Evolution Loses and Wins, All in One Day

By Sean Cavanagh — November 15, 2005 9 min read
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The forces seeking to subject the theory of evolution to greater criticism tasted both victory and defeat last week. Kansas officials approved an overhaul of their state science standards to do just that, while voters in a rural Pennsylvania district ousted advocates of “intelligent design” from the school board the same day.

Those two high-profile battles were just the latest in a series of skirmishes over evolution in states and school districts nationwide.

In Kansas, the scene of a number of acrimonious debates over evolution in recent years, a conservative majority on the state board of education voted 6-4 to revise the science standards with new language that attempts to raise questions about various pieces of evolutionary theory.

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Many scientists strongly objected to those changes, saying they falsely suggest that evolution is riddled with weaknesses, when the theory, in fact, is a thoroughly tested explanation for life’s development, backed up by years of molecular, geological, anatomical, and other evidence. Ultimately, though, the state board majority said questions about the theory most famously advanced by Charles Darwin belong in the Kansas document.

“Science has always been about free speech and open discussion—except in the area of evolution,” said board Chairman Steve Abrams, who backed the revised standards. “Evolution has always been treated as dogma.”

Mr. Abrams said he believes that most Kansans are behind the board’s decision. Yet many scientists and others noted with satisfaction that halfway across the country, supporters of intelligent design, a purported alternative explanation for life’s origins, suffered a resounding defeat at the ballot box.

On Nov. 8, voters in the 3,600-student Dover, Pa., school district swept out of office eight school board incumbents, all of whom had voiced support for a district policy mandating that students be exposed to intelligent design in 9th grade biology class. Voters replaced them with eight challengers opposed to the policy, which is the subject of a nationally watched federal lawsuit.

Intelligent design is the notion that an unnamed force may have played a hand in guiding the development of living things, including humans. Many scientists say that concept amounts to religion in disguise. Those issues are at the heart of a recently concluded federal district court trial, which was brought by 11 Dover parents out to halt the school board policy.

Dover Steps Mulled

Rather than rejecting intelligent design outright, the successful Dover school board slate took the position that the concept should be discussed in an elective class, and not in science. Presenting it as science was not only misleading, they said, but also legally questionable.

Some of them suggested that their position on intelligent design could serve as a model for district and state officials elsewhere who oppose having the concept presented as science.

“We want it in an elective, where teachers can [ask] questions about it, and students can get answers back—and do it legally,” said Larry Gurreri, one of the victorious candidates.

Mr. Gurreri and other newly elected board members, who take office Dec. 5, said they had not yet made a firm decision what exact steps they would take to change the existing intelligent-design policy, though they indicated they had not wavered in their opposition to it.

Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the parents in the lawsuit, did not expect the election results to affect the decision in the lawsuit directly. But he also noted that a number of the newly elected board members have publicly said they would not appeal if the intelligent-design policy—which, as candidates, they opposed all along—was struck down. The judge overseeing the case is expected to rule in December or January, Mr. Rothschild said.

Kansas Revisited

Questions over how to teach evolution have mounted in states and districts over the past year. Intelligent design, or at least more criticism of evolution, has also garnered varying levels of public and political support. A poll released this month by the Albuquerque Journal shows that more residents of New Mexico favored intelligent design than did not. Meanwhile, a number of Indiana state lawmakers are exploring legislation that would allow or require discussion of the design concept in public schools.

Hot-Button Topic

Dover, Pa.: Voters last week oust all eight school board members who had backed a policy requiring that students be introduced to the concept of “intelligent design” in 9th grade biology class.

Kansas: The state board of education votes 6-4 last week to adopt revised academic standards that call for incorporating more criticism into the discussion of evolution in science courses.

Indiana: Thirty-six of the state’s 52 Republican representatives send letters to constituents asking if intelligent design should get equal billing in science classes. The letters are sent in anticipation of the introduction of legislation in 2006 that would mandate the teaching of the purported alternative to evolution.

SOURCE: Education Week

Evolution controversies have become an established part of the education landscape in Kansas. In 1999, the state board stripped most references to evolution from the state science standards, which are guidelines for districts, not mandates on how to teach science. Two years later, a newly elected board reversed that policy.

But a new conservative majority last year championed the drafting of another set of standards that sought to challenge evolutionary theory on several points. That document was opposed by leading scientific organizations. They boycotted a series of public hearings on the document in May, contending that the board members’ intent to denigrate evolution was already clear.

The new science standards, approved by the Kansas board Nov. 8, repeatedly suggest that evidence substantiating evolutionary theory is a source of controversy, or doubt, among scientists. The document says the fossil record is “not consistent” with biological evolution. In another section, the standards cite “a lack of natural explanations for the genetic code.” The vast majority of scientists scoff at such assertions.

The standards do not specifically advocate intelligent design. But the document raises the possibility that certain biochemical systems are “irreducibly complex”—a core concept pushed by intelligent-design advocates.

In addition, the document alters the definition of science itself, removing language describing it as an endeavor to seek “natural explanations” for the world. The new standards say the discipline is one of “continuing investigation” seeking “more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

Supporters of the new standards, including the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that is an advocate of intelligent design and what it sees as legitimate criticism of evolution, said Kansas’ new description of science is consistent with those in other states. That definition seeks to foster scientific investigation “wherever it leads,” the institute said.

Discovery Institute officials also praised the standards overall, rejecting the contention that they were tied to religious belief.

“They deal solely with science, are based on scientific debates in mainstream scientific literature, and do not include any alternative theories,” institute spokesman Casey Luskin said in a statement.

Critics of the Kansas standards, however, argue that they reflect a new tactic among those trying to insert religious or other nonscientific belief into science class. After seeing the courts reject efforts to promote supposed alternatives to evolution, such as biblically based creationism, interest groups more recently are implying that evolutionary theory has weaknesses and that schools should “teach the controversy.”

“They’ve definitely been following that game plan in Kansas,” said Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that rejects teaching religious-based concepts in science class.

Still, Mr. Matzke predicted that critics of evolution in states and districts were likely to mine the revised Kansas’ standards for ideas. “If [it] doesn’t get overturned in the courts or at the ballot box, it tends to get passed around,” he said of such policies.

The lifespan of the newborn Kansas standards is unclear. Five of the nine state board members—including four who supported the revised standards—are up for re-election next year.

State content standards typically set expectations for what students should know in various subjects. An Education Week analysis, published this month, found that state standards are inconsistent in how they cover evolution, with many either ignoring or barely touching on core evidence supporting the concept. (“Treatment of Evolution Inconsistent”, Nov. 9, 2005.)

In Kansas, school districts have broad control over their own curricula, though state standards are used as a basis for crafting statewide assessments in science, said Alexa Posny, Kansas’ deputy education commissioner for learning services.

Trial Looms Large

Along with more traditional election-season issues such as taxes, school construction, and teacher salaries, residents of Dover, located a few hours west of Philadelphia, saw their local school board election morph into what some said was a referendum on intelligent design.

Dover’s school board voted last year to have a four-paragraph statement read to students that described evolution as “not a fact” and introduced them to intelligent design. A group known as Dover CARES, for Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies, supported eight candidates for school board. All opposed the district’s intelligent-design policy—which had quickly drawn national and even worldwide scrutiny.

Additional campaign fodder arrived in September, with the start of the trial in nearby Harrisburg in the 11 parents’ federal lawsuit. Several witnesses in that case testified that board members were openly discussing their Christian beliefs around the time they were drawing up their intelligent-design policy—allegations those elected officials denied. (“‘Intelligent Design’ Goes on Trial in Pa.,” Oct. 5, 2005, and “Defense Gets Its Days in Court in Support of ‘Intelligent Design’,” Oct. 26, 2005.)

That trial took a surprising turn during its final week, when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III took the unusual step of questioning board member Alan Bonsell on the witness stand about discrepancies between statements in his pretrial deposition and his testimony on the stand.

Mr. Bonsell stated before the trial that he did not know the source of an $850 donation used to pay for 60 copies of a pro-intelligent-design textbook for Dover’s high school library. But former board member William Buckingham later testified that he had collected the money in his church and then handed a check for $850 to Mr. Bonsell to give to his father, Donald Bonsell.

The judge questioned why the board member, in his deposition, had not given a fuller answer when asked if he knew anyone who was “involved in the donation” of the books. “You tell me why you didn’t say Mr. Buckingham’s name,” the judge demanded of Mr. Bonsell, according to a court transcript.

“I misspoke,” Mr. Bonsell responded. The judge later reminded him that he had been under oath during the deposition.

The trial received widespread play in the national media. Some of the Dover CARES members believe voters had soured on the often-unflattering scrutiny that the policy, and the legal battle, had brought to their community.

“They were tired of hearing of it,” said one newly elected board member, Bernadette Reinking. “They were tired of hearing all of this conflicting and confusing testimony. They wanted a new group of people.”

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