New York Times
August 12, 1999

Kansas Votes to Delete Evolution From State's Science Curriculum


CHICAGO -- The Kansas Board of Education voted on Wednesday to delete virtually any mention of evolution from the state's science curriculum, in one of the most far-reaching efforts by creationists in recent years to challenge the teaching of evolution in schools. While the move does not prevent the teaching of evolution, it will not be included in the state assessment tests that evaluate students' performance in various grades, which may discourage school districts from spending time on the subject.

Times Page One
On July 21, 1925, the so-called "Monkey Trial" ended in Dayton, Tenn., with John T. Scopes convicted of violating state law for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. The conviction was later overturned.

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And the decision is likely to embolden local school boards seeking either to remove evolution from their curriculums, to force teachers to raise questions about its validity or to introduce creationist ideas. Some local boards have already said they will consider adopting creationist textbooks, while others have said they will continue teaching evolution. Creationists say a divine being created humans and other species. They say that since evolution cannot be observed or replicated in a laboratory, there is no evidence that it actually occurred.

Kansas is the latest state to face a battle over evolution and creationism in recent years. Alabama, New Mexico and Nebraska have made changes that to varying degrees challenge the pre-eminence of evolution in the scientific curriculum, generally labeling it as a theory that is merely one possible explanation. Others, like Texas, Ohio, Washington, New Hampshire and Tennessee, have considered, but ultimately defeated, similar bills, including some that would have required those who teach evolution also to present evidence contradicting it. At the local level, dozens of school boards are trying to make similar changes.

More than a decade after the Supreme Court said states could not compel the teaching of creationism, creationists appear to be increasingly active, adopting a new strategy to get around the constitutional issues. Instead of trying to push creationism onto the curriculum, many creationists are trying to keep Darwin out of the classroom or insure that if evolution is taught, it is presented as merely one unproved theory. In Alabama, for example, biology textbooks carry a sticker calling evolution "a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things." The disclaimer adds: "No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Louisville and editor of the magazine of the National Association of Biology Teachers, said, "It's going on everywhere, and the creationists are winning." He said the issue was so charged in some districts that some teachers simply chose not to teach evolution.

Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written books attacking "propaganda" in the teaching of evolution, said defending evolution was becoming "the science educators' Vietnam."

The Kansas decision is significant because the new curriculum, which is a guideline, deletes not only most references to biological evolution, but also references to the big bang theory, which holds that the universe was born from a vast explosion, contradicting creationists' biblical interpretation. The new curriculum also includes at least one case study that creationists use to debunk evolution. "The number of changes made, the thoroughness with which references to evolution are deleted or definitions changed, it's more extensive than what we've seen before," said Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education.

Mark Looy of Answers in Genesis, a creationist group, said: "Students in public schools are being taught that evolution is a fact, that they're just products of survival of the fittest. There's not meaning in life if we're just animals in a struggle for survival. It creates a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness, which I think leads to things like pain, murder and suicide."

Scientists say that evolution is the cornerstone of biology and that based on fossils, anatomy and genetic evidence, life began on earth about 3.9 billion years ago and humans and other species evolved from a common ancestor. They point out that much science cannot be repeated in a laboratory and yet no one doubts the existence of, say, atoms.

Many creationists believe the Bible shows life on earth cannot be more than 10,000 years old. Some have adopted a less religious interpretation, saying the earth was created by an "intelligent designer" because it is simply too complex to be explained any other way.

Recently, creationists have been searching for events they say raise doubts about evolution or suggest the world is much younger than scientists claim. One common example is the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen's, which creationists say proves geologic changes can happen very rapidly. The new Kansas science standards include Mount St. Helen's and Mount Etna as examples that "suggest alternative explanations to scientific hypotheses or theories."

The Kansas debate began more than a year ago when the state appointed a committee of 27 scientists and professors to write a state version of new national science guidelines. But when those standards were submitted to the board, a conservative member, Steve Abrams, a former state Republican chairman, said he "had some serious questions about it," claiming "it is not good science to teach evolution as fact."

With the help of creationists, Abrams rewrote the standards, deleting most of the two pages on evolution. What remained was "micro-evolution," which refers to genetic adaptation and natural selection within a species. But "macro-evolution," the origin of species, was gone. Abrams also tried to insert these words: "The design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer." But after protest from scientists, that sentence was stricken. After months of a 5-to-5 deadlock, the new standards were approved by a vote of 6 to 4, with some anti-evolution board members and others supporting local control.

Biologists, like Steve Case, who was on the original standards committee, said that because "evolution is such a unifying principle of biology," the new standards could mean students would be unprepared for college admission tests and college science courses. Some teachers said they would continue to teach evolution and resign if forced not to.

Bill Wagnon, a board member who opposed the new standards, said "the effort to emphasize the rock of ages more than the age of rocks" could make Kansas science students "the laughing stock of the world."

Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, also opposed the changes and predicted that the Legislature might try to make the board an appointed, rather than an elected body. The Topeka Capital-Journal recently editorialized that "creationism is as good a hypothesis as any for how the universe began."

And even some science teachers underscore the complexity. Lu Bitter, co-chairwoman of the high school science department in Pratt, Kan., said she strongly opposed the new standards and was also fighting a proposal before her school board to adopt a creationist textbook. But she said the school's biology teachers had spent time discussing creationism, as well as evolution. "We've covered all views, read Genesis in the classroom," Mrs. Bitter said. When students leave class, "they know that there are different ways of looking at the way life exists on earth."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company