Science

Update: Kansas Approves Standards Critical of Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — November 09, 2005 3 min read
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The Kansas state board of education on Nov. 8 overhauled its state science standards in a way that encourages more criticism of the theory of evolution, in a much-anticipated decision that appalled many of the nation’s leading scientific organizations.

By a 6-4 vote, the board approved a draft of the document that says, among other things, that certain aspects of the theory used to explain changes in living things are “controversial.” It references a “lack of natural explanations for the genetic code,” and “discrepancies in the molecular evidence,” which scientists cite as evidence for evolutionary theory.

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Many scientists strongly dispute those and similar statements made in the standards, saying that board members exaggerated supposed holes or unanswered questions in the theory. Evolution is the scientific concept that living things, including humans, have evolved over time through a process of random mutation and natural selection.

Over the past year, attempts to promote “intelligent design”—the belief that an unnamed creator may have had a role in shaping life’s development—have gained traction in states around the county. The vast majority of scientists reject that view as untestable, nonscientific belief, and possibly a version of biblically based creationism in disguise.

But the chairman of the Kansas board, Steve Abrams, who supported the newly redrawn standards, said those complaints were unfounded. Too many scientists, he said, seek to squelch any criticism of evolutionary theory.

“Science has always been about freedom of speech and open discussion—except in the area of evolution,” Mr. Abrams said in an interview. “Evolution has always been treated as dogma.”

Evolution-Theory Battleground

Kansas has long been a battleground in the teaching of evolution. In 1999, the state board voted to strip most references to the theory from the state’s science standards. After a number of members were ousted in a subsequent election, a new board in 2001 overhauled the standards to give the theory the stronger treatment many scientists argued it deserved.

Yet another round of more recent elections, however, again changed the composition of the panel, and several newly elected members repeatedly stated their intention to revise the science standards to allow for more criticism of evolutionary theory. On Nov. 8, they followed through on their intentions in a vote that generally followed an expected division on the board, with self-described conservatives favoring the revision.

Kansas’ revised standards do not specifically mention intelligent design, Mr. Abrams noted. In fact, the introduction to the document says that the standards do not mandate the teaching of the design concept.

But many scientists have noted that the language in the standards mirrors the stated views of intelligent-design advocates. Critics also say the board has altered the definition of science in a way that could open science classrooms to nonscientific ideas and religious belief.

“They’ve done what we expected them to do,” said Harry E. McDonald, a member of a local organization, Kansas Citizens for Science, which opposed the new standards. “It’s just unfortunate for Kansas.”

State standards are guidelines for what students are expected to know in various subjects. The treatment of evolution in state standards varies enormously, with some of those documents failing to mention the term and others describing it specifically and in great detail at several grade levels. Kansas officials have noted that school districts are given broad discretion over their curricula in science and other areas, despite the language in state standards.

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