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In Kansas, A Sharp Debate on Evolution

The debate draws a range of people, including, from left, John Yost, Dick Unruh, Wayne Stringer and Greg Lassey.
The debate draws a range of people, including, from left, John Yost, Dick Unruh, Wayne Stringer and Greg Lassey. (By Thad Allender -- Lawrence Journal-world Via Associated Press)

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

TOPEKA, Kan., May 5 -- Debating a question that the scientific establishment considers settled, Kansas education authorities put evolutionary theory on trial Thursday in a hearing marked by sharp exchanges over Earth's origins and what students should be taught in science class.

Scientists who support the idea of intelligent design, a set of assumptions that challenges established scientific thinking, told an approving Kansas State Board of Education subcommittee that modern Darwinian theory relies too much on unproven reasoning. Gaps in the science, they argued, leave open the possibility that a creator, or an unidentified "designing mind," is responsible for earthly development.

It would not be far-fetched, said William S. Harris, a Kansas City researcher who favors intelligent design, to conclude that DNA itself is the work of an intelligent being. Students, he said, should be told that.

Outside the auditorium, scientists and educators dismissed the arguments as claptrap.

"It's clear from the beginning that this is not a real science discussion. This is a showcase for intelligent design," said Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science, which is boycotting the four days of hearings. "They have created a straw man. They are trying to make science stand for atheism so they can fight atheism."

The debate is the highest-profile confrontation over evolutionary theory in years, pitting the impassioned corps of anti-Darwinists against a scientific establishment that considers the evidence of the chemical and biological origins of life to be beyond dispute. It was made possible by Republican gains in November elections that gave the Kansas board a 6-4 conservative majority.

Local and national science organizations are so disturbed by the proceedings that they are boycotting them, apart from advising Pedro Irigonegaray, a civil rights and defense lawyer recruited to defend the existing Kansas science standards. On the eve of the hearings, he predicted a "whitewash" but said he would fight nonetheless.

"I had a delicious fantasy," the Cuban-born Irigonegaray said with a smile, recalling the offer to defend evolutionary theory. "I saw myself in a large courtroom, the fan moving slowly over my head, perhaps a skull in my hand, while I'm cross-examining a key witness."

Take away the television cameras and the PowerPoint presentations, and Thursday's scene bore a resemblance to the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., where a high school science teacher was famously convicted of violating a state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. This time, said Bruce Chapman, a former Reagan administration Census Bureau director, "This is the Scopes trial turned on its head."

Chapman heads the Discovery Institute, whose Seattle offices overlooking Puget Sound have become the headquarters of the intelligent design movement, which posits that modern Darwinian theory is limited and that life is too complex to be explained by evolutionary theory alone. An early witness was Jonathan Wells, a Discovery senior fellow who described himself as "an old Berkeley antiwar radical" who loves controversy.

Wells confirmed during cross-examination that he was a member of the Unification Church when he earned doctorates in theology from Yale and in biology from the University of California at Berkeley. In an Internet posting distributed outside the meeting by Kansas Citizens for Science, Wells refers to church leader Sun Myung Moon, saying, "Father's words, my studies and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism."

Testifying to the three-member education committee, Wells described himself as an embryologist and theologian, and said evolutionary theory "has left the realm of science" and instead has become a given, leaving many conclusions unproven. He described the common scientific conclusion that all living things come from a common ancestor as essentially an act of faith.

Harris, a specialist in omega-3 fatty acids, delivered the opening statement and outline of the testimony ahead. He said an essential goal of the hearings is to prove there is a scientific controversy about evolutionary theory and hence criticism that should be added to the school curriculum. A 26-member science standards committee concluded in March that the curriculum should remain unchanged. Harris and seven other members disagreed.

Harris disputed the accepted wisdom that ancient simple life forms became ever more complex, evolving over billions of years into human beings, beavers, tarpon and a multitude of other life forms. He also said it would not be an "irresponsible deduction from the data" to say the genetic code contained in DNA was produced by an intelligent "mind."

"Who's the designer?" asked Harris, a co-founder of Intelligent Design Network Inc. "I don't know."

Usually it is the evolution forces that accuse the intelligent design side of wanting to teach religion in science class. But Harris said educators who teach Darwinian evolution effectively introduce religion by rejecting the possibility that God created the universe and all living things.

Asked where he saw atheism in the Kansas science standards, Harris replied, "I see it between the lines."

Early in his remarks, Harris projected a strategy letter from a Kansas Citizens for Science member onto a large screen on stage. It said the way to defeat the anti-evolution forces was be to portray them as political opportunists, evangelical activists, unprincipled bullies and ignoramuses.

"Are we ignoramuses?" Harris asked the committee members. "Well, you'll have to decide."


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