Kansas Evolves Back

Sunday, May 8, 2005

NEARLY FIVE YEARS into the 21st century, the Kansas State Board of Education has begun an earnest discussion of whether schools in that state should teach science that was obsolete by the end of the 19th century. The board is holding hearings into proposed changes to its model science standards, changes intended to cast doubt on conventional evolutionary biology and inject into classrooms the notion of "intelligent design" -- the idea that the complexity of life can be explained only by some conscious creator's having designed it.

Intelligent design is not your parents' creationism. It's a slick set of talking points that are not based on biblical inerrancy but framed, rather, in the language of science: molecular biology, the structure of DNA and holes in the fossil record. Moreover, the ostensible justification for the changes is a seductive one. Proponents say they mean merely to ensure that schoolchildren are given a full sense of the scientific controversy over evolution so that they can make up their own minds. Who can object to that?

But there is no serious scientific controversy over whether Darwinian evolution takes place. Intelligent design is not science. Whatever its rhetoric, the public questioning of evolution is fundamentally religious, not scien-

tific, in nature. That is not to say that wonder is illegitimate; it is a perfectly reasonable response to the beauty and enormity of the universe to believe that it could not have happened without a divine hand. But the proper place to discuss such belief is not the public schools. Biology classes need to be taught with sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of students but not by casting doubt on evolution.

This is not the first time the Kansas school board has taken on this issue. In 1999, it voted to strike references to evolution from statewide science standards, only to restore evolution's place after subsequent elections defeated anti-evolutionist members. Now, a majority once again favors changes, so it seems likely that sometime this summer, the official guidance from the state will shift. The model standards are not binding on local school districts, but the shift would be damaging nonetheless.

Evolution is a reality, no matter how much people may object to it. And denying or downplaying its importance to any serious examination of the biological sciences ill serves students who may wish to know how bacteria become resistant to drugs, how birds and dinosaurs are related, or why dolphins and sharks share certain morphological traits. How people reconcile their religious convictions with scientific reality is a matter for places of worship, not for science classrooms -- or state boards that set standards.

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