August 8, 1999

Creationism Evolves
Kansas Board Targets Darwin

By Hanna Rosin

For biology teacher Al Frisby, teaching evolution to the many students who take the Bible literally is like "banging his face against a brick wall." More than a third of the students at his suburban high school in Shawnee Mission, Kan., wrote in a final evaluation last year that they did not believe a thing their teacher had to say on the subject.

The challenge Frisby faces is apt to get tougher next year. On Wednesday, a majority of the Kansas Board of Education may vote to pass a new statewide science curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade that wipes out virtually all mention of evolution and related concepts: natural selection, common ancestors and the origins of the universe.

The new curriculum will not explicitly prohibit the teaching of evolution. But its exclusion will severely undermine such efforts when they come under attack from students, parents, principals or local school boards in a state where fights over evolution are as commonplace as cornfields. And because all public schools in the state are tested yearly according to the curriculum, teachers will be pressured to follow the new curriculum.

If the conservative majority on the school board prevails as expected, it will mark the most decisive victory in recent years for the creationist movement: Christians who read the book of Genesis literally and believe that God created human beings and animals fully formed.

"This is the most explicit censorship of evolution I have ever seen," said Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education.

In the past two decades, creationists have undergone their own process of evolution. After a series of court decisions from 1968 to 1987 barred the movement's efforts to have biblical creationism taught in the schools, activists changed their strategy. They began to focus instead on attacking evolution as an unproven theory, picking apart such basic building blocks as fossil records and geological dating.

National organizations dedicated to "scientific creationism" published books and videos and magazines designed to educate students on how to resist what they described as the "conspiracy" of evolution. School creation clubs opened across the South and Midwest, meeting after school to trade the latest discoveries intended to debunk evolution.

The movement's success has been evident in the past five years. In dozens of states, religious conservatives on school boards and legislatures have been chipping away at what scientists consider a bedrock concept of biology:

In the last four years, school boards in at least seven states -- Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska -- have tried to remove evolution from state science standards or water down the concepts, with varying degrees of success.

State legislatures in both Georgia and Ohio have bills pending that require all educators who teach evolution to also teach evidence inconsistent with it.

In 1995, Alabama passed a law mandating that all biology books used in public schools bear a sticker describing evolution as a "controversial theory. . . . No one was present when life first appeared. Therefore any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory and not a fact."

In 1996, the legislature in Tennessee, home of the famous 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution, considered (though ultimately rejected) a bill allowing public school teachers to be fired if they taught evolution as "fact" rather than "theory."

In 1997, the Texas Board of Education proposed replacing all biology books in the state with new ones that did not mention evolution. The move was considered to signal a national trend because Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks after California. The proposal failed by a slim majority.

The movement's recent success may in part be a reflection of the fairly widespread sympathy for some of its basic principles. According to Gallup polls, about 44 percent of Americans believe in a biblical creationist view, that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." About 40 percent believe in "theistic evolution," the idea that God oversaw and guided the millions of years of evolution that culminated with humankind. Only one in 10 of those surveyed held a strict, secular evolutionist perspective.

While the movement's incrementalist tactics are new, what's at stake for fundamentalist Christians has not changed much since the first time they encountered Charles Darwin.

"Teaching evolution in public schools and telling children they are just products of a survival of the fittest, just animals struggling to survive, leaves many students with a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness," said Mark Looy of Answers in Genesis, one of the groups that provides students materials. "What meaning is there to life?"

For biologists, the battle is equally deep-seated: In evolution, they believe, lies the answer to who we are as a post-Enlightenment, scientifically literate society.

The century-old debate erupted again, ironically, in part out of a push to improve science education. About five years ago, a craze for national standards and accountability in every subject swept American classrooms. In response, national groups of science educators wrote benchmarks for scientific literacy to serve as models for states. The idea was to replace blind memorization of facts and figures with broad central concepts.

With evolution, the results were not what scientists had predicted. Religious conservatives tapped into skepticism from inside and outside the scientific community to discredit evolution, seizing on routine disagreements among scientists to disparage it as nothing more than a theory.

Although the timetables of evolution shift as new fossils are discovered, most scientists generally believe the first scraps of genetic material appeared about 4 billion years ago. From that humble common ancestor evolved all other species. The earliest homo sapiens -- the cave-painting, tool-making precursors to modern humans -- appeared about 50,000 years ago.

Scientists acknowledge that evolution cannot be witnessed or even re-created in a lab. But they note that this is true of many accepted scientific phenomena, such as atoms or electrons. Instead, scientists rely on fossil records and geological data to piece together the species record.

It is that imperfect process creationists are attacking. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard that Louisiana could not mandate that schools give equal time to teaching creation science, activists shifted their focus to their current tactic. Tomes by amateurs and PhD scientists alike now parse through the fossil record, scanning for missing links or spotty evidence.

Some creationists offer what they consider to be positive scientific evidence for biblical explanations of the origins of life. Creationists generally believe the Earth can be no older than 10,000 years -- a number arrived at by adding biblical "begats." To prove Earth's relative youth, they search, for example, for evidence that dinosaurs lived far more recently than the millions of years ago cited by paleontologists.

"One of our staff members went to Alaska recently and found dinosaur bones that were not yet fossilized," said Looy, of Answers in Genesis. "If dinosaurs perished 65 million years ago, how could one have been around in the last few hundred years? That matches with what the Bible teaches -- that dinosaurs lived recently."

In Kansas, the latest effort to end the teaching of evolution has been driven by Steven Abrams, a school board member, veterinarian and former head of the Republican Party. Like many of the neo-creationists, Abrams prefers to debate the science, not the Bible.

"Kids should be studying science, basic facts that can be measured and observed," said Abrams. "Evolution is not good science, and shouldn't be taught in the schools."

It's a message Abrams and five allies on the 10-member school board want to introduce into the curriculum. First, the group wiped out almost all of the paragraphs on evolutionary ideas -- including descriptions of cosmological "evolution," the development of stars and the solar system.

The board members then went a step further, adding subtle but unmistakable references to creationist science into their proposal. As a general principle, they wrote that "no evidence contradicting a current scientific theory shall be censored."

They then included examples anyone familiar with the debate would recognize as favorites of creationists, such as the volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980, a catastrophe they say proves Earth can undergo monumental changes in short periods of time.

"Evolution is the unifying theory of biology, and now students will get such an incomplete picture," said Ken Bingman, a Kansas biology teacher for 37 years who helped write a rejected draft curriculum that included evolution. "It's a travesty, and it really worries me that children will miss out on this."

Frisby has spent many of his 27 years teaching trying to fend off assaults on evolution. Last year, he said, was the worst yet. First, students complained about an art mural in the hallway showing an apelike creature evolving into modern man.

Then one of the smartest girls in the class, the daughter of a popular minister, began challenging him regularly, insisting, for example, that there were human and dinosaur footprints from the same age.

At the end of the year, Frisby was crushed to see the results of the student evaluation of the class showing a large proportion of the students ignored what he said about evolution.

"I will not compromise," said Frisby. "If the school board tells me I don't have the option to teach evolution I will teach it nonetheless. And if they still insist I'll take them to court for academic freedom."

John Wachholz is not so strident. Wachholz has been teaching biology at Salina Central High School in central Kansas since 1972 and every year warns students he will not teach religion in science class. If they want to talk creationism they can meet him at his Lutheran church, where he is a regular member.

But the complaints are getting more frequent, and bolder, and if the new standards pass next week, Wachholz thinks he might retire early.

"This thing will drive me out of teaching," he said. "I'm a science teacher. If I teach biology without evolution I'd be doing an injustice to students, and to myself."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company


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