Evolution debate may tarnish state’s image

New science standards draw praise, criticism from around the world

? Blame it on science sages, snobby outsiders, Kansans themselves or even “The Wizard of Oz,” but some residents are worrying about how a debate over evolution will affect the Sunflower State’s image.

Newly adopted science standards for Kansas public schools treat evolution as a flawed theory, defying national science groups’ view that the theory is well-established and nearly universally accepted. The State Board of Education vote Tuesday has been noted from Iceland to Australia.

Commentary turned negative well before the board’s vote this week, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ office reported it had received more than 100 angry e-mails in less than two days, more than half saying they won’t visit the state.

“It certainly makes it difficult to promote the state of Kansas when we have this out there,” said Caleb Asher, Department of Commerce spokesman. “We’ll have more work ahead of us, that’s for sure.”

Ridicule expected

The reaction to the board’s decision is as much a part of the debate as the decision itself. Supporters of the standards said they expected pro-evolution groups and scientists to generate ridicule.

“This is a propaganda strategy of the other side,” said John West, senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports research questioning evolution. “They’re trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by spin.”

Since the board’s vote, commentary has popped up on Internet sites.

One, the mediagirl.org blog site, headlined its story with, “Meanwhile, Kansas turns back education to the year 1005.” A satirical site, Avant News, suggested the board would soon adopt a “flat Earth” curriculum that defines evolution as “godless Communist propaganda.”

Controversial theory

The new standards will be used to develop statewide tests for students measuring how well schools teach science. Local school districts retain control over how science courses are taught.

The standards say the theory that small changes over time in one species can create a new species is controversial. Another statement says the theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossil records and molecular biology.

Supporters like West said the standards will make classroom discussions more open and complete. Critics contend, despite a disclaimer in the standards, that the real goal is to promote religiously inspired views.

For example, on its Internet site, the Arab News in Saudi Arabia said evolution will be presented alongside “theories that life could have had divine origins.”

In Washington, B’nai B’rith International described the standards as an assault on the separation of church and state, with President Joel Kaplan saying, “It stretches credulity.”

Ongoing debate

Some teachers were upset.

“It just almost makes it look like Kansas is hostile toward science, when in reality I don’t think that’s the case,” said Lisa Volland, a biology teacher at Topeka West High School.

Volland noted that other states have seen debates over evolution, and the Discovery Institute said Kansas standards are similar to standards and lesson plans adopted in Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

But Kansas was having its third debate in only six years.

In 1999, the state board removed most references to evolution from the standards. Two years later, after voters changed the board’s composition, it adopted evolution-friendly standards. Elections in 2002 and 2004 changed the board’s makeup again.

Jonathan Wells, another Discovery Institute senior fellow, said pro-evolution groups born during the 1999 debate remained in place and “were sort of primed for this episode.”

“I predict that this thing will quiet down fairly soon,” he said.

Long-held stereotypes

Still, the board’s decision plays into long-held stereotypes about Kansas, said Robert Smith Bader, a Neosho Falls historian who wrote about the state’s image in a 1988 book. He said Kansas’ image as “out of it” was solidified by the 1930s, when Kansas still prohibited the sale of alcohol after prohibition had ended nationally.

“People love images,” he said. “They don’t want to let go of them.”

There’s also the classic 1939 film about a wizard, a girl from Kansas and her little dog, which starts out in black-and-white Kansas before getting to colorful Oz.

“You’re the butt of jokes because you’ve got Dorothy and Toto,” said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif. “That’s unfair, but that’s life.”

But Bader said: “The clodhopper image was there long before Dorothy became popular.”

Reaction to state science standards vote

Reactions to Kansas’ new science standards:

“A year from now, they’ll be singing the new Kansas state anthem (a little tune from the ‘Wizard of Oz’): If I only had a brain.” – Henry Cruz, a writer on The Bosh, an Internet gossip and entertainment news site.

“Now the thinking population is getting its turn at putting in place a faith that was believed by centuries until ‘The Origin of the Species’ replaced it.” – J. Grant Swank Jr., a writer on MichNews.com, a conservative Internet site.

“It stretches incredulity that this board of education could not have been aware of the dangerous waters in which they have dived head first.” – Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International, which said the new standards were an assault on the separation of church and state.

“Let’s face it, the majority of the scientific community is pro-Darwin, is not in favor of looking at Darwinian theory critically, and so if the news media reports what the scientific community says, that’s the viewpoint.” – Jonathan Wells, senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports research questioning evolution.

“If we’re going to bring high-tech jobs to Kansas, and to the U.S. in general, we need a work force that is knowledgeable about science. This decision does nothing to help prepare our children to compete in the world economy and that concerns me greatly.” – Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, in a statement.

“Science is what it is, and religion is what it is, and no rewriting by anybody will change what is an inappropriate effort to inject religion into the classroom. Talk about unintelligent design.” – The Fort Wayne, Ind., News-Sentinel, in an editorial on its Web site.

“My wife and I were planning on traveling from our home in North Carolina to Yellowstone for vacation; however, we will now be diverting our trip so as to avoid having to travel through Kansas at all. Your state has a real problem.” – e-mail to the Kansas Department of Commerce. The agency declined to release the writer’s name, citing privacy concerns.