William Harris was in on the first fight over evolution.
But six years ago, when the nation was watching what Kansas was doing, few in the state seemed ready to hear what the medical-school professor from Prairie Village had to say.
Harris bets this time will be different.
The conservatives who attacked evolution because it conflicted with the Genesis account of how the world was created have faded into the background.
In their place are professionals such as Harris who support intelligent design, a theory that states some aspects of the universe and living things are best explained by intelligent causes, not chance. Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t always add up, they say, and students should hear more about its shortcomings.
There are only two options, said Harris, who is leading this year’s fight. Life was either designed or it wasn’t.
That’s not the point, evolution defenders reply. Science is about searching for natural explanations of the world, they say, and has no room for a theory based on faith.
The public will join the debate beginning Tuesday, when the first of four public hearings on new science standards will be held in Kansas City, Kan.
In other states, emotions over evolution already run high.
On Jan. 13, a federal judge in Georgia sided with evolution supporters who objected to stickers on textbooks that read: Evolution is a theory, not a fact. The judge said the stickers sent a message that the school board in Cobb County agreed with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and creationists.
In Pennsylvania, the Dover school board became the first in the nation to decide students shall be told an alternative to evolution exists. An administrator read a statement to that effect to students this month because teachers wouldn’t read it. A lawsuit is pending.
State legislatures also are getting involved. In Missouri, a bill pending in the House calls for every biology textbook to critically analyze the origin of life.
So far, no state board of education has required the teaching of intelligent design. And the Kansas supporters of intelligent design are not asking that it be mandated, said Harris, who is on a committee that is rewriting the science standards.
Harris and seven other members of the 26-member committee instead propose students be more adequately informed on evolution.
The eight submitted a proposal to the state Board of Education. One recommendation was to change the definition of science. The current definition, they say, limits inquiry because it allows only natural explanations. They want it to be more objective and to allow students to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Evolution supporters said such a change would shake science at its foundation.
Intelligent design claims it’s a mistake to limit science to naturalistic explanations, said Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University who has written science textbooks used in Kansas and elsewhere.
But what other kinds of explanations are there? The straightforward answer which is very clear from their document but they never quite frankly have the courage to use the word is supernatural explanations. It means supernatural explanations in Kansas will now be part of science.
Intelligent-design proponents deny that. They say design can be detected without introducing a designer.
If Kansas adopted the proposed changes from the group of eight, it would go further than any state had gone in adopting a position endorsed by supporters of intelligent design.
A different idea
In 1999 the Kansas Board of Education caught the nation’s attention when it voted 6-4 to downplay the teaching of evolution. The board removed many references to evolution from the state standards, which allowed local districts to decide whether they wanted to teach it.
A leader for the evolution supporters declared that day that Kansas just embarrassed itself on the national stage.
The vote that year (reversed two years later) was fueled by young-earth creationists. They believe that God created the universe and everything in it in six 24-hour days, according to the Genesis account, and that the Earth isn’t more than 10,000 years old.
But among those who were lobbying before the state board were three early proponents of intelligent design: Harris, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a lipid researcher at St. Luke’s Hospital; John Calvert of Lake Quivira, a lawyer with a degree in geology; and Jody Sjogren, a former area resident with a master’s in science.
The three met and soon founded the Intelligent Design Network Inc. The grass-roots group holds conferences and works with supporters in other states.
In 2002, Calvert traveled to Ohio. He and other design supporters persuaded the state board there to adopt language that required students to analyze certain aspects of evolution.
Calvert said the Kansas changes would go further because they were laced throughout the standards. He is serving as the attorney for the group of eight.
The proposal in Kansas is supported by the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle.
We don’t favor teaching creationism, said John West, an associate director with the institute’s Center for Science and Culture. We don’t favor teaching the Bible in science class. We’re not even pushing and certainly not requiring the teaching of intelligent design, although we don’t want it to be forbidden.
What we are for and what we think every reasonable person ought to agree on is to teach evolution robustly and teach all the evidence for it.
What is so wrong, he asks, if a class that spends two weeks on evolution spends one day addressing some contrary views?
Evolution defenders don’t buy it.
Intelligent design is a religious movement, says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.
The fight over evolution was easier in 1999, she said, because it was so obvious that just kicking evolution out of the standards completely was a very bad idea. But creationism has evolved.
The tactic now is teaching the weaknesses of evolution, she said.
Most people hear the intelligent-design proponents say, Teach the controversy over evolution’ and they think, Well, yeah, that makes sense. Students should understand all views.’
That’s a good fairness argument. Except that what they are saying is that teachers should pretend to students that scientists are arguing over whether evolution happened when actually scientists are arguing about the pattern and process of evolution. They are arguing about the how, not the whether.
Paula Donham, a biology teacher at Olathe East High School, said she and other teachers encouraged students to study all aspects of evolution.
We spend a great deal of time with them trying to get them to think critically and to question what things mean, said Donham, chairwoman of the school’s science department.
As for those who say more should be taught about the weaknesses of the theory, Donham said: That’s a pretty false argument. If you look at what science is all about, science is the discipline that is most self-critical. We are all about looking at what we know already and questioning it.
Fact or theory?
Design supporters say evolution proponents like to gloss over evidence that challenges Darwin’s theory.
That approach plays out in the classroom, they contend.
Students should be hearing more about evidence that questions whether all living things come from common ancestors, said Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute who holds a doctorate in molecular and cell biology. There actually is quite good evidence they did not, Wells said.
For instance, he said, the fossil record shows a sudden appearance of major kinds of animals during the Cambrian explosion, which occurred about 500 million years ago.
The fossil record does not show the branching tree pattern that we would expect from Darwin’s theory. I’m not saying the fossil record disproves the theory, although some people would argue that. I’m just saying students should at least be aware that there is a controversy here.
For the most part, Wells said, textbooks and teachers try to give students the impression that evolution is a fact, which in my opinion is very misleading.
Seniors at Olathe East in Donham’s advanced-placement biology class said discussions about whether a higher being created the world rarely came up in their science classes.
They said they did not have a problem with that.
Certain investigations will eventually lead to questions we find we can’t answer, said Elke Mermis, 17. From a philosophical standpoint, she said, it might make sense to believe God’s hand intervened.
But if one accepted that as an answer in a science class, she said, it’s kind of like you just sort of reach the end and there is nothing else to say.
At least one parent, however, said public schools take too strong a stand in favor of evolution.
Celtie Johnson said her 10th-grade daughter felt appalled and humiliated two years ago when her biology teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District showed Inherit the Wind, a film that depicted the 1925 Scopes monkey trial.
The film ridiculed the conservative Christians in it who criticized evolution, Johnson said. That’s hardly an unbiased view, she said.
Design supporters contend that the current definition of science supports beliefs such as atheism, which they call a nontheistic religion. Harris and Calvert want the definition changed to provide equal time for a theistic point of view. A theistic view might lead one to believe in a creator, they say, but does not identify any particular god.
When you can detect design in a living system, the implications of that are very, very significant, Calvert said. If you conclude the system is designed, it shows life has an inherent purpose.
Joseph Heppert, director of the University of Kansas Center for Science Education, said he saw a worrisome subtext in the proposed changes.
Design supporters imply that science as practiced today is somehow inherently negative, Heppert said. They seem to suggest that science has hurt moral values and is antagonistic to religion.
Heppert said he could only guess at their ultimate goals. However, he said, since they were arguing that science was a dogma that was anti-religious, they could put that idea forward in a court of law as a way to defend intelligent design.
Whether that will be the case, I don’t know, he said. But it is certainly ominous.
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What do you think?
The Kansas Department of Education will hold four public hearings on proposed revisions to the state’s science standards. All will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Kansas City, Kan.: Schlagle High School Auditorium, 2214 N. 59th St.
Feb. 8, Topeka: Kansas State Department of Education Board Room, 120 S.E. 10th St
Feb. 10, Derby: Derby Middle School cafeteria, 801 E. Madison Ave.
Feb. 15, Hays: Hays High School, 2300 E. 13th St.