Science

Kansas Hears From Critics of Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — May 10, 2005 5 min read
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The theory of evolution was subjected to the first of several courtroom-style hearings in Kansas last week, an occasion colored by detailed testimony, forceful cross-examinations, and quarrels over biological events that occurred millions of years ago.

A three-member subcommittee of the Kansas state board of education is staging the hearings to consider whether to allow language critical of Charles Darwin’s theory into the state’s science standards, which are now under review.

Seated behind spots reserved for Kansas state board members, proponents of "intelligent design" listen to an exchange at a hearing on science  teaching in Topeka last week.

All three panelists—Steve Abrams, Kathy Martin, and Connie Morris—have suggested that teachers be allowed to discuss alternatives to Darwinian evolution in science classrooms in Kansas, the site of many battles in recent years over instruction about the origin and development of life.

Many scientists and other defenders of the current approach to teaching the topic worry that a majority of the 10-member state board will soon vote to weaken evolution’s place in the state standards.

Critics of the hearings described them as a sham orchestrated by state board members to justify future changes to the standards. Many of the nation’s top scientists and scientific organizations boycotted the hearings, saying they amounted to an attempt to foist views they consider religion-based, such as “intelligent design,” upon teachers and students.

As a result of the boycott, critics of evolution by last week had lined up a list of at least 24 witnesses to speak in support of their position. But evolution’s defenders offered no formal testimony, instead taking the more low-key approach of distributing scientific documents to the public and making their case to reporters, who came from Britain, France, and Canada, as well as from around the United States, for the May 5-7 sessions.

The chief spokesman at the hearings for the critics of evolution was John H. Calvert, a lawyer and the managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, an advocacy group in Shawnee Mission, Kan. As Mr. Calvert called a succession of scientists, they were challenged by Topeka lawyer Pedro Irigonegary, the chief representative of the mainstream scientists’ views.

One of the witnesses, William S. Harris, a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, criticized many scientists for refusing to consider challenges to Darwinian evolution and putting what he said were “blinders on the search for truth.” Those scientists hold to the argument that the development of human and animal life was “essentially an accident,” he said.

“Our hope is, at the end of these proceedings, we will be allowed to teach the controversy,” said Mr. Harris.

But Mr. Irigonegary suggested that the views of Mr. Harris and other witnesses were motivated by religious belief, not scientific inquiry. The lawyer asked Mr. Harris, “How old do you believe the Earth is”—about 10,000 years old or several billion?

Mr. Harris replied that he believed Earth’s age was in the billions. Later, in response to Mr. Harris’ reference to intelligent design, Mr. Irigonegary asked, “Who is the designer?”

Mr. Harris responded that because he is a Christian, he believes the designer would be God, though others might have different views.

Teachers Afraid?

Mr. Irigonegary also questioned why the science standards needed to be revised to become more critical of evolution theory. Isn’t such criticism allowed now, he asked several witnesses.

But Ms. Martin, one of the board members, suggested during a break in the hearings that some teachers feared the possible legal consequences of criticizing evolution and being accused of inserting religion into the classroom.

Critics such as “ACLU-type people”—a reference to the American Civil Liberties Union—make teachers afraid to talk about those issues, Ms. Martin asserted in an interview May 5.

The hearings, held in a small auditorium about a half-block from the state Capitol, drew a crowd of about 100 visitors, including several students. One of them was Christine Caffey, a 9th grader from Bishop Seabury Academy, an Episcopal school in Lawrence, Kan. Her class recently had a debate over intelligent design’s role in science classes, and the 15-year-old was curious about what witnesses at the hearings might say.

She thought scientists made a mistake in boycotting the hearings. “It will probably move more people toward ID,” Ms. Caffey said. “If you don’t show up and support what you believe, things might change, and you won’t have the power to do anything about it.”

Changing the Rules

The scientists and affiliated organizations that stayed away from the Topeka hearings say participating would mislead the public into believing that alternatives to Darwin’s theory of evolution, such as intelligent design, have scientific merit and should be debated in the same setting as a theory accepted by the vast majority of scientists. (“Some Groups to Boycott Kan. Hearings on Evolution,” April 27, 2005.)

Those critics also suspect that state board members are maneuvering to allow creationism, the biblically based belief that God created the universe and all living things, or intelligent design, into science classrooms.

Intelligent design is the belief that the complexity of organisms, including human beings, suggests that their development was guided by an unnamed creator or designer.

In recent years, Kansas has served as a staging ground for several highly publicized battles over evolution. In 1999, religious conservatives on the state school board stripped most references to the theory from the state science standards. Two years later, a newly elected majority on the board reversed that decision. Then last year, state elections provided conservatives with what is widely believed to be a 6-4 majority favoring those who support allowing challenges to evolution to be aired in the classroom.

A 26-member advisory committee earlier this year drafted revised standards that weave lessons on Darwin’s theory throughout the curriculum at different grade levels.

Eight members of that committee, however, drafted a separate report that takes a far more skeptical view of evolution. Conservative board members agreed to hold the hearings to explore areas of disagreement between the two draft documents, and allocated $5,000 to both sides for travel and other expenses.

Who Sets the Terms?

Harry E. McDonald, the president of the Lawrence-based Kansas Citizens for Science, a nonprofit group that opposes including alternatives to evolution in science classes, said conservatives on the state board are determined to weaken evolution’s place in state standards. Staging the hearings, he maintained, is a ruse—a charge Ms. Martin denies.

Mr. McDonald said his organization and its allies are emphasizing the compatibility of Christian religious belief with the theory of evolution. Many faiths and philosophical movements have acknowledged the scientific legitimacy of Darwin’s theory, he noted.

“We’ll continue this cultural battle, but we’re not going to play on their terms,” Mr. McDonald said as he organized events before the hearings. “The scientific community is not the most politically astute in the world, … [but] we need to change the rules of engagement.”

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