In Kansas, Darwinism Goes on Trial Once More
By JODI WILGOREN
Published: May 6, 2005
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TOPEKA, Kan., May 5 - Six years after Kansas ignited a national debate over
the teaching of evolution, the state is poised to push through new science
standards this summer requiring that Darwin's theory be challenged in the
In the first of three daylong hearings being referred to here as a direct
descendant of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, a parade of Ph.D.'s
testified Thursday about the flaws they saw in mainstream science's
explanation of the origins of life. It was one part biology lesson, one part
political theater, and the biggest stage yet for the emerging movement known
as intelligent design, which posits that life's complexity cannot be
explained without a supernatural creator.
Darwin's defenders are refusing to testify at the hearings, which were
called by the State Board of Education's conservative majority. But their
lawyer forcefully cross-examined the other side's experts, pushing them to
acknowledge that nothing in the current standards prevented discussion of
challenges to evolution, and peppering them with queries both profound and
"Do the standards state anywhere that science, evolution, is in any way in
conflict with belief in God?" the lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, asked William
S. Harris, a chemist who helped write the proposed changes.
When a later witness, Jonathan Wells, said he enjoyed being in the minority
on such a controversial topic, Mr. Irigonegaray retorted, "More than being
If the board adopts the new standards, as expected, in June, Kansas would
join Ohio, which took a similar step in 2002, in mandating students be
taught that there is controversy over evolution. Legislators in Alabama and
Georgia have introduced bills this season to allow teachers to challenge
Darwin in class, and the battle over evolution is simmering on the local
level in 20 states.
While the proposed standards for Kansas do not specifically mention
intelligent design - and many of its supporters prefer to avoid any
discussion of it - critics contend they would open the door not just for
those teachings, but to creationism, which holds to the Genesis account of
God as the architect of the universe.
For Kansas, the debate is déjà vu: the last time the state standards were
under review, in 1999, conservatives on the school board ignored their
expert panel and deleted virtually any reference to evolution, only to be
ousted in the next election.
But over the next few years anti-evolution forces regained the seats. And
now, the board's 6-to-4 anti-evolution majority plans to embrace 20
suggestions promoted by advocates of intelligent design and are using this
week's showcase to help persuade the public. "I was hoping these hearings
would help me have some good hard evidence that I could repeat," Connie
Morris, an anti-evolution board member, said in thanking one witness.
Sighing was Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, a physics teacher who took an unpaid day
off from Hays High School to attend the hearings. "Kansas has been through
this before," she said. "I'm really tired of going to conferences and being
laughed at because I'm from Kansas."
The proposed changes to the state's science standards would edit everything
from the introduction to notes advising teachers on specific benchmarks for
individual grades. Perhaps the most significant shift would be in the very
definition of science - instead of "seeking natural explanations for what we
observe around us," the new standards would describe it as a "continuing
investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement,
experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more
adequate explanations of natural phenomena."
Local school districts devise curriculums in Kansas, as in most other
states, but the standards provide a template by outlining what will be
covered on the statewide science tests, given every other year in grades 4,
7 and 10.
Even as they described their own questioning of evolution as triggered by
religious conversion, the experts testifying Thursday avoided mention of a
divine creator, instead painting their position as simply one of
open-mindedness, arguing that Darwinism had become a dangerous dogma.
"There is no science without criticism," said Charles Thaxton, a chemist and
co-author of the 1984 book "The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing
"Any science that weathers the criticism and survives is a better theory for
it," Mr. Thaxton said.
But the debate was as much about religion and politics as science and
education, with Mr. Irigonegaray pressing witnesses to find mentions of the
theories they were denouncing, like humanism and naturalism, in the
standards, and asking whether they believed all scientists were atheists. He
largely ignored their detailed briefings to ask each man if he believed Homo
sapiens descended from pre-hominids (most said no) and how old he thought
earth was (most agreed on 4.5 billion years.)
"These people are going to obfuscate about these definitions," complained
Jack Krebs, vice president of the pro-evolution Kansas Citizens for Science,
whose members filled many of the 180 auditorium seats not taken by
journalists, who came from as far away as France. "They have created a straw
man. They are trying to make science stand for atheism, so they can fight
Convened 80 years, to the day, after John Scopes was arrested for teaching
Darwin's theory to his Dayton, Tenn., high school class, the hearings were
cut back from six days when the evolutionists decided not to present
Beaming from a laptop to a wide screen, the scientists showed textbook
pictures of chicken, turtle and human embryos to try to undermine the notion
that all species had a common ancestry. Diagrams of complex RNA molecules
were offered as evidence of a designed universe. Dr. Harris displayed a
brochure for his Intelligent Design Network, which is based in Kansas,
depicting a legal scale with "design" and "evolution" on each side and the
words "religion" and "naturalism" crossed out in favor of "Scientific
"You can infer design just by examining something, without knowing anything
about where it came from," Dr. Harris said, offering as an example "The Gods
Must be Crazy," a film in which Africans marvel at a Coke bottle that turns
up in the desert. "I don't know who did it, I don't know how it was done, I
don't know why it was done, I don't have to know any of that to know that it
Across the street, where the evolutionists tried to entice reporters with
sandwiches and snacks, Bob Bowden, an agricultural researcher at Kansas
State University, denounced the hearings as a "kangaroo court."
"When the power shifted on that board, we knew on that day that we lost,"
said Dr. Bowden, who has children in the 7th and 12th grades. "It's bogus."
But Linda Holloway, a member of the 1999 state board that dumped evolution,
said the mainstream scientists' failure to participate in the hearings
signaled that "they're afraid to be cross-examined, they're afraid to defend
Erika Heikl, 16, one of 14 students from Bishop Seabury Academy, a Christian
school in Lawrence, Kan., who attended the hearings, said she believed in
evolution - and that the standards should be changed to include its
"Your views won't change just from being taught that," Erika said. "You'll
understand it more."