Archive for Sunday, May 22, 2005

Evolution issue simmers in red, blue states

Kansas has company in debate over including intelligent design

May 22, 2005


— Eighty years after the Scopes "Monkey" Trial, the battle between those who support the validity of biological evolution and those who oppose it rages on in Kansas - and in more than a dozen other states around the country.

The controversy may appear to be simply about the teaching of science in the classroom. But it represents a far more complex, widespread clash of politics, religion, science and culture that transcends the borders of conservative, so-called red states and their more liberal blue counterparts.

"This controversy is going to happen everywhere. It's going to happen in all 50 states. This controversy is not going away," said Jeff Tamblyn, 52, an owner of Merriam-based Origin Films, which is making a feature film about the current fight over whether to introduce a more critical approach to evolution in Kansas' school science standards.

Full range of views

So far in 2005, the issue of evolution has sparked at least 21 instances of controversy on the local and/or state level in at least 18 states, according to the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although such controversies regularly have occurred over the years, some attribute the recent wave to the success of conservatives in 2004 elections.

At the national level, one attempt to diminish the prominence of evolution in public school curricula and introduce alternative views came in the form of a proposed amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. Sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the amendment suggested that evolution is in question among scientists and recommended that a "full range of scientific views" be taught. But it was cut from the bill.

Seeking to explain the passion that the issue often ignites, Tamblyn said, "Partly, it's the mixture of religion and politics. If that doesn't get you going, what does?"

Controversy since Darwin

Indeed, the theory of evolution, which some opponents say is consonant with atheism because it provides no role for the divine, has been provoking controversy since 1859, when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection."

And, if the contentious nature of the Kansas State Board of Education's recent public hearings here on evolution are any indication, the issue remains as explosive today as it was in Tennessee 80 years ago.

In the summer of 1925, Clarence Darrow entered a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom to defend biology teacher John Scopes against charges of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution, after it had been banned by the state. The highly publicized trial was the basis of the 1955 Broadway play "Inherit the Wind" and the 1960 film of the same title.

Then, as now, the controversy over evolution revolved around two Darwinian theories that contradict the biblical version of creation: Darwin's assertion that all life, including humans and monkeys, descended from common ancestors and that it is all the result of natural selection and random mutation. While fundamentalists may recoil from these concepts, many religious authorities, including those in the Roman Catholic Church, hold that belief in God and evolution don't conflict.


As there was in 1999, when Kansas de-emphasized evolution in its school science standards - a move reversed by a more moderate board in 2001 - there has been snickering by critics over the state's "backwardness" and head-shaking over the idea that the validity of evolution, one of the foundations of modern science, is in question.

This has prompted many references to the famous question posed in an 1896 editorial by William Allen White, editor of Kansas' Emporia Gazette. Listing examples of what he deplored as the backwardness of the state, he wrote: "What's the matter with Kansas?"

But, if Kansas is "backward," it's not alone.

Year to date, at least 13 states have entertained legislation requiring a more critical approach to evolution in the classroom and/or allowing discussion of alternative explanations of the origins of humans, including the supernatural.

Popular opinion

The most recent addition is New York, a true "blue" state, where an Assembly bill was introduced on May 3 requiring schools to teach both evolution and intelligent design.

Intelligent design, which some critics consider an attempt to get around the Supreme Court's ban on teaching overtly religious creationism, credits an unnamed intelligence or designer for aspects of nature's complexity yet unexplained by science.

Whether any of this proposed legislation concerning evolution passes, it is evident that many Americans share the thinking behind it, according to poll after poll, including a recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll.

According to a November national Gallup poll, "only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence." The rest said they didn't know.

A CBS News poll taken the same month found that two-thirds of all Americans want creationism taught with evolution. It also indicated that 55 percent of all Americans believe God created humans in their present form and only 13 percent think that humans evolved without divine guidance.

Test case

In September, what promises to be a test case on intelligent design will come to trial in Pennsylvania, where Dover-area schools last fall decided to require that students be made aware of intelligent design and of criticism of Darwin's theory. Parents have filed a suit against the school board, arguing intelligent design is not science but creationism in disguise.

Proponents of intelligent design assert that there is a scientific rationale to their criticism of evolution. One who testified at the Kansas public hearings is Jonathan Wells. A molecular biologist, Wells also is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

"We can infer from evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes. Among the latter would be random mutation and natural selection. They're factors, but not sufficient to give a full account," said Wells, in a phone interview.

"I think Darwinism is pseudoscience," he said.

Supporters of the theory of evolution say the same thing about intelligent design.

"Despite how they want to redefine it, science itself appeals only to natural explanations. It doesn't say there are no other explanations," said Harry McDonald, a retired biology teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science, a pro-evolution group formed during the fight over standards in 1999.

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