Evolution Isn’t a Natural Selection Here
In this rural swath of northern Kansas, where the grass rolls thick and green to the horizon, a white cross dominates the landscape.
Kathy Martin, a member of the state board of education, and her family built it on their farm this spring, gathering weathered chunks of limestone from the horse pasture and laying them on a hillside.
The cross is a proud expression of Martin’s faith. And as hearings challenging the role of evolution in the state’s school science curriculum began Thursday, that cross left little doubt about where she stood in the debate.
“Evolution is a great theory, but it is flawed,” said Martin, 59, a retired science and elementary school teacher who is presiding over the hearings. “There are alternatives. Children need to hear them.... We can’t ignore that our nation is based on Christianity -- not science.”
The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations.
Whichever curriculum proposal the board adopts in a vote planned for this summer, members say, it would serve only as a guideline for teachers, thus giving educators more leeway in the classroom. But the standards do determine what is included on statewide tests, and students would be required to learn that material.
“Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is in our schools,” said William Harris, a chemist who was the first witness to speak Thursday on behalf of changing the state’s curriculum. “This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications.”
Dozens of national and state science organizations are boycotting the hearings, which they see as an effort to introduce creationism and “intelligent design” into the classroom. Intelligent design is a concept that asserts that life on Earth is so complex that a higher power must have played a role in its creation.
“Public hearings and votes are not how the ‘truth’ of science is determined,” said Harry McDonald, president of Kansas Citizens for Science. “We don’t have to lend the credibility of science to the hearings.”
Brian Sandefur, a board member of Intelligent Design Network, a nonprofit organization based in Shawnee, Kan., wondered: “Are they afraid to show up? Are they afraid to defend themselves?”
The debate over Kansas’ curriculum, political experts say, reflects a broader effort by conservative Christian groups to move their agendas forward by electing like-minded officials at the state and local levels.
“Now the conservative Christians expect to get things done and they expect politicians they have backed to deliver for them,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “In cases where they have more influence, such as the Kansas school board, they’re going to do it themselves.”
Kansas isn’t alone in the debate over teaching evolution.
Local school boards in Georgia and Pennsylvania recently voted to alter their science curriculums and provide for the teaching of alternative theories. Both moves are being challenged in court. And the Ohio Department of Education passed a measure ensuring that teachers could hold classes that challenged the theory of evolution.
At least nine states, including Kansas, are considering bills that would affect how evolution is taught in their schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kansas has flip-flopped on the issue over the last six years. In 1999, the board of education -- then dominated by conservative Republicans -- voted to reject evolution as a scientific theory and erased most references to it from the state curriculum.
Faced with criticism from around the nation, the state’s voters changed the makeup of the board the following year, and the policy was reversed.
“After that, people in Kansas felt as if the conservative right had reached its apex,” said Allan Cigler, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “People were wrong. The far right was just waiting for the next issue to rally around.”
It came in 2004, with the debate over gay marriage. Evangelical ministers from some of the Midwest’s largest churches mobilized their congregations and encouraged them to head to the polls. (This spring, Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved a far-reaching ban on gay marriage.)
The churches also kept an eye on seats that could be politically helpful on the state board of education, said the Rev. Terry Fox, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan.
“We encouraged people to elect a conservative school board” to revive the evolution debate, Fox said. “It was a piece of cake. It was such a low-flying election, no one was paying attention.”
Last spring the 6th District seat on the board -- which then was evenly split between conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans and Democrats -- emerged as vulnerable.
The incumbent, moderate Republican Bruce Wyatt of Salina, was not a strong favorite in the mostly rural region that covers 17 counties.
One point of voter concern was evolution: While campaigning, Wyatt had noted that a routine review of the state’s science standards would be held in 2005 and that he supported leaving the standards alone.
Martin disagreed. She is proud of her faith. She believes God created her and all mankind. It’s a conviction shared by many in this agricultural town.
The only office that Martin, a teacher for 30 years, had ever held was treasurer of her college sorority. When a fellow teacher suggested she run against Wyatt, Martin said, she was skeptical.
But after meeting with conservative and religious leaders, who were looking for another Republican candidate to upset Wyatt, she changed her mind.
“I prayed, and God helped me decide. Suddenly, I was traveling all over the state, talking to people,” Martin said. “I kept running into strangers who were working on behalf of my campaign.”
Martin won the August primary with more than 60% of the vote. She ran unopposed in November. Now, she is at the center of Kansas’ latest debate over the teaching of evolution.
This year a 26-member team of doctors, professors and schoolteachers studied the state’s science standards and wrote a 107-page proposal, suggesting that the curriculum remain largely unchanged.
But in March, eight people on that committee submitted a 19-page minority report to the state education board, suggesting that teachers discuss alternative theories with their students.
In a crowded meeting hall across the street from the state Capitol on Thursday, more than 100 onlookers and members of the news media listened as the first of the hearing’s 23 expert witnesses explained why the theory of evolution was flawed.
Christine Caffy, 15, carefully took notes on each speaker’s position. The ninth-grader from Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence had recently studied evolution in her biology class and came here to learn more about the debate.
Afterward, she was curious and confused.
“I came here thinking that I understood evolution, that I understood the facts,” Christine said. “But now, I don’t know what to think. Who’s right? Is the science that I’m learning really true?”
That sentiment infuriates scientists, a group of whom had gathered nearby. They insisted that though evolution should be open to criticism, the classroom was not the place for critiques based on religion.
“If you want to know about science, ask a scientist. If you want to know about faith, ask a minister,” said Robert Hagen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas. “If I were to go into that hearing and tell them why the ‘science’ of intelligent design is wrong, I’d have to get into such detail that most people would just glaze over.”
Although the issue has yet to be decided, some teachers said they have seen subtle changes in student behavior.
“We’re just getting to evolution now, and I have one student who puts his head down on his desk to show he’s not paying attention,” said Brad Williamson, a biology teacher at Olathe East High School in Olathe, Kan., about 20 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, Mo. “Others say they’re not comfortable. It’s very difficult, because you spend months and months gaining their trust to even broach the subject, and now they’re shutting down.”
There is a growing sentiment that, no matter what is said during the hearings, the board of education has already decided how it will vote.
“I respect all viewpoints and I will listen to their ideas,” Martin said this week. “But I don’t see me changing my mind.”
Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.