October 1999

Kansas Rejects Evolution:

A Response from the Geoscience Community

The Kansas State Board of Education voted Aug. 11 to eliminate all references to evolution—as well as to the Big Bang theory, the age of Earth or biological macroevolution—from the state’s science curriculum. Geotimes asked members of the geoscience community to respond to this decision. Their letters follow:

Creation Science: Bad Science, Bad Religion!
Active scientists make the difference
Scientists on school boards
Science Evolves!
Evolution: Not in Kansas Anymore
Scientists are the solution

Any responses to these letters can be sent to <geotimes@agiweb.org> or to Geotimes, 4220 King Street, Alexandria, Va. 22302.

Creation Science: Bad Science, Bad Religion!

The Kansas State Board of Education’s deplorable vote to marginalize teaching of evolutionary science highlights foundational scientific and religious issues. The vote strengthens creation science’s strategy of “dumbing down” science teaching, not to mention beliefs fundamental to the Jewish and Christian religions. This educational disaster gives free reign to creation science’s relentless religious war to destroy science.

I support teaching religion as religion, and science as science. Creationism as science is an oxymoron because the most foundational religious statement is that God is Creator. Genesis begins: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When God is called Creator, it designates the God of Genesis (pre-Big Bang), then the only being in the universe, the one by whom all others are said to be produced. Although creation science claims that it is science, it is in fact religion camouflaged as science: “The creation model presupposes a Creator. In the Bible God is the only subject for the verb ‘create’”(Langdon Gilkey, 1985). The creation model has God as the only being prior to his creative action; only when the universe was produced by creation did science become possible.

In 1982, Arkansas Act 590, the law requiring the teaching of creation science, was overturned in a judgment by the U.S. District Court, in part by convincing testimony of theologians Langdon Gilkey and Bruce Vawter, C.M. From creationists’ public statements, Gilkey concluded that creation science regards evolutionary science not only as godless, anti-religious and evil, but as a total explanation of the origins of all things. This misguided religious mindset explains creationists’ abhorrence of evolution as representing (for them) the opposite of belief in divine creation. Thus they regard the two models of creation and science as mutually exclusive.

Science can only explain what happened after the Big Bang because the objects with which science deals (the universe) came into being during or after creation. In trying to salvage a flawed theology, creation science masquerades as science while striving to destroy authentic science. It attempts to discredit science’s core activity of developing theories to explain the data.

St. Augustine recognized in about A.D. 400 that the literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation taking place over six days involved a theological error requiring reinterpretation. He realized that if the creative act of God brought time and space into being, then the act of creation of time could not be in time and the act of creation of space could not be in space, but must transcend them. Gilkey’s comment: “The divine creative act must be at a ‘moment’ that ‘precedes’ every moment because it is the act in which all moments come into being. Unlike scientific investigation, creation as a religious symbol does not reveal matters of factual information, but does reveal that, however it may have originated, the universe is of God, and has meaning and purpose.”

The Kansas Board of Education’s vote helps to perpetuate the doubly flawed scientific and theological ideas of so-called creation science. In undermining logical thought in science and
theology, the board accelerates the “dumbing down” of both science and religion and thus is a partner with creation science, which has the avowed objective of destroying genuine science. Researching and teaching about the earliest stages of our vast and mysterious world are ennobling tasks that honor our humanity. The men and women of present and future generations who dedicate their lives and talents to the arduous search for meaning deserve better than the flawed views of those who do a disservice to both science and theology.

Rev. James W. Skehan, S.J.
Skehan is a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and director emeritus of the Weston Observatory, Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University and a Master of Divinity in theology from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Active scientists make the difference

"If scientific research proved certain Buddhism teachings to be incorrect, I would agree that the teachings should be changed accordingly."
—The Dalai Lama, Taiwan, March 1997

The Aug. 11 decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to delete evolution from the state’s school science curriculum is, unfortunately, not surprising. I say this in the context of actions taken by school boards in several other states, including my own, during recent years, and the alarming fact that nearly half of the adults in the United States fully believe in a biblical interpretation of creation, as shown by many polls. Well-informed individuals recognize the decision in Kansas as a further blow to science education and, therefore, to science.

Regardless of how appalling the decision is, expressions of dismay and disapproval are not an effective response. Creationists seem to be winning the “battle” and an obvious facet of the problem is science illiteracy. I find it paradoxical that one of the world’s most affluent and technologically advanced countries, in which science has played a major role in history, is essentially dominated by individuals who understand neither fundamental scientific theories nor what science is. It is unconscionable that, for example, the recent large-magnitude earthquake in Turkey, and the immense and tragic devastation associated with it, is considered by many to be the wrath of God. Yet it is. And finally, the leading Republican candidate for our next presidential election has spoken in favor of teaching creationism in the public schools; the position of the leading Democratic candidate remains very muddy.

The hard reality is that scientists must increasingly participate in long-term, dedicated and concerted involvement in science education at the state and local levels. Geoscientists have a particularly important role in this effort. Creationists won in Kansas and have won in other states because they care enough, and are sufficiently organized enough, to influence or get elected and appointed to school boards. Scientists tend to overlook, or be less involved in, issues that may not be perceived as having immediate or direct importance. Science education must not start at the university/college level, yet my teaching of introductory physical geology lead me to believe that it is exactly where science education really begins for most people. Science education will suffer in Kansas as it has in other states.

New Mexico is one state where an active involvement by scientists in state and local politics has made a difference by thwarting creationists’ attempts to profoundly modify science curricula (thus thwarting the tactics creationists typically use as an end-run around evolution); and by placing educated, well-informed individuals on school boards. Quality K–12 science education can and must be maintained, and scientists can help. Actively support well-informed, educated school board candidates. Run for school board positions. Give guest lectures and demonstrations in science classes at your local schools. Show by example what science is, and is not, about.

John William Geissman
Full professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and president-elect of the Faculty Senate, University of New Mexico. Geissman chairs the American Geophysical Union’s panel to rewrite its Position Statement on the Teaching of Creationism as Science and is also a member of the Coalition for Excellence in Science Education, New Mexico.

Scientists on school boards

The American Geophysical Union released this statement Aug. 12, urging scientists to become active in local school boards in the wake of the Kansas decision on evolution. The American Geophysical Union is an organization of over 35,000 scientists in the earth and space sciences. Since 1981, it has been on record as opposing the teaching of creationism as science.

The Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union, Dr. Fred Spilhaus, has called on scientists to become more active in local school boards around the country. Reacting to the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to eliminate virtually all references to evolution in the state’s science curriculum, he said it was because creationists work hard to get elected to school boards and further their objectives, while most scientists do not. He said that not just science education, but science itself, would suffer as a result of the action taken by the Kansas School Board:

Many scientists were dismayed when the Kansas Board of Education voted on Aug. 11 to eliminate the theory of evolution from the state’s school science curriculum, and some will undoubtedly express shock and disapproval. What is needed from scientists now is, however, not expressions of outrage, but active participation in state and local decision making.

Creationists won in Kansas, and they are likely to win elsewhere, simply because they care enough to get elected to school boards. Once again, those who value science and support the teaching of evolution but were too busy to participate in local politics lost, and science education will suffer as a result, as will science itself. Scientists would be well advised to run for school boards or, at the very least, to actively support well-informed candidates.

A. F. Spilhaus Jr.
Executive director, American Geophysical Union

Science Evolves!

Recently the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6–4 to eliminate the teaching of evolution in the schools. Supporters of the vote stated that “the Bible is the sole authority on creation, evolution cannot be proved and the theory undermined students’ moral values.”

My question is, why does one believe that the teaching of evolution and “moral values” contradict each other? Scientists, many of them morally upstanding members of the science communities, do not see that their religious values are compromised by their knowledge of evolution. The education community, of which I am a member, must raise questions about the underlying reasons for the Kansas Board of Education decision. Does its decision indicate that science teachers have no moral values because they teach evolution in their science classrooms? Is this an underhanded way to get creationism into the classroom? Notice that I am asking questions? This is the premise of science: asking questions and looking for evidence to support or refute ideas. The Kansas Board of Education has decided that Kansas students do not need to learn to question the information they’re taught.

I teach earth science in a very conservative school district, and am therefore sensitive to the religious beliefs of my students and their parents. I inform the students that evolution is based upon scientific evidence and that this evidence has been evaluated according to the principles that govern scientific theories. With that in mind the students evaluate the scientific evidence and use the processes of science to develop an understanding of what evidence the concept of evolution was built upon. This strategy does not force a belief upon any student but allows a student to continue to see how the process of science follows specific rules. At the same time it develops skills necessary to solve problems, to question and to communicate.

The proponents of removing evolution from the science classroom indicate that, because evolution is only a “theory,” it holds no validity. Where they are wrong is that in the scientific community the term “theory” does not mean a “guess or hunch.” Scientific theories are based on a preponderance of evidence. The unique aspect of a scientific theory is that as new evidence emerges theories are modified or discarded. Theories constantly evolve to explain how the evidence fits together. Theories are not cast in stone.

It is through knowledge of evolution and this questioning and process of self correction, for example, that we are able to openly discuss and understand the possibility of primitive life on early Mars. Science is still looking for the “evidence for,” not “proof of.” Humanity’s understanding of evolution can only increase the need for more evidence. Has the Kansas Board of Education eliminated that need to question and find this evidence?

Linda Selvig
earth/space science teacher and president, National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA). The opinions expressed are the author’s own and should under no circumstances be interpreted as those of NESTA and its membership.

Evolution: Not in Kansas Anymore

This year, after a year of work, a committee of scientists and master teachers in Kansas submitted a draft of the Kansas science standards—first through public hearings, and then to the State Board of Education (SBE). The committee followed NAS and AAAS education guidelines, and included evolution as an organizing principle (“Unifying Concepts and Processes”) of science. Showing sensitivity to the fact that evolution conflicts with some religious beliefs of students and parents, it reminded teachers that:
Compelling student belief is inconsistent with the goal of education. Nothing in science or any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically.
The committee treated evolution matter-of-factly, as the well-accepted principle of science that it is. Nonetheless, the SBE, offended by the lack of creationism or “alternatives to evolution” in the draft, sought changes. School board member Steve Abrams, assisted by the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, submitted a substitute draft of science standards that completely ignored evolution. After much arm wrestling, the final science standards passed by the SBE was a patchwork of the two drafts. Evolution as an organizing principle of science was stripped out, as was any mention of the Big Bang, cosmology, the age of Earth, or biological evolution. Evolution will not be on the assessment tests students take before high school graduation.

Indicators of the standards-creationist co-parentage can be found throughout the new Kansas standards. Unlike other standards, these spend a great deal of time distinguishing between “macroevolution” and “microevolution.” They also recommend that teachers discuss the Allende meteorite, which creationists use to argue that radiometric dating is invalid. The standards exhort teachers to teach catastrophic geology (creationists use examples of catastrophic deposition to argue that all fossils died in the Flood.) Teachers are also told (twice) to discuss Mt. St. Helens—creationists use Mt. St. Helens to argue that the Grand Canyon could be cut in two weeks.

What does this mean for science education in Kansas? What does it mean for science education in the rest of the country? Students will be taught less evolution. Kansas teachers who know what is good for them will “teach to the tests”—graduation assessment tests—because that is how they and their school district will be ranked. Why waste time on something that the students won’t “need to know”? Also, without the state science standards to shield them, teachers will have less of a defense against parental complaints about evolution. A California teacher once faced a
trio of parents questioning him about teaching evolution. He explained that the California Science Framework required him to teach it. One disappointed parent finally burst out, “Well, you don’t have to teach it like you mean it!”

Also, Kansas students will be shortchanged when they take the SATs and Advanced Placement exams, which include many concepts of evolution. But perhaps the biggest injustice to be done to Kansas students is to deny them the pleasure of learning about one of the most exciting and active fields of science. The net effect of the Kansas science standards is to encourage teachers to pussyfoot around evolution, separating it out from the rest of science as a “theory” (read: “guess”) that is controversial and that they should doubt. Students going to college are in for a big surprise: evolution is taught matter-of-factly at every respected university in this country, including Baylor, Brigham Young and Notre Dame. Kansas students will realize they have been lied to about the position of evolution in modern science. I doubt they will be pleased.

What about those of us outside of Kansas? If other state or local boards of education follow in the state’s footsteps and drop, qualify, disclaim or otherwise downplay evolution the rest of us will feel the repercussions as textbooks decrease their coverage of evolution. This is a serious matter, as the majority of teachers rely on the textbook to determine course content. If evolution is in the textbook, there is at least a chance that it will be taught. If it is not, the chance diminishes to almost zero.

The consequences of the SBE decision are extensive, indeed. The best thing that Kansans can do now is find some good candidates to run for the SBE next November, when four seats open up for re-election. Perhaps then the science standards can be revisited and made to reflect current scientific and educational thinking.

Eugenie C. Scott
Executive Director, National Center for Science Education Inc.

Scientists are the solution

The tornado that picked up Dorothy and carried her from her Kansas home to the land of Oz was only a gentle breeze compared to the maelstrom that enveloped Kansas after the State Board of Education (BOE) adopted new science standards that dropped most teaching of evolution and the origin of the universe from the state curricula. The Kansas Board of Education rejected the science standards proposed by a panel of 27 Kansas scientists and science teachers developed over a two-year period. Instead, the board adopted so-called “compromise” alternative standards that draw from creation science rhetoric. Now each of the 304 local school districts must decide whether or not to include evolution in their curricula.

The public debate before the BOE on Aug. 9 clearly delineated the battle between the proponents of teaching evolution and those supporting creationism. Speakers were allocated 2 minutes to make their cases. I squeezed into the board chamber and heard most of them firsthand. The advocates for the alternative standards that were eventually adopted were well spoken, polite and, with only a couple of exceptions, avoided personal attacks or name-calling. What surprised me most was the oft-repeated call to return the Bible or Jesus to the classroom. A few speakers argued for treating creationism as a viable scientific alternative to evolution, but some advocated that government simply adopt a specific religious viewpoint and agenda. A common theme was that if children believe they evolved from primordial ooze, there is no need for a moral imperative. Teaching evolution, they claimed, begets violence in our schools and a decline of moral values in society.

The creation “scientists” argued that evolution is only a theory and a flawed theory at best. Students will be best served, they claimed, if they are shown the weaknesses of evolution theory by comparing it to alternative interpretations as provided by crea-tion science. The anti-evolution forces called for open debate and presentation of alternative ideas, and pleaded for fairness by presenting both sides—evolution and creation—as valid competing theories so the students can decide for themselves. It certainly sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It makes a compelling case for many Kansans who are passive participants in this debate. For the advocates of government-sanctioned or mandated religion, the creation science approach is a clever stratagem that can be quite convincing for those not overly familiar with scientific process and principles.

Most Kansans are embarrassed by the actions of the Board of Education. We are shocked that it happened in our state, a state that prides itself on its enlightenment going back to the historic choice to become a “Free State” rather than to adopt slavery. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves said the board solved a problem that doesn’t exist and he might ask the state’s citizens to replace the elected body with an appointed board. Political pundits see the vote as a skirmish in the fight between moderate and conservative factions for control of the Republican Party in Kansas. At least one textbook publisher responded by deleting the entire chapter on geology and fossils, lest it offend or violate the new dogma. Kansas scientists, especially biologists and geologists, are wondering how to right the situation.

As the state geologist of Kansas, I have a duty to advise state and local officials on matters in the earth sciences. My advice to the 304 local school districts is to continue to teach evolution. The Kansas Geological Survey is attempting to help the local school districts make informed decisions on evolution in their curricula. National groups like the American Geological Institute, the American Geophysical Union and the National Academy of Sciences are cooperating with the survey to provide school boards and superintendents with background materials and resource contacts.

We are hopeful that we can win at the local level as some, mostly urban, school districts have already announced they will teach evolution. State school board elections, typically among the sleepiest of all elections, are likely to be among the hottest of topics next year in Kansas, when four of the six anti-evolution BOE members are up for re-election. Victory by the anti-evolution forces may be a stimulus for similar activities in other states. And if you are inclined to dismiss the threat in your state with an it can’t happen here attitude, just remember: It did happen here in Kansas.

M. Lee Allison
Director, Kansas Geological Survey

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