Naturalist Charles Darwin has been dead for 123 years, but that didn’t stop the state of Kansas from putting him, or at least the famous scientific theory he pioneered, on trial recently.
In what can only be described as a bizarre spectacle, two attorneys took turns squaring off over the scientific accuracy of evolution during a three-day hearing before a subcommittee of the Kansas State Board of Education last month.
The hearing was engineered by evolution opponents on the Board, which fell into the hands of Religious Right conservatives after elections in November. Critics say the event was a carefully staged media stunt by a body determined to water down the teaching of evolution in state schools.
The matter was left to attorneys after Kansas scientists refused to participate, arguing that the hearing was stacked against evolution and was designed to be a platform for the views of those who espouse “intelligent design.” The scientists called the hearing a “kangaroo court.”
“It’s clear from the beginning that this is not a real science discussion,” Jack Krebs of Kansas Citizens for Science, told The Washington Post. “This is a showcase for intelligent design.”
Attorney John Clavert, representing opposition to evolution, presented witnesses who equated Darwin’s theory with atheism. Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney, defended the teaching of evolution.
Scientists held regular press briefings to comment on the proceedings. Keith Miller, a geologist at Kansas State University, noted that many of the evolution opponents were from out of state and would soon be gone.
“They’re in, they do their shtick, and they’re out,” Miller said. “I’m going to be here, and I’m not going to be quiet. We’ll have the rest of our lives to make our points.”
The hearings, which cost the state nearly $18,000, are a run-up to a vote this summer on state evolution standards. Defenders of evolution expect the board majority to water down evolution or attempt to introduce intelligent design into the curriculum. Leading the charge is board chairman Steve Abrams, who told the Kansas City Star that he is a young-earth creationist who believes the planet is no more than 10,000 years old.
The state’s governor, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, has said the board should “not jeopardize the opportunities for Kansas kids to compete,” adding, “What we know is, we need more students with math and science skills than ever before. We need more students who are excelling in scientific achievements.”
To some in Kansas, what’s going on is déjà vu all over again. In 1999, the board, which was in Religious Right hands, rewrote statewide testing standards de-emphasizing evolution. The move sparked a backlash. The state was held up to ridicule, and then-Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, called the board’s action “embarrassing.” Social conservatives on the board were voted out of office during the subsequent election. They regained control, with a six-four majority, in November.
Americans United is working with defenders of church-state separation in Kansas to fight off the new board initiative.