Teachers, Scientists Vow to Fight Challenge to Evolution

In Kansas, teacher Lisa Volland, center, works with her biology honors class at Topeka West High School.
In Kansas, teacher Lisa Volland, center, works with her biology honors class at Topeka West High School. (By Orlin Wagner -- Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

TOPEKA, Kan., May 4 -- Alarmed by proposals to change how evolution is taught, scientists and teachers are mobilizing to fight back, asserting that educational standards are being threatened by what they consider a stealth campaign to return creationism to public schools.

This week's battle is focused on Kansas, where State Board of Education hearings begin Thursday on evolution and intelligent design, a carefully marketed theory that challenges accepted understandings of Earth's origins in favor of the idea that a creator played a guiding role.

Scientists warn that introducing challenges to evolution in the public school curriculum would weaken education, harm the economy and, as one paleontologist put it, open Kansas to ridicule as "the hayseed state." Science organizations are boycotting the hearings but plan to offer daily critiques.

Teachers and trade groups around the country are working to build e-mail lists, lobby lawmakers and educate the public about the perceived perils of intelligent design. Lawyers are examining prospects for court challenges. Evolution's defenders would love to repeat the success of nuclear physicist Marshall Berman, who led a counterattack after winning a seat on the New Mexico education board.

The activism marks a tactical shift for scientists and educators who dismissed intelligent design as little more than a fad of the religious right, only to see the concept gain favor and media attention. Where experts previously treated the issue as a hyper-rational debate over evidence they consider beyond dispute, they are learning what their opponents long knew.

"It's a political battle. Education and evolution are hot-button items," said Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science. "Some scientists are starting to understand that this is a serious threat."

Krebs and like-minded people are looking for ways to mobilize adherents and persuade the public. "Partly because scientists like to talk to themselves and not the public, the word's not getting out," said Peter Folger, outreach director at the American Geophysical Union.

One goal is to show how few scientists around the world doubt evolutionary theory.

The Discovery Institute, the strongest voice behind intelligent design, at one point gathered the names of 356 scientists who questioned evolution. In response, the National Center for Science Education located 543 scientists named Steve -- including a few Stephanies -- who declared the evidence "overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry."

The NCSE was created to fight the dilution of evolutionary theory. With an annual budget of about $700,000, the California-based operation serves as a clearinghouse for worried teachers and citizen groups. Its Web site is stocked with news bulletins and teaching guides. Executive director Eugenie C. Scott rides the circuit, debating intelligent design proponents and giving speeches in what has become a growth industry.

"We know a phenomenal amount about evolution," Scott told hundreds of science teachers in Dallas last month. "The science in creationism is terrible."

Scott's opponents, who tend to be better funded, include the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that spends more than $1 million a year for research and multimedia efforts. Others are Liberty University in Virginia and Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky organization.

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