not actually restricted the teaching of evolution -- only served notice that it plans to do so. It is not known when the Kansas board will adopt new wording.
Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent Harvard paleontologist, wrote in Time magazine that the Kansas board's decision "smacks of absurdity and only reveals ignorance about the nature of science." Gould called evolution "as well documented as any phenomenon in science, as strongly as the earth's revolution around the sun." Science magazine, the publication of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, ran an editorial suggesting that colleges could put pressure on Kansas by refusing to recognize science credits from Kansas high school students who apply for admission. Other scientists wrote to Science to protest that this would penalize students for the actions of adults.
Politically, all major presidential candidates dodged the issue.
Polls found that about 45 percent of Americans believe in a supernatural creation of humankind without evolution, about the same percentage believe that evolution is real but divinely influenced, and only 10 percent believe humanity to be exclusively natural in origin. Since it is the latter view that almost all American schools teach, such widespread public rejection of one of the educational system's most cherished contentions may mean that people sense there are holes in Darwinian theory. Or it may only mean that schools do a poor job of teaching evolution, failing to persuade. Science illiteracy can't be the answer--polls show that large majorities believe other basic contentions of modern research, among them the theories of relativity.
Pundits viewed the Kansas decision with horror, as the work of Bible-beaters run amok, condescending to or refusing to recognize the valid disputes regarding evolutionary theory, especially its inability to account for the creation of life. Editorial cartoonists trotted out tired man-and-monkey standbys. Many Jewish and a few Islamic commentators saw the Kansas decision as a cover for state promotion of evangelical Christianity.
Though many evangelicals praised the Kansas action, no figures from the world of establishment Christianity spoke up in favor. Mainstream Protestantism has made its peace with modern science and, increasingly, is being joined by Catholicism. (Read "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth," Pope John Paul II's 1996 semi-endorsement of Darwinian thinking.) The mainstream faiths wish to present themselves as enlightened regarding science, and want nothing to do with creationist ideas.
Post-Kansas, other states went both ways. In a wacky ruling, a Kentucky state agency decreed that public schools could teach evolution, but only if they did not use the word "evolution." The teacher must say instead: "Darwin's theory of change over time." The New Mexico State Board of Education threw out anti-evolution language inserted into its guidelines statement in 1996. (For details on the New Mexico decision, essentially unreported, check www.cesame-nm.org, the website of the New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science Education.)
Furor aside, the big question remains. Was the Kansas board decision at heart a reflection of evangelical support for implausible creationist ideas, or an indication of genuine dissatisfaction that evolutionary theory, designed to supplant an old dogma, has become a new dogma, one that brooks no dissent?
Use the documents, commentaries, and book excerpts on the right to begin exploring the Kansas and Darwin debate.