Heading west across State Line Road-the street that separates Johnson County, Kan., from Kansas City, Mo.-an outsider to the area could be forgiven for saying, "Toto, I don't think we're really in Kansas yet."
Instead of wheat fields and farmhouses, this part of the sunflower state sports bustling shopping centers, prosperous suburban subdivisions, office parks with thriving small businesses, and the national headquarters for Sprint.
It might surprise that same outsider to learn that this part of Kansas-more than the rural areas or small towns for which the state is famous-is now ground zero for the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Rural forces were divided in the Kansas Board of Education's controversial 6-4 vote last month to exclude evolution from statewide tests. But both of suburban Johnson County's board members, including board chairman Linda Holloway, voted with the majority, as did the member representing Wichita, the state's other large concentration of population.
But the suburban element isn't all that's counter-intuitive about the Kansas vote. It's also surprising that what the Kansas board did became a national controversy at all. The board did not outlaw nor even discourage the teaching of evolution. It did not mandate nor even encourage the teaching of creationism. The board simply left the matter up to local districts.
As part of a periodic revision of standards for statewide tests, a committee of science educators appointed by the state commissioner of education rewrote standards that had been in place since 1995, subject to the approval of the 10-member state Board of Education. The proposed standards significantly added to the evolution language of the previous standards, emphasizing that macro-evolution by natural selection-the theory that unguided gradual changes over billions of years led to the creation of new species-is "a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology." The proposed standards left out any reference to evidence against the theory.
That proposal was unacceptable to the board, as well as to many Kansas communities that held public forums about the document. The board and the science teachers attempted to negotiate a compromise and when that failed, the board simply removed mentions of macro-evolution from the standards. The board's action wasn't nearly as aggressive as Alabama's decision a few years ago to include an anti-Darwinian insert in biology textbooks. "I don't really think we did that much," John W. Bacon, a board member from southern Johnson County, told WORLD. "I would be frankly surprised if any district throws out evolution," says Mrs. Holloway.
But that didn't stop the national press from going berserk, with The New York Times giving the story front-page status, and even European newspapers trumpeting the news. "The reason they are in such a funk is that they perceive a serious public protest against the established religion of scientific naturalism," says Phillip Johnson, an outspoken critic of Darwinism.
Much of the news coverage was simply inaccurate. Headline writers seemed to have particular problems getting the story straight. "Charles Darwin gets thrown out of school" screamed U.S. News & World Report, while a New Orleans Times-Picayune headline read, "Kansas schools' ban on evolution blasted." Syndicated columnist Lars-Erik Nelson scolded the board for wanting "to foist its own religious beliefs on the secular educational system of an entire state."
The notoriety was too much for the local Kansas City Star. "Kansas is a national joke this week, and it's your fault, Johnson County," wrote the Star's Mike Hendricks. He worried that now "the nation thinks Kansans pick banjos with their bare feet." Another Star columnist, after describing in detail how a citizen could file to run against Mrs. Holloway in 2000, finished with a jab at the board: "You don't even need a high school degree [to run]. Now there's a shock."
Even some opponents of Darwinism were critical of the Kansas board's vote. "They identify the problem, but not the solution," says John Wiester of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a group of Christian scientists based in Ipswich, Mass. "The solution is to teach more [about evolution], like the unsolved problems and unanswered questions that are at variance with the theory," he told WORLD.
Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and prominent critic of Darwinism, sounded a similar note in an op-ed for The New York Times: "Teach Darwin's elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems accounting for the data, where data are severely limited, where scientists might be engaged in wishful thinking and where alternative-even 'heretical'-explanations are possible."
But Mrs. Holloway and Mr. Bacon don't disagree. "Evolution is an important theory and I don't want any kids to be ignorant of it," Mrs. Holloway told WORLD. "I think it's important and that students need to know it, but everything about it, not just evidence for it," says Mr. Bacon.
The question in Kansas as in the rest of the country, then, isn't whether evolution should be taught, but how it should be taught, and who decides.
Darwinism's critics insist that unresolved problems with the theory should make their way into the classroom. One such problem is what Mr. Behe calls "irreducible complexity." Examining life at the molecular level, Mr. Behe notes that all of the parts of a cell have to be in place before it can function properly, a phenomenon at odds with the Darwinian concept of gradual evolution.
He compares the working of a cell to that of a mousetrap. Take away any one of the parts-the wooden platform, the metal hammer, the spring, the catch, or the bar that holds the hammer back-and the trap becomes useless. Such interdependence suggests that the trap couldn't have evolved blindly, because a part of a mousetrap doesn't catch mice. Cells, Mr. Behe argues, are the same. "Similarly, you can't start with a signal sequence and have a protein go a little way towards a lysosome, add a signal receptor protein, go a little further, and so forth. It's all or nothing at all," he writes in his book Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
The "Cambrian explosion" presents another challenge to Darwinian evolution, or at least to natural selection as its mechanism. According to Darwin, all of the various species evolved slowly over very long periods of time through slight mutations. The fossil record, however, shows complex life suddenly appearing. Mathematicians also have long argued simply that not enough time has passed to allow for all of the gradual mutations that Darwinists say have taken place.
Darwinists may one day propose new answers to these problems, but the fact that such objections exist at all would be news to many American high school students. Very few textbooks mention them; instead Darwinism is presented as a biological and historical fact. Examples of micro-evolution, or variations that have developed within species, are presented as evidence for macro-evolution, the more speculative idea that such mutations have led to entire new species.
Critics of Darwinian education also object to textbooks making naturalistic claims that are based more on atheistic ideology than science. For instance, Prentice Hall's Biology tells students that "it is important to keep this concept in mind: Evolution is random and undirected." (Bold in the original.) According to Addison-Wesley's Biology Concepts and Connections, "Chance has affected the evolutionary process in the generation of genetic diversity through mutation. Chance has also played a role at every major milestone in the history of life."
For the members of the Kansas board, an equally important matter was who would decide what is taught. On an issue this controversial, board members decided, parents and school districts should make the call. Mr. Bacon didn't want parents concerned about Darwinian teaching to be told by local school boards: "Sorry, we can't help you because our hands are tied by the state." Mrs. Holloway objected to what she saw as the attitude of the state science committee: "Give us your kids and get out of the way."
Only time will tell how well their insistence on local control will go over with their suburban constituency. Johnson County has long been a bastion of Republicanism, but lately has become a battleground between moderates and conservatives. Moderate Republican Jan Meyers represented the Johnson County-dominated Third Congressional District for 12 years, but a growing evangelical population narrowly elected Christian conservative Vince Snowbarger to the seat in 1996. Then a moderate backlash gave former District Attorney Dennis Moore enough momentum to win a squeaker against Mr. Snowbarger in 1998, the first time in 40 years this district sent a Democrat to Capitol Hill. Johnson County conservatives are regrouping and the national GOP plans to make Mr. Moore a prime target in 2000. The board's decision will only add fuel to this raging fire.
But nationwide, the sound and fury generated by the Kansas decision may be sparking movement toward compromise on the issue of evolution education. Most of the major presidential candidates-including Al Gore-said the decision about how to teach evolution should be made at the local level, an implicit endorsement of the Kansas board's vote.
Even some science educators may be willing to give some ground. The Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation put together a statement about the teaching of evolution that it advises governing bodies to adopt. "The State Board of Education and the local boards of education shall ensure that evolution is taught as science, not as ideology," the statement reads. "The State Board of Education and the local boards of education shall encourage teachers to make distinctions between the multiple meaning of 'evolution,' to distinguish between philosophical materialism and authentic science, and to include unanswered questions and unresolved problems in their presentations."
WORLD faxed this statement to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), asking if it could accept such language. "The NABT supports the position of the ASA," said Wayne Carley, the group's executive director. He told WORLD that science and religion are different spheres: "Science shouldn't be taught as religion and religion shouldn't be taught as science."
Can't we all just get along? If NABT members this year will present the holes in Darwinian theory as conscientiously as many overlooked them last year, biology classes just might evolve. But change is unlikely to come easily.