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Political Scene

Creationism: Back in Kansas Again
Linda Rowan

The attack on the teaching of evolution in elementary and secondary schools has resurfaced in 2005 in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia and other states across the country. Recent local and national headlines describe efforts to limit the teaching of evolution by explicitly warning students that evolution is a theory or by adding alternative ideas, such as “intelligent design,” to the science curriculum.

Many dismayed educators, parents, scientists, legislators and judges had hoped that the attack on teaching evolution in science classes in public schools had been resolved by the reversal of the Kansas Board of Education’s 1999 decision to eliminate the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately, a brief history of the creationism movement over the past 80 years suggests that the debate has not been resolved, but rather the movements in Kansas and elsewhere are subtly changing tactics to try to gain the same objective.

The Scopes trial in 1925 ensured that classroom teaching and state laws regarding curriculum would be part of a national debate about the differences between the science of evolution and the belief in creationism. A year after the case was dismissed on a technicality, 12 states had proposed bills prohibiting the teaching of evolution, all of which failed.

Decades later, the space race renewed interest in science, and in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional. This ruling should have settled the debate; however, in 1980, President Reagan endorsed the teaching of creationism. Seven years later, the Supreme Court stepped in again, ruling that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creationism whenever evolution was taught to be unconstitutional. The court indicated that creationism was a form of religious advocacy and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

This decision helped to bring intelligent design to the forefront of the creationism movement because intelligent design tries to remove any connotation of religion. Intelligent design is a belief that an “intelligent designer” must have created life because life is too complex to have been created in any other way (see Geologic Column). Faith-based groups have latched onto intelligent design as a more constitutionally palatable form of creationism, and some groups have reconstituted themselves as nonreligious think tanks, such as the Discovery Institute.

Founded in 1990, the Discovery Institute has formed a nationwide network of local groups that work to get intelligent design added to the science curriculum and disclaimers added to the teaching of evolution. The institute also hosts workshops for teachers to tell them about the problems of teaching biological origins and how to introduce design concepts into the curriculum.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 has led many state and local school boards to review or revise their education curriculum. The Discovery Institute and other groups have been taking advantage of this period of review and revision to try to get creationism — disguised as intelligent design or more subtly as multiple hypotheses to explain historical systems — into science education.

In Kansas, for example, five years after local groups prevailed in keeping evolution in the curriculum, the school board again revisited such arguments. In May 2004, 26 scientists and educators were appointed to draft revisions to the Kansas Science Standards. After developing a draft in December that included teaching evolution without qualification, eight members of the committee proposed further revisions with explanations in a “minority report” on Dec. 7. On Dec. 10, the Intelligent Design Network Inc. put out a press release about the report, in which one of the committee members, Greg Lassey, stated, “We do not believe the standards should include the teaching of intelligent design as an objective. But, neither should it be prohibited. Teachers should use their discretion about that scientific alternative to evolution.”

The minority report would “replace a naturalistic definition of science with a traditional definition” because the naturalistic definition “irrefutably assumes that cause-and-effect laws (as of physics and chemistry) are adequate to account for all phenomena.” This assumption, they say, “can be reasonably expected to lead one to believe in the naturalistic philosophy that life and its diversity is the result of an unguided, purposeless natural process.” By redefining science, they say that evolution would no longer indirectly promote the philosophy of naturalism.

In addition to changing the definition of science and twisting evolution into a doctrine, the report defines paleontology and earth science as historical sciences that are different from chemistry and physics. The report requests that students learn that “historical events,” such as the sudden burst of increased complexity in the fossil record (the Cambrian explosion) or the “origin of a formation of sandstone,” can be explained by multiple hypotheses and that these hypotheses depend on circumstantial evidence and are therefore uncertain.

The proposed revisions were open to public comment until Feb. 28, and the board hopes to have their science standards resolved by this summer. The situation in Kansas is only one example of the persistent and time-consuming debates that are occurring in school boards across the country. These discussions often end up in court, where they cost more time and a substantial amount of financial resources.

Creationists, the intelligent design groups and other similar groups are well-organized and often well-funded. They will continue to drain the limited resources of schools, confuse students and confound teachers until local groups organize to clearly support the naturalistic definition of science and the fundamental value of evolution to our understanding of how life works. Slowly, a national network of pro-evolution groups is forming to support these grassroots efforts.

Meanwhile, science education is reportedly suffering from poor results, fewer students going into science and engineering, and a shrinking workforce of qualified high-tech workers. Thus, it is detrimental to sidetrack the education of students by spending precious time and resources to defend science from those who want to promote a religious agenda.

Rowan is the new director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail:

Go to the Government Affairs Program archive for related evolution stories.

"Shakespeare or the Monkey?," Geologic Column, Geotimes, April 2005 Check back later this month to read the Geologic Column online!
Kansas Science Standards development and draft
Intelligent Design Network Inc. press release
PDF file of the Dec. 10, 2004, press release on Kansas standards
Intelligent Design Network Inc. Web site with press release, minority report draft revisions and explanations as separate PDF files

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