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Evolution Returns to Kansas Schools

The Big Bang also will be taught again. Religious conservatives led vote to pull the theories in 1999.

February 15, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kansas Board of Education restored evolution to the state science curriculum Wednesday, 1 1/2 years after excising all references to the origin of man and the age of the Earth at the urging of conservative Christians.

The new science standards, adopted by a 7-3 vote, require students to learn that all life on Earth evolved from a few scraps of genetic material over the course of 4 billion years. That theory, which most mainstream scientists view as the cornerstone of biology, was eliminated from the state's list of required study topics in August 1999, when a majority of the board members decided it was too speculative to merit a place in Kansas classrooms.

The new standards also require children to study plate tectonics and the Big Bang theory, two topics the board had stricken from the curriculum in 1999 on the grounds that they, like evolution, were not true science because they could not be directly observed or measured.

That position drew immediate ridicule--it "made Kansas an international laughingstock," the Topeka newspaper wrote.

After a ferocious election campaign, religious conservatives lost their majority on the board in November. One of the new board's first actions was to junk the old science standards. The version approved Wednesday was written by a committee of 27 scientists and science educators.

"In a word: Hallelujah," said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that promotes the teaching of evolution.

Gov. Bill Graves, who had called the 1999 standards "tragic," hailed the new version as "broader and more comprehensive," and predicted: "The students of Kansas will benefit."

But activists on both sides warn the battle for control of Kansas' classrooms is far from over.

"If the scientific community thinks they can sit back and say, 'Phew, we got that done,' that would be very presumptuous of them," said John Bacon, a Board of Education member who opposed the new standards. "Kids are not stupid. They're going to realize that what they've learned at home [about their origins] is not what their science teacher is trying to push on them. This issue is not going to go away."

For one thing, the state standards only control so much: They indicate which topics will be covered on assessment tests but don't dictate grade-by-grade lesson plans. That's up to individual teachers.

And about 40% of biology teachers in rural Kansas describe themselves as creationists. The number drops in urban areas. But still, on average across the state, 1 in 4 biology teachers finds truth not in man's evolution from primordial muck but rather in the biblical account of creation that holds God designed the Earth and all that's in it.

Kansas is not alone in that faith: Surveys of five other states, including Texas and Ohio, found more than 30% of biology teachers are creationists, according to John Richard Schrock, a biology professor who trains science teachers at Emporia State University in Kansas.

Belief in divine creation is even higher among the public at large. A 1999 Gallup poll found 68% of Americans favor teaching both evolution and creation in public schools. That's unconstitutional, at least in science class; the Supreme Court has ruled that the Bible doesn't belong in biology.

But the creationist movement has come up with an alternative.

They're calling on teachers to chip away at the "dogma" of evolution as the one true explanation of life by pointing out the theory's alleged failings in class.

"We want to teach the controversy. That evolution may not be the be-all and end-all," explained Steve Abrams, leader of the creationist bloc on the Kansas Board of Education.

The Pennsylvania Board of Education is considering adopting this approach in its new state science standards. It's already on the books in the small Kansas prairie town of Pratt, where the local school board requires science teachers to discuss a range of views on the origin of life, including divine creation, and to present literature probing the weak points of evolution.

Mainstream scientists decry this approach as insidious: There is no real controversy, they maintain. And there is no good evidence against evolution, only creationist propaganda.

Take the classic drawings, printed in biology textbooks for generations, showing a striking similarity among animal embryos. More modern research has revealed that some of the drawings are inaccurate, that they exaggerate the similarities among species. Creationists often cite this disclosure as proof of the weakness of evolutionary theory. But to mainstream biologists, it's a goof, nothing more--certainly not a blow against the theory that all life on Earth shares a common origin.

Requiring teachers to present such quibbles as arguments against evolution, they say, will only confuse impressionable students.

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