Image: Empty chairs at hearing
Larry W. Smith  /  Getty Images
Empty chairs sat reserved for members of the Science Standards Writing Committee at the first day of hearings in Topeka. Mainstream scientific groups boycotted the hearings.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/12/2005 7:43:52 PM ET 2005-05-12T23:43:52

Hoping to avoid a bitter public showdown, defenders of evolutionary theory boycotted four days of hearings over the science curriculum in Kansas, where members of the state Board of Education critical of the standard theory are considering changes to give more weight to creationist ideas.

Advocates of a philosophy called “intelligent design” and critics of evolution joined flocks of reporters and cameras in Topeka, where the hearings ended Thursday.

But mainstream science organizations spurned invitations to participate, dismissing the hearings as an effort “to attack and undermine science,” in the view of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science. As a result, the only witnesses were advocates of intelligent design or critics of evolution.

Spreading across the nation
The hearings resembled a trial, as three school board members heard arguments from champions of both sides. The panelists — all three of them conservative Republicans who have questioned evolution — will report to the full school board, which is expected to approve new science standards next month.

Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka lawyer representing what he called mainstream science, was the only pro-Darwin voice during the hearings. At its close Thursday, he criticized the board members for abdicating their “responsibility to the children and the future of this state.”

Defenders of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection acknowledged that their boycott left opponents of evolution otherwise unchallenged, but they said they hoped to defuse the publicity that a media-saturated argument over science and the Bible could stir up.

Nonetheless, a showdown is inevitable. Efforts to compel schools to teach or, at least, give equal time to the purported errors of evolution are under way in nearly two dozen states, led by two groups of activists united by their belief in a supreme being who set history in motion.

One group is made up of religious conservatives who espouse the traditional biblical account in which God created the world in six days. The Supreme Court, however, barred the teaching of creationism in a 1987 decision striking down a Louisiana law that said evolution could be taught only if “creation science” was also taught. So today, the movement has shifted to the campaign by intellectual thinkers, some of them scientists, who argue that life on the planet is too complex to have come about without some sort of guiding intelligence.

That supposition is called “intelligent design.” Its leaders say that as a matter of science their principles are not religious. But mainstream scientists have labeled them "creationism lite," and Christian activists have latched onto them as an alternative stick with which to whack Darwin.

Kansans wary
As a media horde turned national — even world — attention on their state, Kansans were watching the trial of evolutionary theory with mixed feelings.

Connie Morris, a member of the state school board, welcomed the hearings, agreeing with witnesses who said theories of evolution did not fully explain the origins of life and called for a more critical view.

Students need access to all kinds of thought, Morris told NBC affiliate KSNT-TV of Topeka. “The crux of the debate for me is quality education. The last time I checked, it's about good education. We need to give students all information in scientific arena.”

But opponents said the idea was bad science that threatened to make Kansas a laughingstock.

“They want a theocracy,” Harry McDonald, a former science teacher who is president of the group Kansas Citizens for Science, told the Kansas City Star. “Evolution doesn’t mean that there isn’t a god. But they make it out that if you believe in evolution, you’re an atheist. They’ve made it a cultural war.”

Joanne Olson, a professor who studies science education at Iowa State University, told the newspaper: “The sad thing is, the more this hits the press around the world, the worse Kansas and, by association, the U.S. looks. I was at a conference not long ago. They were laughing about Kansas.”

Publishers call the tune
For mainstream scientists, the Kansas debate is just a skirmish. The real battles will come in the next few years as schools adopt new textbooks.

Intelligent design campaigns are being pursued in California and Texas. Their school boards have long dictated the content of many of the nation’s textbooks because of the clout they have with publishers owing to their enormous student populations. Publishers routinely tailor their textbooks to the tastes of review boards in those states to avoid the devastating prospect that a multimillion-dollar new edition could be rejected.

“They call the tune, and the publishers dance,” Diane Ravitch, an assistant education secretary in the administration of former President George H.W. Bush, testified before Congress two years ago.

The result, Ravitch complained, was the creation of “a convenient bottleneck where pressure groups from across the political spectrum” — including opponents of evolution, she said — “can intimidate publishers and get them to revise their books.”

Ravitch’s testimony came as Texas was going through a wrenching review of its biology texts; those books were introduced into Texas classrooms this year. Mainstream scientists fought off major concessions on evolution this time, but the battle is being continued in the Legislature, where a bill is under consideration that would give the state Board of Education — which is dominated by Republican social conservatives — even more control over the content of texts.

In California, meanwhile, a case awaits in U.S. District Court filed by parents who claim that they were denied their civil rights when a school district near Sacramento rejected their proposal that schools should be required to teach the purported flaws of evolution.

While California’s textbook battles have usually been fought by groups pushing more traditionally liberal causes, such as gender equality and multicultural history, the lawsuit signals that the evolution dispute is likely to become a hot-button issue there, as well — just in time to begin picking up steam ahead of next year’s acceptance of bids for new science textbooks.

NBC affiliate KNST of Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.

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