Evolution to go on ‘trial' in Kansas
State plans 10-day hearing on issue
By DAVID KLEPPER
The Kansas City Star
TOPEKA — Kansas' evolution debate will play out in a 10-day, courtroom-style hearing this spring, with experts from both sides testifying before a school board panel.
On trial is the theory of evolution, and the verdict could go a long way in determining the science curriculum taught in state schools.
Evolution critics want school curriculum to include alternatives, or at least challenges, to the theory.
Hearing dates are not yet set. The public may attend the hearings but will not be allowed to speak.
A three-member Board of Education subcommittee will hold the hearings and report its findings to the full board before members vote on the science standards.
Proponents of the idea of intelligent design say the hearing will give them an opportunity to show the evolution's weaknesses, and why alternatives to the theory should be taught too.
Intelligent design is the idea that a higher power has directed life's development.
The controversy over evolution is “the big dog on the porch … the 800-pound gorilla,” said board Chairman Steve Abrams, of Arkansas City, who also leads the subcommittee. Abrams said the hearings could be “useful and enlightening” to everyone in the state.
Topics will include how to teach evolution, its validity as a theory and the definition of science.
But supporters of current standards say the hearings could make Kansas the laughingstock of the nation, much as in 1999, when the board voted to de-emphasize evolution in the state's curriculum, leaving the decision to teach evolution up to local districts. Supporters also worry that the hearings will favor rhetoric over hard science, especially before a panel that is critical of evolution.
“The perception among many of my colleagues is this is rigged,” said Steve Case, a University of Kansas research scientist who leads the state science curriculum committee. “I have a terrible fear for Kansas that this could be portrayed as a Scopes trial.”
Case was referring to the 1925 trial of Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes, who was charged with breaking the law by teaching evolution.
Case, asked by the committee to find scientists to defend evolution, said he wasn't sure he could find people who would submit to the hearings.
The 26-member committee, made up of scientists and educators, has been reviewing the curriculum since June. The panel held a hearing in Topeka on Wednesday to hear from the public.
The state periodically reviews its curriculum, but this year's review of science standards took on an added controversy in January when conservatives critical of evolution assumed the majority of the 10-member school board.
Thursday's hearing brought out about 150 residents, mostly from Manhattan, Topeka and Lawrence. They represented the diversity of the debate: defiant creationists and unapologetically secular professors, as well as Christian evolutionary biologists, scientists who reject the theory and professors who worry new standards would disadvantage students in an increasingly high-tech society.
John Millam, a software engineer with a doctorate in physics, left work early in Kansas City to come to the hearing at a Topeka hotel. The Mission resident said he doesn't want the panel studying science standards to veer too far in any direction.
“The scientists say, ‘We're right.' The creationists say, ‘We're right,' ” Millam said. “Science should be neutral.”