Ridiculing Kansas school board easy, but it’s not good journalism

Jonathan Wells
The Daily Republic (Mitchell, SD)
October 14, 1999
Wizard of Oz jokes are in vogue as the news media scramble to ridicule Kansas for downplaying, eliminating, or even banning evolution in its public schools. But the people who are writing such stuff apparently haven’t read the Kansas Science Education Standards. The truth is that the August 11 School Board decision actually increased public school emphasis on evolution.

The old science standards, in effect since 1995, devoted about 70 words to biological evolution. Standards proposed to the Board earlier this year by a 27-member Science Education Standards Writing Committee would have increased this to about 640 words. The standards actually adopted by the Board on August 11 include about 390 words on the subject. So the Kansas State School Board, asked to approve a ninefold increase in the standards for evolution, approved a fivefold increase instead.

Of course, word counts don’t tell the whole story. But the 390 words approved by the Board include many of the provisions recommended by the Committee. For example, the Board adopted verbatim the Committee’s summary of Darwin’s theory: “Natural selection includes the following concepts: 1) Heritable variation exists in every species; 2) some heritable traits are more advantageous to reproduction and/or survival than are others; 3) there is a finite supply of resources available for life; not all progeny survive; 4) individuals with advantageous traits generally survive; 5) the advantageous traits increase in the population through time.” It would be difficult to find a better summary of Darwin’s theory of natural selection; Kansas students will now be tested on it.

The Board also required students to understand that “microevolution...favors beneficial genetic variations and contributes to biological diversity,” and listed finch beak changes as an example. The Board declined, however, to adopt the Committee’s proposal requiring students to understand that microevolution leads to macroevolution–the origin of new structures and new groups of organisms. The Board’s reluctance is understandable, since even some biologists doubt that changes in finch beaks can explain the origin of finches in the first place.

There were some other recommendations the Board did not follow, as well. For example, the Committee would have required students to understand: “The common ancestry of living things allows them to be classified into a hierarchy of groups.” This requirement would no doubt have come as a surprise to 18th century creationist Carolus Linnaeus, who had no need of common ancestry when he devised the hierarchical system of classification still used by modern biologists.

Even more interesting than the details, however, was the Committee’s bid to inject Darwinian evolution into the very heart of science. According to the 1995 standards, science embodies four general themes: Energy/Matter, Patterns of Change, Systems and Interactions, and Stability and Models. Furthermore, it is the nature of science to “provide a means for producing knowledge,” using processes such as “observing, classifying, questioning, inferring,...[and] collecting and recording data.” The Science Education Standards Writing Committee proposed to add a fifth general theme, “patterns of cumulative change,” an example of which is “the biological theory of evolution.”

As a biologist myself, I find this strange. Why list a specific theory such as biological evolution among general themes such as “systems and interactions,” or basic processes such as “collecting and recording data”? That’s like inserting a specific law into a constitution designed to establish a framework for law-making.

Why did the 1995 standards have to be changed at all? The Committee’s proposal was a product of recent nationwide efforts by people who believe that Darwinian evolution is indispensable to biological science. A rallying cry for these efforts is Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous maxim, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But Dobzhansky was mistaken. There are entire areas of biology that have no need for evolutionary theory, and there is evidence that the most sweeping claims of Darwinism are wrong. More importantly, there can be no such thing as an indispensable theory in science. A true scientist would say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evidence.

The standards adopted by the Kansas State School Board are far from perfect. Biology education would have been better served if students had been required to understand macroevolutionary theory, though they should also be taught the scientific evidence against it. Under the circumstances, however, the Board may have done the best it could. Faced with national pressure to include Darwin’s theory in its description of the very nature of science, the Board courageously resisted, stocking the shelves with more evolution but refusing to hand over the store.

News commentators who ridicule Kansas for downplaying, eliminating, or even banning evolution from its schools not only misrepresent the truth, but they also miss the real story. Why do Darwinists go ballistic at the thought of high school students questioning their theory? Why do biology textbooks continue to cite evidence for evolution that was long ago discredited? How many qualified scientists have lost their teaching jobs or their research funding just because they dared to criticize Darwinism? How many millions of your tax dollars will be spent this year by Darwinists trying to find evidence for a theory they claim is already proven beyond a reasonable doubt? There’s enough here to keep a team of investigative journalists busy for months.

Years ago, when asked why the media were spending so much time covering the O.J. Simpson trial, a news commentator said, “It’s easy work.” Ridiculing Kansas is easy work, too. But is it good journalism?

Jonathan Wells is a post-doctoral biologist and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle.