NYT on Evolution debate in Kansas
- August 1, 2006
Evolution's Backers in Kansas Start Counterattack
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
KANSAS CITY, Kan., July 29 - God and Charles Darwin are not on the
primary ballot in Kansas
ssions/kansas/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> on Tuesday, but once again a
contentious schools election has religion and science at odds in a state
that has restaged a three-quarter-century battle over the teaching of
Less than a year after a conservative Republican majority on the State
Board of Education adopted rules for teaching science containing one of
the broadest challenges in the nation to Darwin's theory of evolution,
ublican_party/index.html?inline=nyt-org> and Democrats
ocratic_party/index.html?inline=nyt-org> are mounting a fierce
counterattack. They want to retake power and switch the standards back
to what they call conventional science.
The Kansas election is being watched closely by both sides in the
national debate over the teaching of evolution. In the past several
years, pitched battles have been waged between the scientific
establishment and proponents of what is called intelligent design, which
holds that nature alone cannot explain life's origin and complexity.
Last February, the Ohio Board of Education reversed its 2002 mandate
requiring 10th-grade biology classes to critically analyze evolution.
The action followed a federal judge's ruling that teaching intelligent
design in the public schools of Dover, Pa., was unconstitutional.
A defeat for the conservative majority in Kansas on Tuesday could be
further evidence of the fading fortunes of the intelligent design
movement, while a victory would preserve an important stronghold in
The curriculum standards adopted by the education board do not
specifically mention intelligent design, but advocates of the belief
lobbied for the changes, and students are urged to seek "more adequate
explanations of natural phenomena."
Though there is no reliable polling data available, Joseph Aistrup, head
of political science at Kansas State University
sas_state_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , said sharp ideological
splits among Republicans and an unusual community of interest among
moderate Republicans and some Democrats were helping challengers in the
Kansas Democrats, moreover, have a strong standard-bearer in the
incumbent governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who has distanced herself from
"And if a conservative candidate makes it through the primary, there's a
Democratic challenger waiting" in the general election, Professor
Several moderate Republican candidates have vowed, if they lose Tuesday,
to support the Democratic primary winners in November. With the campaign
enlivened by a crowded field of 16 candidates contending for five seats
- four held by conservatives who voted for the new science standards
last year - a shift of two seats could overturn the current 6-to-4
majority. The four-year terms are staggered so that only half the
10-member board is up for election each two years.
The acrimony in the school board races is not limited to differences
over the science curriculum but also over other ideologically charged
issues like sex education, charter schools and education financing.
Power on the board has shifted almost every election since 1998, with
the current conservative majority taking hold in 2004.
"Can we just agree God invented Darwin?" asked a weary Sue Gamble, a
moderate member of the board whose seat is not up for re-election.
The chairman of the board, Dr. Steve E. Abrams, a veterinarian and the
leader of the conservative majority, said few of the opposition
candidates were really moderates. "They're liberals," said Dr. Abrams,
who is not up for re-election.
He said that the new science curriculum in no way opened the door to
intelligent design or creationism and that any claim to the contrary "is
an absolute falsehood."
"We have explicitly stated that the standards must be based on
scientific evidence," Dr. Abrams said, "what is observable, measurable,
testable, repeatable and unfalsifiable."
In science, he said, "everything is supposedly tentative, except the
teaching of evolution is dogma."
Harry E. McDonald, a retired biology teacher and self-described moderate
Republican who has been going door to door for votes in his district
near Olathe, said the board might have kept overt religious references
out of the standards, "but methinks they doth protest too much."
"They say science can't answer this, therefore God," Mr. McDonald said.
Connie Morris, a conservative Republican running for re-election, said
the board had merely authorized scientifically valid criticism of
evolution. Ms. Morris, a retired teacher and author, said she did not
believe in evolution.
"It's a nice bedtime story," she said. "Science doesn't back it up."
Dr. Abrams said his views as someone who believes that God created the
universe 6,500 years ago had nothing to do with the science standards
"In my personal faith, yes, I am a creationist," he said. "But that
doesn't have anything to do with science. I can separate them." He said
he agreed that "my personal views of Scripture have no room in the
Dr. Abrams said that at a community meeting he had been asked whether it
was possible to believe in the Bible and in evolution, and that he had
responded, "There are those who try to believe in both - there are
theistic evolutionists - but at some point in time you have to decide
which you're going to put your credence in."
Last year's changes in the science standards followed an increasingly
bitter seesawing of power on the education board that began in 1998 when
conservatives won a majority. They made the first changes to the
standards the next year, which in turn were reversed after moderates won
back control in 2000. The 2002 elections left the board split 5-5, and
in 2004 the conservatives won again, instituting their major standards
revisions in November 2005.
Critics said the changes altered the science standards in ways that
invited theistic interpretations. The new definition called for students
to learn about "the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but
also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific
criticisms of the theory."
In one of many "additional specificities" that the board added to the
standards, it stated, "Biological evolution postulates an unguided
natural process that has no discernable direction or goal."
John Calvert, manager of the Intelligent Design Network in Shawnee
Mission and a lawyer who wrote material for the board advocating the new
science standards, said they were not intended to advance religion.
"What we are trying to do is insert objectivity, take the bias out of
the religious standard that now favors the nontheistic religion of
evolution," Mr. Calvert said.
Janet Waugh, a car dealer and the only moderate Democrat on the board
whose seat is up for election, said that just because some people were
challenging evolution did not mean their views belonged in the
"When the mainstream scientific community determines a theory is
correct, that's when it should be in the schools," Ms. Waugh said. "The
intelligent design people are trying to cut in line."
The races have been hard-fought. With the majority of the 100,000
registered Republicans in Mr. McDonald's northeast Kansas district
usually ignoring primary elections, a few hundred ballots could easily
be the margin of victory.
So Mr. McDonald, who with $35,000 is the lead fund-raiser among the
candidates, printed newsletters showing his opponent, the conservative
board member John W. Bacon, with a big red slash through his face and
the slogan, "Time to Bring Home the Bacon." Mr. Bacon did not respond to
several calls for a response.
But many of the homeowners Mr. McDonald visited Friday night showed
little interest in the race. Jack Campbell, a medical center security
director, opened the door warily, and when Mr. McDonald recited his
pitch, seemed disappointed. "I thought I won some sweepstakes," Mr.
Last Thursday night at Fort Hays State University, Ms. Morris debated
her moderate Republican challenger, Sally Cauble, a former teacher, and
the Democratic candidate, Tim Cruz, a former mayor of Garden City, whom
Ms. Morris once accused of being an illegal immigrant. (He said he was
third-generation American, and Ms. Morris apologized.)
The audience asked about Kansas being ridiculed across the country for
its stance on evolution.
"I did not write the jokes," Ms. Morris said.
Spectators split on the winner.
"There are so many more important issues in Kansas right now," said
Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, a science teacher. "The issue is definitely a
wedge issue, and I don't want to see our community divided."
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CCC Metro TLC
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