Inherit an Ill Wind

Inherit an Ill Wind

Way down in Georgia last month, REM lead singer Michael Stipe paused in the middle of a solo during a rock concert because he had Kansas on his mind.


Way down in Georgia last month, REM lead singer Michael Stipe paused in the middle of a solo during a rock concert because he had Kansas on his mind. “What’s with Kansas and creationism?” he asked, looking puzzled. He had heard, he explained, that Kansas officials had brought in “a Hollywood ad man” to put the best spin on their actions. “We have medieval sodomy laws here in Georgia,” he added, “but we don’t advertise it.”

The sold-out crowd cheered, and America’s great debate over Darwinism found its place once again in the popular culture. Even rockers in Atlanta were asking how Kansas could strip evolution from its science-education standards seventy-five years after the Scopes trial had supposedly ended such silliness. It did seem as medieval as Georgia’s sodomy law–but even that was struck down by the state Supreme Court last year. The question merits an answer because the episode is not a home-grown Kansas anomaly. It arose from forces that are national in origin and scope.

Creation Science & Intelligent Design

The first step toward understanding the events in Kansas is to disregard all that we’ve learned about the Scopes trial from Inherit the Wind. Clarence Darrow did not slay William Jennings Bryan, or if he did, the spirit of the old warhorse has risen again, largely in the body of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson. The Kansas episode reflects the convergence of Johnson’s new anti-evolution crusade and old-style biblical creationism.

In 1961 Genesis Flood, by Virginia Tech engineering professor Henry Morris and conservative Christian theologian John Whitcomb, gave believers scientific-sounding arguments supporting the biblical account of a six-day creation within the past 10,000 years. Even Bryan and other early twentieth-century fundamentalists could not accept such a young earth in light of modern geology. Yet the book spawned a movement within American fundamentalism, with Morris as its Moses leading the faithful into a promised land where science proves religion.

This so-called creation science spread among ultraconservative churches through the missionary work of Morris’s San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research. The emergence of the religious right carried it into politics in the seventies. Within two decades after the publication of Genesis Flood, three states and dozens of local school districts had mandated “balanced treatment” for young-earth creationism along with evolution in public-school science courses.

It took nearly a decade before the Supreme Court finally unraveled those mandates as unconstitutional. Creation science was nothing but religion dressed up as science, the High Court decreed in 1987, and therefore was barred by the Constitution’s establishment clause from public-school classrooms along with other forms of religious instruction. By this time, however, young-earthers, who were deeply concerned about science education, were entrenched in local and state politics from California to Maine.

Then along came Johnson–a chaired professor at the University of California’s Boalt Hall Law School and former clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren. He is no young-earth creationist, but he is an evangelical Christian with an uncompromising faith in God. Reading Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker in 1987 enraged him. Dawkins uses Darwinian evolution to deny God and dismiss the supernatural–but Johnson saw the argument as circular. “I could see that Dawkins achieved his word magic with the very tools that are familiar to us lawyers,” Johnson explained in the journal Christianity Today. “If you take as a starting point that there’s no creator, then something more or less like Darwinism has to be true.”

Johnson then launched his own crusade–not for biblical creationism but against philosophical naturalism in science. In a series of popular books beginning with Darwin on Trial in 1991, Johnson argued that science should not automatically exclude supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. It was an easy sell in a country where opinion polls find about 10 percent of the people believing that life evolved by natural processes without divine intervention along the way. Of course God could have created humans, or at least laws that guided their evolution from the primordial ooze, most Americans readily concede.

The Berkeley don brought what his allies call “cultural confidence” to the familiar lament against excluding God from science. A sophisticated law professor conversant in postmodernist rhetoric (though a realist himself), Johnson could argue that science makes metaphysical assumptions no less than religion, and some scientists and philosophers began to concede a bit. “You had to meet intimidation with counterintimidation in order to move the discussion along,” says Johnson. “Now, that perhaps was the lawyer’s contribution.”

Johnson also reached beyond the academy to latent popular distrust of science. His latest book, aptly titled An Easy-to-Understand Guide for Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, captures his tone. “Given that only a small minority of Americans believe the central finding of biology,” he asks, “how should our educational system deal with this important instance of disagreement between the experts and the people? One way would be to treat the doubts of the people with respect…. The opposite way is to tell people that all doubts about naturalistic evolution are inherently absurd…. American educators have chosen the second path.”

Johnson’s books have sold more than a quarter-million copies, and it is no wonder that his kind of arguments showed up among conservative Christians who voiced their opinions during the science standards hearing in Kansas.

Another “authority” often cited in Kansas was a Lehigh University biochemistry teacher named Michael Behe, who enlisted in Johnson’s crusade in 1991. That year, Behe wrote a letter to the journal Science defending Darwin on Trial. Johnson responded by encouraging Behe, a devout Catholic, to write his own easy-to-understand book presenting biological phenomena that defied Darwinist explanation. It was the type of argument popularized more than a century ago by Darwin’s archfoe, the great Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, updated with examples of complex organic molecules. Another bestseller was born–Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box.

Johnson and Behe do not argue for the young earth of creation science, but they do propound that intelligent design (rather than random chance) is apparent in nature. This, they argue, divorced from biblical creationism, should be a fit subject for public-school education. With this argument, they have expanded the tent of people willing to challenge the alleged Darwinist hegemony in the science classroom, and this emboldened the populist uprising in Kansas.

National Standards & Local Control

Bottom-up revolts against authority can come in reaction to top-down reforms, and that was evident in Kansas. The state Board of Education members who rejected evolution were also trying to strike a blow for local control and against national education standards.

The federal push for standards-based education reform began in 1989, when the nation’s governors met with President Bush to rally around his call for “measurable national goals” in education. The governors, of course, emphasized state flexibility under increased federal grants, an idea that worked for the Bush White House as well. Some federal education experts, flush with new theories of learning, saw the reform movement in more centralizing terms. Here was a financial and political vehicle to advance a national curriculum.

The Bush Administration’s “America 2000” was more a tone-setter than legislation, and the tone was picked up in Kansas. In 1989, led by its then-progressive Board of Education, Kansas set in motion a program to establish measurable and unified goals for its public schools. It fit neatly into a general trend, in which states began to displace local school boards in financing and setting standards for public education.

The centralizing move, along with the rise of new theories of education like outcome-based grading and process-based science, provoked a conservative reaction in many states. In Kansas it was led by Kansas Education Watch, or KEWNET, which criticized experts for usurping the role of parents and local schools. This new grassroots activism began affecting decisions of the elected state Board of Education, especially after 1996, when four social conservatives friendly to KEWNET won seats. The board was then split 5 to 5 on issues of local and state control.

This was not a partisan division in solidly GOP Kansas, but intraparty warfare pitting Bob Dole-type Main Street Republicans against the party’s right-wing activists. No one has been more critical of the board than the state’s stalwart GOP Governor, Bill Graves, who has advocated abolishing that elected body ever since the right-wing resurgence. Board member Val DeFever, a moderate Republican who voted with the minority on the science standards, calls the conservatives “stealth candidates” who sneaked into power. Others said they were forthright campaigners who promised an independent board, but most voters probably did not fully appreciate what that might mean before the fireworks in August.

Either way, as one Kansas teacher said, the 1996 election “blew the education establishment out of the water. They’d never seen a board like this.” Lawrence Lerner, an emeritus science professor, reviews state science standards and how they are adopted. “State boards at least tend to have people with professional qualifications” and are usually appointed, he says. “Kansas is a peculiar situation.”

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 US Department of Education. “We won’t be reviewing the Kansas standards.”

Goals 2000, Kansas Style

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. Kansas might have ended up merely in this group were its elected Board of Education not half composed of assertive social conservatives.

“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.”

Evolution Takes Center Stage

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.

Conservative Victory & National Response

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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