Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Conservatives lose latest Darwin battle in Kansas

Conservatives lose latest Darwin battle in Kansas
By Carey Gillam

TOPEKA, Kansas (Reuters) - The Kansas Board of Education on Tuesday threw out science standards deemed hostile to evolution, undoing the work of Christian conservatives in the ongoing battle over what to teach U.S. public school students about the origins of life.

The board in the central U.S. state voted 6-4 to replace them with teaching standards that mirror the mainstream in science education and eliminate criticisms of evolutionary theory.

"I'm glad we've taken this step. If we are going to have a well-educated populace, this is important," said board member Sue Gamble.

Similar efforts to weaken the teaching of evolution in public schools have occurred throughout the United States including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia.

But Kansas has been in the forefront of the debate since 1999, when the board voted to sharply reduce the emphasis of evolution in science instruction. A public backlash ultimately led to a reversal of that revision.

The new standards, set to take effect immediately, replace those put in place in 2005 by a conservative majority of the board who challenged the validity of evolution and called it incompatible with religious doctrine.

It is the fourth time in eight years that science standards have been rewritten in Kansas.

"I think it actually curtails the ability of students to learn and to think," said conservative board member Steve Abrams of the latest revision.


Kansas' struggles have been widely lampooned and were depicted in a documentary film entitled "Flock of Dodos." A traveling exhibition, "Explore Evolution," was created by science museums at universities in Kansas, Nebraska and other states to explain, among other things, how children and chimpanzees are "cousins in life's family tree."

The 2005 ruling by Kansas' board outraged scientists across the United States, with the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association refusing the state's request to use copyrighted material in textbooks.

The state's voters reacted by swinging the balance of power on the board to moderates in last year's elections.

The decision to once again rewrite the science standards comes one day after the anniversary of evolution scholar Charles Darwin's birth, who gained fame for his 1859 book "The Origin of Species" and for his theories on how life on Earth evolved.

Some religious groups argue that evolution cannot be proven and clashes with Biblical teachings about how God created the Earth, humans and animals. Teaching evolution misleads and confuses students, opponents say.

Supporters say religion has no valid role in a science class and evolution is the foundation for understanding key concepts in biology and other scientific fields.

The Kansas board was criticized by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a group that promotes the concept of "intelligent design," in which an intelligent force -- which some proponents would say is God -- is said to be probably responsible for some aspects of nature.

"You have a board in Kansas that is so extreme," said John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, adding that evolution supporters were "anti-religious."

The institute says Darwin's theories about the survival of the fittest have led some scientists to embrace eugenics and practices such as forced sterilization.