The popularly elected Kansas State Board of Education voted Aug. 11 to enact science education standards that contain no mention of biological macroevolution, the age of Earth, or the origin of the universe—a trio of unifying principles for biology, geology, physics and astronomy. Far from an isolated incident, the Kansas decision is the biggest crest of a third wave of the creationists’ assault on the teaching of evolution. Since the 1960s, the courts have soundly rejected an earlier banning of evolution and the subsequent efforts to win “equal time” in the classroom for creationism. The new Kansas standards, which were drafted with the aid of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, simply drop evolutionary theory from the curriculum and statewide assessment tests.
Just as the near-death experience of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1995 motivated many geoscientists to take greater interest in events on Capitol Hill, so should events in Kansas serve as a wake-up call for geoscientists to get involved in their school boards, town councils, and state governments. In heeding such a call, however, geoscientists need to appreciate the political landscape that awaits them.
Democracy in Action?
For those geoscientists surprised that a state could turn its back on evolution at the threshold of the 21st century, public opinion polls deliver an even bigger shock. According to recent Gallup polls, 44 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in the last 10,000 years; 68 percent believe that creationism should be taught along with evolution, while 40 percent believe that only creationism should be taught; and only 10 percent believe that evolution has taken place without God’s help. Among scientists, the last number jumps up to 55 percent with 40 percent of scientists favoring some type of theistic evolution and 5 percent favoring the literal biblical view. Such numbers are unprecedented in the developed world. According to University of Cincinnati political scientist George Bishop, Americans are five times more likely than the British to take the Bible literally.
The poll numbers go a long way in explaining politicians’ reactions to the Kansas vote. The weekend after the Kansas board’s decision, Republican presidential candidates at the straw poll in neighboring Iowa all declared that creation vs. evolution was a local issue while several candidates—most notably former vice president Dan Quayle—stated their support for the creationist position. Both Democratic presidential candidates also ducked behind declarations that the issue is local, although former senator Bill Bradley went so far as to say that—were he a Kansan—he would have opposed the decision.
There is a silver lining in the response from Kansas Republican Gov. Bill Graves, who called the board’s decision a “terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist.” Graves recognized that the board’s decision would make Kansas look like a backwater at a time when it is actively seeking to lure biotechnology firms to the state. Eliminating the central organizing principle of genetics research from one’s schools is admittedly a weak selling point to such companies. The governor’s concerns echoed those voiced by Kansas State Geologist Lee Allison, who told the State Board of Education during a public hearing before the vote that the state would be “ignored by industry and businesses Kansas needs to compete in the global marketplace.”
Also in the silver lining are reports from the Kansas media that moderate Republicans view the board’s action as an overstep by the religious right wing that has dominated the party in recent years. With four of the six school board members who voted in favor of the new standards up for re-election in 2000, moderate Republicans see this issue as an opportunity to reclaim control of their party.
Science vs. Religion
For anyone contemplating a constructive response to the Kansas situation and those that will inevitably follow, the poll numbers are certainly disheartening. But what do the numbers truly reflect? I would argue that the polls do not record a creationist victory. They record a widespread perception that science and religion cannot coexist. Feeling forced to choose between science and religion, it is no wonder that people choose the latter.
The success of creationism in this debate depends on maintaining this perception that science and religion are contradictory, a view rejected by the many mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish denominations that have publicly stated that evolution does not conflict with their faiths. What, then, drives this perception of conflict? In part, we are reaping the whirlwind of this country’s widespread scientific illiteracy; but that situation is nothing new. Rather than looking back at a nonexistent golden age when everybody understood science, we must instead face a present and future in which people are becoming more dependent on increasingly complex technologies. Such a dependence on what is perceived as incomprehensible breeds alienation from science, which in turn makes the notion that religion and science conflict all the more plausible.
Bringing Science Home
Scientists face a political battle to keep science in the classroom and creationism out. In politics, victory lies in holding the middle ground. Doing so in this case requires convincing people that science and religion are compatible, indeed complementary, ways of knowing and that the scientific theory of evolution—not “creation science”—represents the American mainstream.
Victory can only come at the grassroots level. Creationists love nothing more than to portray evolution-preaching scientists as a doctrinally rigid intellectual elite far removed from the common man. In an Aug. 16 Wall Street Journal editorial, creation science advocate Philip Johnson gleefully skewers the National Academy of Sciences and a number of prominent scientists for their dogmatic devotion to evolutionary theory.
The attempt to portray scientists as elitist snobs is analogous to the period before the government shutdown of 1995, when Congress successfully demonized the bloated federal work force. The shutdown, however, revealed that the “faceless” federal bureaucrats of media soundbites were often friends and neighbors who were unemployed during the Christmas holidays. The backlash was immediate and politically devastating. Similarly, people need to recognize that scientists are not the members of some distant elite, but are the scruffy field geologist and the clean-cut exploration manager, the environmental consultant and the earth science teacher—folks who are part of the fabric of our communities.
Taking Action, Taking Responsibility
In order to combat creationism in the classroom, scientists must above all be dogged rather than dogmatic. Rather than bemoaning the shortcomings of elected officials, they need to step up to the plate and run for office themselves. The scientific societies have recognized that a well-placed letter expressing outrage is not sufficient, that what they must do is support and encourage the efforts of their individual members. Several geoscience societies are doing just that and are coordinating with societies in other disciplines to place editorials in local Kansas newspapers and generate letter-writing campaigns in the state. They are also turning to organizations like the National Center for Science Education to determine where the next showdown is likely to take place and to then alert members in those states. Our best allies are common sense and a willingness to get involved. Without a fight, the middle ground will slip away.
AGI Director of Government Affairs