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Inherit an Ill Wind | The Nation

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Inherit an Ill Wind

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Evolution Takes Center Stage

About the Author

Edward Larson
Edward Larson is the author of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and...
Larry Witham
Larry Witham is an author and journalist in Washington, DC.

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.

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