By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 8 -- The Kansas Board of Education voted Tuesday that students will be expected to study doubts about modern Darwinian theory, a move that defied the nation's scientific establishment even as it gave voice to religious conservatives and others who question the theory of evolution.
By a 6 to 4 vote that supporters cheered as a victory for free speech and opponents denounced as shabby politics and worse science, the board said high school students should be told that aspects of widely accepted evolutionary theory are controversial. Among other points, the standards allege a "lack of adequate natural explanations for the genetic code."
The bitterly fought effort pushes Kansas to the forefront of a war over evolution being waged in courts in Pennsylvania and Georgia and statehouses nationwide. President Bush stated his own position last summer, buoying social conservatives when he said "both sides" should be taught.
"This is a great day for education. This is one of the best things that we can do. This absolutely teaches more about science," said Steve E. Abrams, the Kansas board chairman who shepherded the conservative Republican majority that overruled a 26-member science committee and turned aside the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association.
Opposing board members accused Abrams and his colleagues of hiding behind a fiction of scientific inquiry to inject religion into science classrooms. They said the decision would be bad for education, bad for business and bad for the state's wounded reputation.
"This is a sad day, not only for Kansas kids, but for Kansas," said Janet Waugh, who voted against the new standards. "We're becoming a laughingstock, not only of the nation, but of the world."
The Board of Education does not mandate what will be taught to public school students, a decision left to local school boards. But by determining what students are expected to know for state assessment tests, the board standards typically influence what students learn.
Analysts said Kansas delivered a deeper and more detailed challenge to the teaching of evolution than other states. While a lawsuit is possible before the standards take effect, one organization created to oppose changes to science teaching said politics may be the swifter route. Four of the six board members voting yes will face reelection next year and three already have drawn opposition.
Eight school board members in Dover, Pa., who backed "intelligent design" were ousted by voters Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. But a spokesman for the Democratic slate that won said it would be guided by a judge's decision in a court challenge to the curriculum.
"If this issue can be resolved by voting these people out in the next elections, the standards will never get in place enough to make a court case worthwhile. They'll be lame ducks," said Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science.
That is what happened in 1999, when the board sought to undermine the teaching of Darwinian theory. Moderates took control of the board in 2000, only to see it regain a conservative Republican majority in 2004. Krebs also said he believes opponents could win a court case by showing that the Kansas board is violating the Constitution by imposing religion in another guise.
Members of the Kansas majority insisted that science motivated them, although several have made clear their position that life's development is too complex to be explained by natural evolution unguided by a higher power. That view describes many adherents of intelligent design, a critique of evolutionary theory that has gained particular support from the religious right -- and ridicule from the vast majority of trained scientists.
Asked about intelligent design last summer, Bush said, "Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about."
Prominent scientists and scientific organizations dismiss the call from intelligent design proponents to "teach the controversy." The scientific mainstream says there is no significant controversy, that evidence from fields ranging from paleontology to molecular biology shows all life on Earth originated from a single simple life-form.
Intelligent design "does not provide any natural explanation that can be tested," said Francisco J. Ayala, an expert in evolutionary genetics and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He said the Kansas standards "are an insult to science, an insult to education and an insult to the American Constitution."
The Kansas board argued about which side was more truthful.
Member Kenneth Willard accused the scientific establishment of having "blind faith in evolution." He told his colleagues during a 45-minute debate that the anti-evolution view is more intellectually honest.
"What we're dealing with here," Willard said in an argument that infuriates mainstream scientists, "is a high degree of fear of change."
Two Republicans and two Democrats opposed the move. Sue Gamble said the board, by dropping a phrase that defined science as "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena," was opening the door to supernatural explanations. Waugh said she believes in the biblical version of creation, but does not believe it should be taught in science class. And Carol Rupe mentioned the "hundreds and hundreds of scientists from around the world" who wrote to protest the board's impending move.
"I wish you were not changing science to have it fit into your faith," she said. "It's a lousy time for us to be lowering science standards in Kansas."