State Capitals Stirred By Evolution

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The Kansas board of education guaranteed that the battle over teaching evolution ended the 20th century with a bang—and ushered in the new millennium, and election season, with a flurry of activity.

Since the board last summer eliminated Charles Darwin’s theories from the Kansas science standards, conservatives in a number of other states have introduced similar measures as legislation or state policy, keeping the debate over how to teach the origins of life raging as it did throughout much of the past century.

"This pops up all over the place," said Ronald L. Numbers, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of two books on the debate. "One of the reasons that Kansas is attracting so much attention is because the activity is now back up at the state level."

A Matter Unsettled

The debate resounds with much of the rhetoric and passion of the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, the Tennessee science teacher who was convicted of violating a state law barring the teaching of evolution.

It continues, Mr. Numbers and other experts say, because public-opinion polls consistently show that almost half of Americans believe the world was created by a God less than 10,000 years ago. Another 40 percent believe in a God that created humans millions of years ago.

"It doesn’t die because it is a matter that is not settled ... in the hearts and minds of the American people," said Edward J. Larson, a professor of law and history at the University of Georgia in Athens and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 book on the Scopes trial. "It’s a profoundly important issue for some people. It’s a subset of each [side of the issue], but it’s a subset that cares about the issue profoundly."

Elections Loom

Activity has been especially intense this year, state officials say, because this legislative season is the first opportunity for lawmakers to propose measures inspired by the Kansas board’s action last summer. Since the Kansas decision, the issue has become heated in Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and several other states.

Those who reject or criticize the theory of evolution say the Kansas vote created momentum for introducing bills elsewhere to water down the teaching of evolution or present criticisms of it that mainstream biologists consider exaggerated.

In some places, defenders of the theory—which is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community as more than a mere hypothesis—say the Kansas decision impelled them to seek action rebutting such thinking.

Some state officials, meanwhile, are trying to head off what they fear could become a prolonged and divisive controversy.

The other factor stirring up commotion, according to some observers, is that many elected posts—from the presidency to state legislative seats to seats on the Kansas school board—are up for grabs this year.

"When election years hit, we get hit with state-level problems," said Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an El Cerrito, Calif.-based group that strongly advocates instruction in evolutionary theory.

The last time evolution’s defenders had to ward off legislation in Ohio and Tennessee, according to Ms. Scott, was 1996—also an election year.

In the intervening years, the battle moved to the local level, where school boards or individual teachers fought over what should be taught in classrooms.

"That’s where the political values are expressed," said Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkley, and the author of Darwin on Trial, a book critical of evolutionary theory.

Keeps Coming Back

When a state starts a debate over teaching evolution, the issue doesn’t seem to go away.

The Kansas board drew a torrent of national news coverage and commentary with its 5-4 decision to remove virtually all references to evolution from the state science standards.

Although the board policy doesn’t prohibit schools from teaching the subject, it does mean that questions about evolution will not appear on the state science test scheduled to make its debut next year.

Even though the board voted in August about the content of the standards, it didn’t formally adopt them until December. In between, it revised the standards so they didn’t violate the copyrights held by the national science groups that wrote the standards the Kansas document had relied on. The professional science organizations rejected the Kansas board’s request to use material from other portions of their standards.

Political observers in Kansas are waiting for the debate to re-emerge during the election season because four of the new standards’ proponents are up for re-election in the fall. Only one of the dissenters will be on the ballot.

"We’re already seeing major fund-raising efforts in what is usually a low-profile election," said Allan J. Cigler, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "It may even be the highest-profile election in the state this year."

Most of the activity will focus on the Aug. 1 Republican primary, in which moderates, led by Gov. Bill Graves, are fighting conservatives for control of the party, Mr. Cigler said. The state board members are emphasizing that their action allows local schools to decide whether to teach the theory, he said.

"The more it’s framed as a local-control issue, the forces [behind the standards] are going to win," Mr. Cigler predicted.

One Little Word

Likewise in New Mexico, the debate is continuing into the election season, where 10 elected members of the state board are on the ballot this year. State board members voted in October to remove statements in standards documents that teachers should discuss "evidence for and against evolution." The board acted specifically to avoid comparisons with Kansas.

"A small group of people" hit board members with mail and phone calls objecting to the decision, said Flora M. Sanchez, the board’s president. "It didn’t seem like [the response] was widely representative of the general public. For now, our board is pretty comfortable with the position on this."

A bill to require that creationism be taught along with evolution passed the state Senate’s education committee, but it failed to pass the full Senate or garner any support in the House.

"It would allow full and open, side-by-side study" of evolution and its critics, said Sen. Rod Adair, the Republican who is sponsoring the bill. "There are plenty of scientists in America who take the opposite view ... that ‘intelligent design’ appears to be more probable than chance."

In Kentucky, debate over evolution persists even though state officials took actions last summer that they hoped would squelch it.

Last year, the state education department sought advice from three committees of science teachers when it wanted to revise its description of material covered on science tests. All three suggested that the state delete the phrase "change over time" and replace it with "evolution."

State officials overruled them, thinking they could sidestep controversy by avoiding the term.

"We were teaching evolution just fine and without controversy," said Hunt C. Helm, the education department’s associate commissioner for communications. "We didn’t see a reason to hold up a lightning rod in the wake of the Kansas decision."

The decision drew protests from science teachers, who believe just as strongly that the state shouldn’t gloss over the issue. After polling its members, the board of directors of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association adopted a statement saying that "educational opportunities should not be limited by semantics."

"It’s very unfortunate," Ms. Scott of the National Center for Science Education said of Kentucky’s avoidance of the term. "The state standards need to take a principled approach."

But, as in New Mexico, a state legislator is backing legislation to change how students are taught about evolution.

Rep. Ricky Lee Cox, a Republican, would like to require Kentucky teachers to limit discussion of evolution to changes that occur within individual species and prevent teaching that life emerged "from nonliving matter."

Mr. Cox, a religious conservative who holds a degree in biology, said he introduced the bill as much to foster a debate on the conduct of the education department as on the merits of allowing evolution to be taught.

"The action by the department of education was appeasement," Mr. Cox said. "They are teaching the same thing, but they call it something else."

While state education officials have sought to deflect controversy over evolution, they are taking a strong stand against Mr. Cox’s bill.

"Teachers have to be free to teach science," Mr. Helm said. "You can’t restrict this theory to individual organisms."

But a majority of Bluegrass State residents appear to disagree. Two-thirds of the 800 people polled by The Courier-Journal of Louisville last month said they want the biblical story of creation taught alongside evolution.

More To Come

Such polls suggest that the issue of what and how to teach about life’s origins will not die. While historians once believed that the debate had peaked with the Scopes trial three-quarters of a century ago, recent scholarship suggests the trial simply gave the issue a bigger national stage.

Several other states adopted laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the years following the proceedings in Dayton, Tenn., according to Summer for the Gods, Mr. Larson’s 1997 book. The Tennessee law wasn’t repealed until 1967, and the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t invalidate state laws barring the teaching of evolution until 1968. In 1987, the Supreme Court invalidated a Louisiana law requiring that creationism be taught with evolution.

Yet today, critics of the scientific theory continue to call for just that.

"There is a conflict of two fundamentally different kinds of thinking," said Mr. Johnson of the University of California. "What [evolution’s proponents] believe in is naturalism, that nature did its own creating. Much of the world doesn’t believe that."

The debate is "always there," said Wayne W. Carley, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers. "And every once in a while, it blows up."

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as State Capitals Stirred By Evolution
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Web Resources
  • "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools." This report from the First Amendment Center and the National PTA provides parents with an outline of religious liberty rights in public schools. Also from the First Amendment Center: "The Supreme Court, Religion, and Public Education," 1996, explains aspects of the Supreme Court's role in providing an interpretation of the First Amendment's Religious Liberty clauses.
  • Read an ACLU legal bulletin on the issue of the establishment clause and public schools.
  • Letter to Superintendents. The May 1998 statement of principles from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to school districts around the nation addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in public schools.
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