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Scientists make the case for evolution

A new museum exhibit in Kansas provides a counterweight to anti-evolution sentiment sweeping the state and other regions of the United States.
A 4-foot-tall double helix model helps explain the structure of DNA at the "Explore Evolution" museum exhibit.
A 4-foot-tall double helix model helps explain the structure of DNA at the "Explore Evolution" museum exhibit.University Of Kansas
/ Source: Reuters

At the new “Explore Evolution” museum exhibit in Kansas, visitors pass a banner showing the face of a girl next to the face of a chimpanzee for a lesson on how the two are “cousins in life’s family tree.”

They can also study DNA under a 4-foot-tall (120-centimeter) double helix model, peruse fossil record research, and examine how advancements in treating modern-day diseases require an understanding of the evolution of cell structures.

Curators of the exhibit, which opened Tuesday at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, hope their work provides a counterweight to the anti-evolution sentiment sweeping their state and the country. Sister exhibits, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, are opening in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan.

“People just don’t understand how science works. We need to better inform them about what science is,” said Teresa MacDonald, director of education for the university’s Natural History Museum, which opened the exhibit on Tuesday.

But on Nov. 8, state education officials in Kansas are poised to do what many scientists see as just the opposite.

Led by a conservative Christian chairman who says evolutionary theory is incompatible with the biblical account of God’s creation of life on Earth, the Kansas Board of Education plans to insert questions about the veracity of evolution theory into statewide teaching standards.

The action has outraged scientists across the nation, and both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association have refused Kansas’ request to use their copyrighted material.

The Kansas board made a similar but more aggressive effort to weaken evolution instruction in 1999. A public backlash ultimately led to the reversal of those actions.

Evolution under attack
Now, the new Kansas standards, which outline what teachers should teach and test on, leave evolutionary principles in the curriculum but insert phrasing that encourages students to question their validity. The standards also delete certain text about how science is defined.

“The stakes are high,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “If  Kansas gets away with it ... I anticipate that in every state where science standards are up for revision, we are going to be fighting another battle.”

Efforts to undermine evolution instruction have also been seen in Michigan, Kentucky, Georgia and elsewhere. One key case is being tested in court in Pennsylvania, where a group of parents sued the Dover Area School Board because teachers had been ordered to tell biology students that the theory of evolution is not established fact.

The Pennsylvania school officials referred students to an idea known as “intelligent design,” which holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, such as God, rather than natural selection.

Is ID inevitable?
Intelligent design, or ID, proponents have also been active in pressing for the changes in Kansas, but school board members there stopped short of including intelligent design ideas in the state standards.

“ID is making enormous progress,” said John Calvert, a Kansas City lawyer and ID proponent. “Is it going to happen overnight? No. Is is going to happen? Yes.”

Calvert said museum exhibits such as the one in Lawrence are flawed because they ask visitors to believe humans evolved randomly, with no specific purpose or design by a higher power — a theory polls show a majority of Americans do not believe.

But evolution supporters say religion has no valid role in a science class.

“This is all based on establishing a theocracy within our system,” said Sue Gamble, a member of the Kansas School Board who opposes changing the science standards. “We said we didn’t want to do that when we established our country. This should not be happening.”