Science

Kansas Spotlights Darwin’s Critics

By Sean Cavanagh — May 06, 2005 3 min read
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The theory of evolution was subjected to the first of several courtroom-style hearings in Kansas this 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.

All three of those panelists—Steve Abrams, Kathy Martin, and Connie Morris—have suggested publicly that teachers should be allowed to discuss alternatives to 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 soon will 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, a charge Ms. Martin denied.

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 Mr. Calvert called, 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 “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, “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 was a Christian, he believed the designer would be God, though others might have different views.

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

Creationism is the biblically based belief that God created the universe and all living things. 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. Many scientists say that concept amounts to thinly disguised religious doctrine.

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