by William K.
Long before the Kansas evolution debate captured the attention of the national news
media last summer, the Kansas City Stars Kate Beem was on the case.
Back in April, she tracked the creation of Parents for Objective Science and History
(POSH) in the university town of Lawrence, Kansas. ("It started when Ellen and Joel
Barber found out that their kindergartner was learning about evolution.") She
reported on the "moderate-conservative" divide on the state school board, which
was charged with overseeing the creation of new state standards for science instruction.
And when the 27 scientists responsible for drafting the standards named evolution as one
of five major scientific concepts that Kansas students should be taught and tested on, she
caught the echo of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial: "More than 70 years after Tennessee
science teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating the states law against
teaching evolution, the debate over the theory continues."
Since "creation science" was introduced into the debate in the 1960s,
anti-evolutionists have fought an increasingly uphill battle in the courts. Two U.S.
Supreme Court rulings, Epperson vs. Arkansas in 1968 and Edwards vs.
Aquillard in 1987, established that creation science is a fundamentally religious
discipline and, as such, may not be taught in public schools. In response, creationists
like Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research and -- more relevant to the
Kansas showdown -- Tom Willis of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America have
been working to discredit evolutionary theory as a means of removing it from public school
That scenario began to unfold in Kansas when conservative school board member, Steve
Abrams, promised to present his own revised list of science requirements, eliminating
evolution from the states standardized tests.
On May 11, Beem reported that it was Willis who had approached Abrams and provided him
with the revised list eliminating evolution. In agreeing to present this, along with his
own revisions to the board, Abrams became an agent of creationism, Kansass
Beems readers learned that Abramss creationist version of the science
standards didnt recognize macroevolution (the current buzzword for theories of the
random evolution of species derived from Charles Darwins work). Abrams also included
the creationist phrase "the idea that the design and complexity of the design of the
cosmos requires an intelligent designer" in what he put before the board on May 12.
To avoid a deadlock -- the APs Carl Manning predicted a 5-5 split between
moderates and conservatives -- chair Linda Holloway put off the vote, which had been
scheduled for June, for two months. So the debate over the standards dragged on until it
caught fire in the national news media.
Publicity quickly turned the debate into an ugly affair for the school board as
creationist and evolutionist groups began to fight it out in the Kansas media. "My
faith was personally attacked yesterday," an outraged Holloway said in response to
the attacks of critics who belittled creation science. "I dont want that for
any child in the state of Kansas. We see what ridicule can lead to in Littleton."
Meanwhile, in a profile of Shawnee Mission Northwest High School biology teacher Al
Frisby, Beem wrote, "Frisby is adamant that the Christian belief in a universe
created by God has no place in his classroom."
The opinion sections of Kansas newspapers seethed with pro-creation and pro-evolution
arguments. "True science is about discovering these rules and learning how to play by
them, not about believing one already knows how the game will turn out," wrote John
W. Hoopes, Ph.D., of Lawrence in the July 13 Topeka Capital Journal.
"Evolution is the fraud of the century, and it is time society evolves
past this fraud," wrote Jeff Kready and Brian Ayers, two Washburn Rural High School
students, in the same issue.
The eruption of national coverage in mid-July put the issue before the public with a
salience not seen since 1925, when some 2,310 American dailies covered the Scopes trial.
While the Kansas story lacked the clash-of-the-titans quality of the Scopes case, the
media focus on the story was exceptionally intense.
The national media recognized not only the historical significance of evolution in
American high school curricula but also that in the 1990s much of the action has involved
state boards of education. As Hanna Rosin put it in the August 8 Washington Post,
"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."
On August 11, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to remove any mention of
macroevolution from state standardized tests in the sciences. The deciding vote belonged
to a 70-year-old moderate Republican and Mennonite named Harold Voth. Overall, the
boards decision was a tortuous compromise, giving local school boards the option to
teach or not to teach evolution, but also leaving out Abrams language mandating
instruction based on the intelligent design of the universe.
In newspapers, magazines, and on TV, leaders of major Christian groups and scientists
spoke out praising and mocking the decision. Taking the roles of Scopes antagonists
William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were Rev. Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty
University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay
Gould. Duking it out on CNNs "Crossfire" on August 17, Falwell hailed his
university as one that teaches both evolution and creation and said, "As far as I
know, weve never had an evolutionist graduate from Liberty after having both sets of
facts presented to them." "I dont regard creationism as a science,"
Gould countered. "Science is an enterprise about factual information."
In Kansas, mainstream scientists were predictably dismayed at the decision. "If
your idea of the way the world works is the first book of Genesis, then youre not
going to believe anything to the contrary," University of Kansas paleontologist Roger
Kaseler told Jim McLean of the Topeka Capital Journal. "You cant use
science to understand God," said Tom Wolf, a biologist teaching at Washburn
University in Topeka. "And you cant use religion to understand science. When
you mix the two, you diminish both."
The overwhelming majority of Kansas newspapers agreed with the scientists. An August 31
Capital Journal editorial was headlined, "We ask again: Whats the
matter with Kansas?" The papers answer? "[I]n recent years the religious
right has found in the Kansas Republican Party a political instrument advancing its
Local columnists were not entirely of one opinion. "Kentucky has its
hillbillies," wrote the Kansas City Stars Steve Kraske. "Oklahoma
has its Okies. And Kansans? In the wake of last weeks anti-evolution vote,
were the hicks." But the Stars John D. Altevogt was less
convinced that Kansas had become the desert of the bozart: "Its not just the
distortion and exaggerations that get me, its the arrogant authoritarianism that
just drips from many of those who oppose the boards new standards."
The opponents did, however, include the states top elected officials. "This
is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didnt exist,"
declared Republican Gov. Bill Graves. And Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer lamented, "We work so
hard to build a reputation for the state, and six people have made us into a
At the national level, the vast majority of newspapers mocked the decision and Kansans
knew it. "It is gross understatement to say that across the country and even the
world, the image of Kansas has taken a beating from the board of educations
decision," opined the Capital Journal on August 13.
Out there, Kansas became the whipping boy du jour. The Baltimore Sun went so
far as to reprint some of the blistering remarks on the Scopes trial that H.L Mencken had
filed to the Sun. In an effective summary of national media sentiment, the Capital
Journal went ahead and repeated the Suns reprise. "There may be
some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is
over, with Genesis completely triumphant," wrote Mencken. "Let no one mistake it
for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country
that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a
fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience."
Yet in stark contrast to the derision of the state and national media, the men and
woman (then) running to become the first president of the next millennium were not making
fun of Kansas.
On the stump, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley came closest to toeing the
scientific line, saying in a prepared statement: "While I respect local school board
control, I also believe that every American child needs a foundation of solid scientific
education, and evolution clearly falls into that category." Vice President Gore was
more circumspect. "The vice president favors the teaching of evolution in public
schools," one of his spokesmen told Hanna Rosin of the Washington Post.
"Obviously, that decision should and will be made at the local level, and localities
should be free to teach creationism as well."
On the Republican side, where the conservative Christian vote is critical, creationism
weighed heavier in the balance. A spokeswoman for George W. Bush informed Rosin that the
Texas governor "believes it is a question for states and local school boards to
decide but believes both ought to be taught." Elizabeth Dole and John McCain
"deflected the question by saying the decision should be left to local school boards,
without specifying their preference."
On the right wing, Steve Forbes called evolution "a massive fraud" but then
danced around the curriculum question on ABCs "This Week." "The world
was formed as Genesis described it," said former Ambassador Alan Keyes. Gary Bauer
said, "I reject the basic tenet of that theory," but also took refuge in the vox
populi, telling MSNBC, "Polling data shows Americans want both ideas exposed to
children. I think that makes a lot of sense."
"I have to say that I believe in the creation enumerated in the Bible," Sen.
Orrin Hatch of Utah said on CNN, quickly adding that he also recognizes science. Pat
Buchanan, headed out of the GOP and into the Reform Party, said he supported teaching
children that the universe was created by God, although he did not object to their
learning about evolution as a theory.
Altogether, the best assessment of the collision of the Kansas evolution story and the
nascent presidential campaign belonged to the Kansas City Stars political
correspondent, Steve Kraske:
"On the second day, the media created a new campaign issue-evolution vs.
creationism. "And the presidential candidates said, This is not
Back on the home front, there was much hand wringing about the impact of the decision
on the state. Tom Perrin of the Kansas City Star cited, approvingly, the Shawnee
Mission school superintendents determination to "cover the same material as we
have in the past." Others felt that teachers who teach in areas where Bible-believing
creationists are politically strong would be pressured by parents not to teach evolution.
Still others expressed the fear that skipping evolution would put Kansas students at a
competitive disadvantage, nationally. (The AP reported on August 22 that the publishers of
a textbook entitled Kansas -- The Prairie Spirit Lives, had removed a section
describing the states geological past because, according to the companys
director, "it did not want to do anything that would limit the books
marketability.") And then there was the state senates Education Committee
chairwoman, Barbara Lawrence of Wichita, who told the AP on August 19 that she worried
about losing parental support for public schools if the curriculum, including evolution,
was not acceptable to a significant part the community.
While most state and national politicians found it easy to live with the Kansas school
boards Solomonic approach, there were costs associated with it. The AP reported on
August 13 that a small Oregon computer software company had "eliminated Kansas as a
possible site for a new service center because of the State Board of Educations
decision on teaching evolution." The AP also reported that the American Civil
Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and America United for Separation of Church
and State were all are threatening lawsuits.
And in a move more directly affecting education in Kansas, Heather Hollingsworth of the
Capital Journal reported on September 24 that "three national science
organizationsdenied the board the right to use copyrighted material in revised science
standards for the states public schools."
But the creationist community was happy. On August 27, Dianne Carroll of the Star
wrote about University of California engineering professor and anti-Darwinian Phillip E.
Johnsons reaction to the decision. The board members were "courageous
people," he said, and the media attention "was actually a terrific
gift, because it brought the issue to the forefront."
In fact, a substantial rift separated public opinion from the reaction of the news
media. Polling on the controversy revealed a firm political consensus in favor of the
Kansas compromise -- and a serious, long-term challenge for uncompromising evolutionists.
According to a Gallup Poll taken on August 24-26, 47 percent of Americans believe in
the fundamentalist view of creation -- "that God created human beings at one time
within the last 10,000 years pretty much in their present form." An additional 40
percent of Americans say they believe in theistic evolution, the position that evolution
is Gods way of creating things, while only nine percent believe in the standard
scientific formulation of evolution in which "God had no part in the process."
The sensibilities of the general public were steadfastly ignored in the medias
criticism of the school boards decision. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Democratic
and Republican presidential candidates know what the people think.