Cover Story

An evolving debate

The controversy over evolution includes a growing number of scientists who challenge Darwinism. Should schoolchildren learn that fact? Darwinists say no, but Kansas officials may say otherwise

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

TOPEKA, Kan. - The auditorium at Memorial Hall here looks like it came straight out of one of the older, small high schools that dot the Kansas landscape. At any moment, it seems, teenagers could come out onto the elevated stage and begin performing Grease for a theater production or singing "The Greatest Love of All" for a talent show.

But Memorial Hall isn't a high school and half the scientists invited to perform refused to participate. On May 5, 6, and 7 the Kansas State Board of Education had three days of testimony about whether schools, along with teaching evolution, should also inform students of the scientific evidence against Darwinism; in other words, whether schools should "teach the debate." Darwinians boycotted the hearings, insisting that there is no debate.

That conclusion was not shared by the 23 witnesses at the hearings.

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Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, University of Georgia biology professor Russell Carlson, and University of Missouri-Kansas City professor of medicine William Harris were among those who argued that Darwinism is scientifically controversial. They pointed to challenges to the theory posed by the fossil record and by Mr. Behe's argument that gradual evolution by natural selection cannot account for the complexity of the cell. They argued that the evidence points not to macroevolution but to ID, Intelligent Design. (See WORLD, April 3, 2004; February 26, 2000; and March 1, 1997 for more about ID.)

The May 5-7 hearings were not the first time that the Kansas Board had accepted challenges to the conventional wisdom. The board gained national attention in 1999 when it voted to withdraw references to macroevolution from the state's education standards. Since then Ohio, Minnesota, and New Mexico have introduced scientific criticisms of Darwinism into classrooms, and local school districts in other states have either considered or passed similar measures.

In Kansas, Darwinists won back control of the State Board of Education in 2000 and restored the older standards. But conservatives have now retaken the board, and they are expected to vote this summer to adopt the revisions debated in Topeka.

The Darwinist response to such a challenge is no secret. "My strategy at this point is the same as it was in 1999," wrote Liz Craig of Kansas Citizens For Science on the group's discussion board in February. "Notify the national and local media about what's going on and portray them in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc. . . . we can sure make them look like asses as they do what they do."

Can make them look like asses, that is, if media outlets serve as Ms. Craig's public relations tools-and her strategy seemed to work on the first day of the hearings. Reporters from NBC, ABC, and as far away as France descended on Topeka, and the scene they described wasn't flattering. Several reports characterized the fight as a battle over religion, likening the hearings to the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." They suggested that the revisions would impede Kansas' efforts to attract biotech companies.

The sense of threat was aided by the precautions officials took. Everyone had to go through a metal detector to get into the auditorium. In the auditorium, a uniformed officer sat off to the side in front, facing the audience. The Darwinist side refused to debate but it did station a lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, to question ID witnesses, and during their answers he occasionally sighed and shook his head, a lá Al Gore in the 2000 presidential debates.

Lost in the propaganda and facial expressions is just how modest the proposed revisions are. For all the comparisons to the Scopes trial, the roles in that trial have been reversed 80 years later. Today, it's the critics of Darwinism who want to introduce what they see as important scientific evidence into science classrooms and it's the Darwinists who are fighting to keep out what they see as heresy.

And yet, the revisions would not require the teaching of ID, which is fine with ID advocates who admit that their theory is too new to be the focus of classroom instruction. The revisions would merely have teachers teach Darwinism and the scientific evidence that supports it, but not treat Darwinism as revealed religion that must not be questioned.

A reading of the revisions turns up no mention of God, no mention of a young Earth, no mention of the Bible. What they do call for is more information in classrooms-a requirement that science teachers present both the scientific evidence for Darwinism and the scientific evidence against it.

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