Education board to revisit debate over evolution

? A day after Charles Darwin’s birthday, scientists, educators and other Kansans expect to mark the occasion again by watching the state school board dump science standards questioning his theory of evolution.

The State Board of Education plans to vote Tuesday on its fifth set of standards in eight years, with critics of evolution and supporters of mainstream science having traded power twice. Democrats and moderate Republicans have a 6-4 majority, dooming guidelines that brought Kansas ridicule when they were adopted 14 months ago.

The board’s vote next week also appears likely to bring Kansas another round of international attention. Opposing groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, and the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design research from Seattle, are watching.

Little doubt on vote

Events leading up to the 2005 standards spawned rival documentaries, both of which were to be shown publicly Monday, the 198th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. The pro-evolution camp planned an entire week of events, including a Darwin costume contest to complement their “Flock of Dodos” viewing on the Kansas University campus.

“I love it. What can I say?” AAAS chief executive officer Alan Leshner said of the vote’s timing. “I think it’s great.”

There’s little doubt how a vote will come out, given how elections overturned a conservative Republican majority. Language echoing intelligent design advocates’ criticisms of evolution – questioning whether all life had a common origin or whether changes over time in one species can create a new one – should disappear.

Board Chairman Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who wants to rewrite the standards, expects a short discussion because, “Everybody knows where they stand.”

Even two centuries after Darwin’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809 – the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s – the British naturalist’s work fuels social and political disputes.

In December, a Louisiana school board adopted a policy permitting teachers to discuss the weaknesses of scientific theories, which critics saw as a subtle but clear attack on evolution. There were also political, legislative and school board debates in California, Kentucky, Nevada and South Carolina over how evolution should be taught.

State’s role

But Kansas has earned its own niche in the national debate. In revising science standards in 1999, a conservative-controlled board struck most references to evolution. Two years later, a new board returned to evolution-friendly standards. Elections in 2002 and 2004 altered the board’s composition again.

The Kansas board’s approval of the standards in 2005 came the same day voters in Dover, Pa., ousted school board members who’d imposed a requirement that biology students hear a statement about intelligent design – a policy later struck down by a federal judge as promoting a particular religious view.

Next week’s vote in Kansas could be a precedent for officials in other states, said Michael Shermer, founder of the international Skeptics Society and author of the 2006 book, “Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.”

“Kansas flip-flopping back and forth, that will send a signal,” he said.

The existing Kansas standards include a disclaimer saying they don’t include intelligent design, which says an intelligent cause is the best way to explain some complex and well-ordered features of the universe. But much of the language to which many scientists object came from intelligent design supporters.

Current stance

The existing standards define science so that it isn’t specifically limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena. That would change under the standards the board is expected to adopt, which were drafted by a committee of scientists and educators.

The current standards say evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And, they say, there’s controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species. Those provisions, contradicting mainstream science, would be dropped.

Wagnon said the 2005 standards “failed public education.” Leshner said new standards will help give students an understanding of science that they’ll need in a world growing more dependent on technology.

“The purpose of science is to tell us about the nature of the world, whether we like the answer or not,” Leshner said. “Evolution is a fundamental concept.”

But John West, a Discovery Institute senior fellow, said the proposed changes are in line with the views of “Darwin fundamentalists” who want to quash dissent and elevate evolution to a dogma that can’t be challenged.

“It’s really a dumbed-down version and really a Darwin-cheerleading version of the standards,” West said.

Evolution in classroom

Kansas uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. Decisions about exactly what’s taught about evolution in classrooms are left to 296 local school boards.

But educators believe the state standards influence decisions because teachers and administrators want their students to do well on the tests. Adopting standards reflecting mainstream science encourages schools to resist political pressure against evolution, said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas.

“The teachers can look to these standards and say we have a mandate to teach the best science our educational system can provide,” he said.

But intelligent design advocates worry the changes will encourage schools to stifle debate and rein in teachers.

“You’ll continue to have fear in the classroom,” said John Calvert, a retired Lake Quivira attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network. “You will continue to have kids brainwashed and feeling uncomfortable.”