Kansas Weighs Alternates to Teaching Evolution

Hearings in Topeka Thursday will raise new questions about how the theory of evolution should be taught in the state's schools. Advocates of intelligent design propose new education guidelines to encourage teachers and students to consider other viewpoints.

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Here in the US, a state Board of Education is preparing to vote on alternatives to the theory of evolution. Kansas officials begin hearings today on proposed teaching guidelines. They would encourage science teachers and students to consider other views about how life began. The proposed standards are being offered by proponents of intelligent design. That's a belief that the complexity of life on Earth shows evidence that it's the intentional work of a creator. The hearings are likely to be one-sided, because scientists who support evolution are refusing to attend. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Kansas has gone down this road once before, in 1999 when the state Board of Education adopted science standards that downplayed evolution. Those standards were later repealed after a political backlash ousted some conservative Board of Education members. Now six years later, conservatives are back in control and rather than strict biblical creationism, the new discussion is about intelligent design.

Many here, including the governor, say they're embarrassed that once again Kansas is debating the teaching of evolution, but not state Board of Education member Connie Morris.

Ms. CONNIE MORRIS (Kansas State Board of Education): Frankly, I'm very proud of Kansas, very, very proud.

ALLEN: Morris is one of three members of a board subcommittee presiding over the hearings on the new proposed science standards that begin today in Topeka. All three of them support changing the standards to encourage teachers to tell students that evolution is only a theory, not a fact, and to provide for discussion of alternate views on how life began. Connie Morris says even though she and the other board members already know how they'll vote, that's no reason not to hold these hearings.

Ms. MORRIS: I have done my research, and I believe that I would come to a conclusion, but there are lots of people who are listening and watching who are baffled at what this is all about, and they need to be exposed to the information. They need to hear the evidence that refutes evolution.

ALLEN: Steve Case is the assistant director at the University of Kansas Center for Science Education and a veteran of the evolution wars. He was on the Science Standards Committee in 1999, and, again, this time around. He chaired a series of hearings earlier this year, held on the proposed standards. At each, hundreds of passionate parents, teachers and community members argued for and against the standards. But Case is refusing to participate in these hearings, calling them a charade.

Mr. STEVE CASE (Assistant Director, University of Kansas Center for Science Education): I don't think they're an education event for the state Board of Education or anybody else. I think they're an opportunity for the intelligent design community to promote propaganda on the citizens of Kansas at Kansas taxpayer cost.

ALLEN: Case and other science teachers around the country are boycotting these hearings, saying they're political theater, not about science. After local groups opted out, the Board of Education asked the American Association for the Advancement of Science to send members to testify. In a letter to the state board, AAAS declined, saying rather than contribute to science education, hearings would most likely serve to confuse the public. That decision disappointed William Harris.

Professor WILLIAM HARRIS (University of Missouri-Kansas City): I think that's silly. I think that reveals the fact that they're afraid to put their people up on the stand and let them be cross-examined in the light of day.

ALLEN: Harris is a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He helped draft the new standards and is one of the first testifying at today's hearing in favor of intelligent design. Harris says despite the boycott, he hopes the hearings will provide the public with insight into both views of how life began.

Prof. HARRIS: This is not a religion-vs.-science issue, which is the way it's totally been portrayed, and it's not. As I say, it's a science-vs.-science issue and both sides of the science have strong religious implications.

ALLEN: Science educators dispute the contention that intelligent design is, indeed, science. If it is, they say, it should be treated like other new scientific theories, tested and scrutinized in scientific journals, not lobbied for in boards of education.

But although scientists who support evolution aren't expected at the hearings, they'll still be represented. The Board of Education asked attorney Pedro Irigonegaray to represent the pro-evolution viewpoint. Irigonegaray accepted, seeing it as a chance to be a latter-day Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the lawyer who represented a Tennessee teacher in the celebrated 1925 Scopes monkey trial.

Mr. PEDRO IRIGONEGARAY (Attorney): The delicious fantasy of being in a courtroomlike environment, you know, with the overhead fan slowly twisting and being able to question witnesses about all of these issues is very appealing.

ALLEN: Irigonegaray says after talking to science educators, he agreed that their interests would not be served by a full-fledged debate on the merits of intelligent design vs. evolution.

Mr. IRIGONEGARAY: In doing so, we would provide credibility to the individuals who are going to be coming to our state to promote what is, in fact, anything but science.

ALLEN: Pedro Irigonegaray may still get his chance to channel Clarence Darrow. Even though he won't be calling any witnesses of his own, he'll cross-examine the two dozen people testifying on behalf of the intelligent design proponents. And on the final day of hearings next week, he'll present a closing argument.

Whatever occurs at the hearings, it's unlikely to sway any votes. Conservatives hold a majority on the board and are widely expected to adopt the new standards this summer, standards that would allow school districts in Kansas to question whether evolution is the best way to explain how life began.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City.

INSKEEP: The debate over teaching evolution is not limited to Kansas. You can find out where other states stand at our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Correction March 20, 2008

This report mistakenly said that evolution is a way of explaining how life began. Darwin's theory explains how the diversity of different life forms came to be but does not address the origin of life.

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