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Vote by Kansas School Board Favors Evolution's Doubters

The divided panel urges that 'controversy' over the theory be taught. Science groups call it a bid to inject religion in the classroom.

November 09, 2005|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. — The state Board of Education approved curriculum standards Tuesday that question evolution and redefine science to include concepts other than natural explanations.

The board, in a 6-4 vote, recommended that schools teach the "considerable scientific and public controversy" surrounding the origin of life -- a dispute most scientists contend exists only among creationists.

National science groups opposed the measure, and critics contended it was an effort to inject religion into the classroom.

But its advocates said they were interested only in improving science.

"This is a great day for Kansas," board President Steve E. Abrams said. "This absolutely raises science standards."

The dissenters noted that some board members who backed the standards have been outspoken about their faith and have criticized evolution for being offensive to Christianity.

"I'm certainly not here to change anyone's faith, but I wish you were not changing science to fit your faith," board member Carol Rupe said to Abrams.

Added member Janet Waugh: "We're becoming a laughing-stock, not only of the nation but of the world."

Tuesday's vote makes Kansas the fifth state to adopt standards that cast doubt on evolution.

A trial is underway in Pennsylvania over whether teaching intelligent design -- a concept that holds life is too complex to have evolved naturally -- violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on state promotion of religion.

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Assn. -- two groups whose material comprises the backbone of Kansas' science standards -- told the state in advance that they would revoke copyright privileges if the new standards were approved; the board said that its lawyers would rewrite the document to avoid any violation of the law.

The standards approved Tuesday are not binding on local school districts, and few have said they planned to revise their lesson plans. But educators said there would be pressure to teach intelligent design and creationism because the standards were the basis for statewide testing.

National science groups feared the vote would open the door to anti-evolution movements elsewhere.

"Intelligent design supporters and creationists will hold this up as a standard -- go forth and do likewise," said Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, a group that describes itself as a nonprofit "providing information and resources for schools, parents and concerned citizens working to keep evolution in public school science education."

Intelligent design advocates were ebullient Tuesday. "It's very significant for the students of Kansas," said Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank devoted to intelligent design. "Instead of just the evidence that supports evolution, they're going to see all sides."

Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have adopted standards that encourage questioning of evolution by local school districts.

Kansas' standards present the most explicit challenge to evolution.

Ohio has gone further than the other states by developing a lesson that teachers can use in the classroom.

This is not the first time Kansas has altered its standards to move away from teaching evolution. In 1999, the state approved standards that eliminated all references to evolution. Kansas became the butt of jokes on late-night television, the conservative majority on the board was swept out of office in the 2000 elections, and the anti-evolution standards were repealed.

Religious conservatives recaptured control of the Board of Education last fall amid a statewide campaign against same-sex marriage, and went to work on the new science standards.

This time, the standards make a nod to evolution. But they contend that several aspects of evolution that most scientists believe are settled fact, such as the concept that all living things are biologically related, have been "challenged." They also redefine science to allow for other explanations of events.

The board majority said that "supernatural" explanations would not be discussed in the classroom. "We're talking about the introduction of peer-reviewed science ... not creationism," board member Ken Willard said.

Critics said Tuesday that the science the board was citing was an excuse to introduce religion into the classroom.

"This agenda is to have science taught as one particular segment of the Christian faith wants it to be," Missy Taylor, a deacon at her church in a Kansas City suburb, told the board. "As a Christian, I can say it's one particular segment, not mine and not that of thousands of Kansans."

Added Waugh: "Why not be honest and say it is a faith issue? ... I personally believe in the biblical version of creationism, but I don't believe that my beliefs should be taught in a science class."

Luskin, however, said that criticism of evolution was good science and the fact that some conservative religious groups backed it was irrelevant. "Once you look at the data," he said, "you see the emperor has no clothes."

The board's action cited popular support in opinion polls as one reason it was changing the science standards to be critical of evolution. That drew approval from at least one constituent who watched the deliberation, Lee Hildebrencht of Manhattan, Kan.

"It's a step in the right direction," the 69-year-old retired postal worker said, adding that he believed in the biblical version of creation. "How is it possible we're descended from apes?"

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