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Evolution’s foes lose ground in Kansas

Kansas' primary election increases the clout of Darwin's defenders on the state Board of Education, which has been embroiled in controversy.
Voters cast electronic ballots Tuesday at Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kan., during the primary election for Kansas political offices.
Voters cast electronic ballots Tuesday at Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kan., during the primary election for Kansas political offices.Mike Hutmacher / The Wichita Eagle
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Conservative Republicans who approved classroom standards that called evolution into question lost control of the state Board of Education in Tuesday's primary election.

Five of the 10 seats on the board were up for election in the primary, the latest skirmish in a seesawing battle between faith and science that has opened Kansas up to international ridicule.

Last November, the Board of Education’s 6-to-4 conservative Republican majority rewrote testing standards for public schools to incorporate language supported by advocates of intelligent design, which holds that life is so complex it must have been created by some kind of higher power. The new standards say that some aspects of evolution are contradicted by scientific evidence. (Click here for a PDF file listing the standards.)

On Tuesday, three members of the majority faced GOP primary foes who support evolution. A fourth Republican conservative is retiring, and her seat was up for grabs.

The fifth seat was held by Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat who opposed the new standards. Facing a more conservative Democrat who favored the anti-evolution language, she won with 65 percent of the vote and will be unopposed in the fall.

With the unofficial count virtually complete, two of the three conservative Republican incumbents — John Bacon and Ken Willard — held onto their spots on the ballot.

However, the third conservative, Connie Morris, lost to Sally Cauble, a moderate Republican who supports evolution. Meanwhile, the Republican nod for the board's open seat went to another moderate, Jana Shaver. That combination would swing the balance of power toward those who oppose the board's current educational standards.

Closeley watched races
Tuesday's vote was being monitored by scientific groups throughout the country, with most of the attention focused on Morris’ race in western Kansas. The retired teacher had described evolution as “an age-old fairy tale” and “a nice bedtime story” unsupported by science.

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which supports the teaching of evolution, said a strong conservative showing would have generated attempts to adopt Kansas’ standards elsewhere. “There are people around the country who would like to see the Kansas standards in their own states,” she said.

Tuesday's outcome was hailed by Kansas biology student Josh Rosenau on his "Thoughts From Kansas" Weblog. "The board is back in moderate hands no matter what. The night is, on balance, a victory," he wrote. "It'd be nice to further marginalize the extremists by winning the remaining races in November, but we've got a majority that will implement the science standards recommended by the scientists, educators and parents of the science standards committee."

Also Tuesday, Kansas Republicans chose state Sen. Jim Barnett from among seven candidates to challenge Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Part of a larger effort
The school board contest was part of a larger effort by the intelligent design movement to introduce its ideas in public schools.

A suburban Atlanta school district is locked in a legal dispute over its putting stickers in 35,000 biology textbooks declaring evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

Last year, in Dover, Pa., voters ousted school board members who had required the biology curriculum to include mention of intelligent design. A federal judge struck down the policy, declaring intelligent design is religion in disguise.

Teach both sides?
A poll by six news organizations last year suggested about half of Kansans thought evolution should be taught alongside intelligent design.

“I feel like if you give two sides of something, most people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds,” said Ryan Cole, a 26-year-old farmer and horse trainer from Smith County, along the Nebraska line.

Control of the school board has slipped into, out of and back into conservative Republicans’ hands since 1998, resulting in anti-evolution standards in 1999, evolution-friendly ones in 2001 and anti-evolution ones again last year.

Late-night comedians have been making cracks about Kansas, portraying it as backward and ignorant. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” broadcast a four-part series titled, “Evolution Schmevolution.”

Debate over what to teach
Proponents of Kansas’ latest standards contend they encourage open discussion.

“Students need to have an accurate assessment of the state of the facts in regard to Darwin’s theory,” said John West, a vice president for the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based, anti-evolution Discovery Institute.

The standards say that the evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And they say there is controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species.

In response, most biologists say that the controversy primarily comes from the proponents of intelligent design themselves, who are motivated by cultural rather than strictly scientific concerns.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and