Kansas erases evolution from science curriculum

Vote is a vicory for creationist forces on local school boards

August 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHICAGO -- The Kansas Board of Education voted yesterday to delete virtually any mention of evolution from the state's science curriculum, in one of the most far-reaching efforts by creationists in recent years to challenge the teaching of evolution in schools.

While the move does not prevent the teaching of evolution, the subject will not be included in the state assessment tests that students take, which might discourage teachers and students from spending time on it.

The decision is likely to embolden local school boards seeking to remove evolution from their curriculums, force teachers to note questions on its validity or introduce creationist ideas.

Creationists say a divine being created humans and other species. They say that since evolution cannot be observed or replicated in a laboratory, there is no evidence that it occurred.

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that states could not compel the teaching of creationism, creationists appear to be increasingly active, adopting a new strategy.

Instead of trying to push creationism onto the curriculum, many creationists are trying to keep Darwin out of the classroom or ensure that if evolution is taught, it is presented as merely one unproven theory.

Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Louisville and editor of the magazine of the National Association of Biology Teachers, said, "It's going on everywhere, and the creationists are winning."

The Kansas decision is significant because the new curriculum not only deletes most references to biological evolution, it also deletes references to such ideas as the big-bang theory, which holds that the universe was born from a vast explosion, and includes at least one case study that creationists use to debunk evolution.

"The number of changes made, the thoroughness with which references to evolution are deleted or definitions changed, it's more extensive than what we've seen before," said Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education.

Mark Looy, a spokesman for Answers in Genesis, a creationist group planning a "creation museum of natural history," said he thought the Kansas vote was important because he believes "students in public schools are being taught that evolution is a fact, that they're just products of survival of the fittest.

"There's not meaning in life if we're just animals in a struggle for survival. It creates a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness, which I think leads to things like pain, murder and suicide."

Evolution, considered by scientists to be the cornerstone of biology, is the theory, based on fossils, anatomy and genetic evidence, that life began on Earth about 3.9 billion years ago and humans and other species evolved from a common ancestor. Scientists say that much of science cannot be repeated in a lab, and yet no one doubts the existence of, say, atoms.

The Kansas debate began more than a year ago when the state appointed a committee of 27 scientists and professors to write a state version of new national science guidelines.

But when those standards were submitted to the board, a conservative member, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian and former head of the state Republican Party, said he "had some serious questions about it," claiming "it is not good science to teach evolution as fact."

With the help of members of a creationist group, Abrams rewrote the standards, deleting most of the two pages on evolution, as well as the big-bang theory. What remained was "micro-evolution," which refers to genetic adaptation and natural selection within a species. "Macro-evolution," the origin of species, was gone.

The standards are recommendations, and it is up to local school boards in Kansas to decide what will be taught in the classroom.

But biologists, such as Steve Case, who was on the original standards committee, said that because "evolution is such a unifying principle of biology," the new standards could mean students will be unprepared for college admission tests and college science courses. Some teachers said they would continue to teach evolution and resign if forced not to.

Bill Wagnon, a board member who opposed the new standards, said "the effort to emphasize the rock of ages more than the age of rocks" could make Kansas science students "the laughingstock of the world."

A watchdog group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it might sue if it decides the standards favor creationism.

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