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Update on Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution (3-18-01)

On August 11, 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 in favor of science education standards that contain no mention of biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the universe. The board had earlier rejected science standards developed by a 27-member panel of science educators and had deadlocked over standards developed by board member Steve Abrams with the help of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, which also assisted in developing the version that ultimately passed. As a result of the board's vote, evolutionary theory would not appear in state-wide standardized tests and it was left to the 305 local school districts in Kansas whether or not to teach it. Although similar events transpired in New Mexico in 1997, the events in Kansas ignited a nation-wide debate -- it was the Associated Press's top story for 1999. A number of other states are facing a variety of challenges to the teaching of evolution. For example, in October 1999, the Kentucky Department of Education replaced the word "evolution" with "change over time" in state school standards. New Mexico bucked the trend, emphatically endorsing the teaching of evolution in a reversal from their own Kansas-like experience two years earlier. This update provides information on the response from the geoscience community as well as links to additional information on the topic.

Most Recent Actions
A bill to alter the Michigan state science standards was referred to the State Legislature Committee on Education on February 28, 2001.  Section 10 of  HB 4382 would change the science curriculum standards to require students to consider the "competing theories of evolution and natural selection based on random mutation and the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a creator."  The bill states that for science standards at all grade levels "references to 'evolution' and 'natural selection' shall be modified to indicate that these are unproven theories by adding the phrase 'Describe how life may be the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a creator'"  See the Michigan State Legislature website for more information. (3-9-01)

On February 19, 2001, the Montana House Committee on State Administration in a 14-4 vote defeated a bill that would have required Montana's science teachers to present additional theories of origin along with evolution. House Bill (HB) 588 would have changed Montana's present administrative rules in which evolution is taught exclusively. Supporters of the bill want to "ensure that children are exposed to all theories of human existence."  Many in the state were surprised that the debate was even occurring.  The spokesman for the State Office of Instruction, Joe Lamson, said in amazement: "We don't put nonscientific things in a science class."  (2/20/01)

In a February 14th valentine to good science, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 7-3 to reinstate the teaching of biological evolution and the origin of the earth into the state's science education standards.  With this vote, the board adopts science education standards that nullify the controversial 1999 standards, which had de-emphasized evolution and removed the Big Bang Theory from teaching requirements.  The Kansas Science Education Standards include teaching guidelines for all grades. The introductory statement, the eighth grade standards, and the twelfth grade standards include specific reference to students understanding biological evolution, the significance of fossils, the geologic time scale, and theories regarding the origins of the Earth.  The board's favorable vote has been applauded by many organizations, but reportedly the Kansas board has received a flurry of correspondence from creationists opposed to the new standards.  The Kansas Science Education Standards can be viewed on the Kansas Board of Education website.  Also see the AGU alert "Kansas School Board Lets Evolution Back Into the Classroom". (2/16/01)

On February 13, 2001, a bill that seeks to amend the official code of Georgia to reform the teaching of  "scientific theories of the origins about life and living things" was sent to the House Education Committee of the Georgia General Assembly.  The bill,  House Bill (HB) 391, has four brief sections.  Section 1 states that evolutionary theory as presented in current science textbooks does not convey enough clear and precise language for children to discern theory from fact.  Without exposure to this specific information children are at risk of becoming indoctrinated.  Under Section 2 of the bill teachers have the right to "present and critique any and all scientific theories about origins and all facts thereof." Teachers are also "encouraged to make distinctions between philosophical materialism and authentic science and to include unanswered questions and unsolved problems in their presentations." Also within Section 2 it is stated that the bill will not replace or change existing science curriculum or endorse one scientific theory.  Section 3 puts forth the effective date of the bill as July 1, 2001.  Section 4 repeals all laws in conflict with HB 391.  (2/14/01; Technical changes 3/5/01)

The Associated Press reported that on January 9, 2001 the new Kansas Board of Education announced plans to give final approval to new science education standards at their meeting in mid-February. A majority of members indicated their support for revised standards, which restore references to evolution that were removed in state standards approved in August, 1999. (1-15-01)

In Alabama, the final draft of revised science education standards was released on January 11, 2001. The state board of education will vote on the standards on February 8th. The draft standards can be viewed at http://www.westga.edu/~geology/algs_web/Ed_Standards/AcosGr912a.htm. Also see an AGU alert on this topic. (1-15-01)

Scientists in Pennsylvania have raised an alarm about that state's proposed science education standards, which call for teaching alternative theories to evolution. Pennsylvania's current standards are some of the best in the country, and an early version of the revised standards -- which mandate the teaching of evolution -- was widely praised by science educators. But the state Board of Education made a number of changes in July 2000, requiring that students "analyze ... studies that support or do not support the theory of evolution" and requiring teachers to present theories that "do and do not support the theory of evolution." The state legislature must approve the new standards, and hearings are expected in February 2001. According to a December 3, 2000 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, one state senator who supported the revised standards linked evolution to Marxism and Communism. The new standards are available in PDF form at http://www.pde.psu.edu/standard/stan.html. (1-2-01)

On August 1, 2000, nearly a year after the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to remove evolution and the age of the Earth from state science education standards, voters in the state's Republican primary assured that the next board will have a much more moderate face. Of the six board members who voted for the new standards, three faced Republican primary challenges and a fourth chose not to run for re-election. Two of the three, including board chairman Linda Holloway, were defeated by moderates, and the open seat also went to a moderate. All of the challengers made opposition to the anti-evolution standards a central focus of their campaign. Board member Steve Abrams, who helped write the new standards, was the lone anti-evolution board member to prevail. In the primary to decide the Republican challenger for Rep. Dennis Moore, the state's only Democratic House member, the moderate candidate who opposed the new standards lost to a conservative candidate who did not discuss the evolution issue. (8/3/00)

On June 19, 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case involving a disclaimer that a Lousiana school board required to be read whenever evolution was taught. The case, Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education et al. v. Herb Freiler et al., involved a resolution passed in 1994 by the school board in the Tangipahoa Parish (county), Louisiana, requiring that whenever evolution was to be presented, the following disclaimer must be read: "It is hereby recognized by the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, that the lesson to be presented, regarding the origin of life and matter, is known as the Scientific Theory of Evolution and should be presented to inform the students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept. It is further recognized by the Board of Education that it is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his/her opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter of the origin of life and matter. Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion." Both the federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of parents who challenged the disclaimer at which point the school board appealed the case to the Supreme Court. A six-justice majority rejected the appeal without comment, but Justice Antonio Scalia -- joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas -- wrote a six-page dissent, arguing that the school district's disclaimer did not represent an endorsement of the biblical view of creation nor was an establishment of religion: "We stand by in silence while a deeply divided Fifth Circuit bars a school district from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution -- including, but not limited to, the Biblical theory of creation -- are worthy of their consideration. I dissent." (8/25/00)

On June 14th, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) gave a speech on the floor of the House responding to a letter he had received from professors at Baylor University criticizing him for sponsoring the May 10th Capitol Hill briefing on intelligent design creationism. He acknowledged University of California Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson and others for drafting his response. His speech, including the Baylor letter, can be found in the Congressional Record.

On May 10th, supporters of intelligent design theory brought their message to Capitol Hill in a series of events for Members of Congress and their staff. A three-hour briefing focused on the scientific evidence for the origin and development of life and the universe as the work of an intelligent designer. The speakers presented their version of the scientific debate between Darwinian evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. Speakers also addressed the social, moral, and political consequences of Darwinism. Sponsored by the Discovery Institute, the briefing was hosted by the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, and co-sponsors included Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI), expected to be the next chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The briefing took place as Congress debates legislation to overhaul federal K-12 education programs. A summary of the briefing is available as an AGI special update at http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/id_update.html.

The Idaho Statesman reported on May 5th that the Idaho Christian Coalition has been distributing questionnaires to candidates for the Idaho Supreme Court in order to assemble a voter guide for May 23rd primary elections. The questionnaire includes two questions directly related to the evolution-creation debate: "Do you believe in the fact that God created all the heavens, earth, creatures, plants and man?" and "Do you believe in the fact that man evolved from life forms in the sea?" In the primary, incumbent judge Cathy Silak, who refused to answer the questionnaire, was defeated by district judge Daniel Eismann, who did answer it. According to the Idaho Statesman, Eismann promised voters he'd be a conservative justice and "openly sought support from the Christian right during his campaign by opposing abortion and questioning the
scientific basis of evolution."

Although Oklahoma's Attorney General ruled that the state textbook committee lacked the constitutional power to require a disclaimer in new biology textbooks that evolution is a "controversial theory," they may receive the power to do so through state legislation.  According to the National Center for Science Education, on April 6th, the House attached two amendments to a recently passed Senate bill that requires a certain number of members on the textbook committee to be teachers.  One amendment requires science textbooks to contain "acknowledgment that human life was created by one God of the universe," and the second empowers the textbook committee to insert one page summaries or opinions in any textbook.  The bills passed 99-0 and 87-9, respectively. The Oklahoma decisions continue a recent revival that began in Kansas of questioning the teaching of evolution in the nation's public schools.

New Poll Results Show Vast Majority of Americans Support Teaching of Evolution
A recent poll commissioned by the People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) reports that 83% of Americans think that evolution should be taught in public school science classes.  About 70% of Americans feel that the Bible and evolutionary go hand in hand, a contrast with the contention of biblical literalists who argue that the two are in conflict.  According to a March 10th PFAWF press release, "most Americans believe that God created evolution."  This poll differs from previously conducted polls because it focuses solely on the evolution/creationist issue instead of including it in a broader list of topics.  About 13% of Americans think that creationism should be taught in science class alongside evolution, and 16% think that it should be taught in place of evolution.  Among those favoring evolution:

The poll shows that 60% of Americans reject the Kansas Board's 1999 decision to take evolution off of its list of state science standards.  The results of the poll also showed that there is broad agreement that creationist beliefs should be acknowledged, but not taught as a science, and that the presentation of evolution and creationism in the classroom should follow national standards.

A pdf version of the poll is available at:  http://www.pfaw.org/issues/education/creationism-poll.pdf.  Another report by PFAWF, titled Sabotaging Science:  Creationist Strategy in the '90's, is available at:  http://www.pfaw.org/issues/education/creationist-strategy.pdf.

Reaction to Kansas Standards
The Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) has taken a leadership role in responding to the state board's action. The only state official to testify at the open session before the board vote was newly appointed State Geologist Lee Allison, who emphasized the economic ramifications of turning back the clock on science education (his statement is available at http://www.kgs.ukans.edu/General/News/99_releases/sci_stand.html). His position was subsequently backed up by Governor Bill Graves (R) who called the board's decision tragic. In Kansas, the state board of education is a fourth branch of government, answering only to the voters and separate from the governor, legislature, and courts. The presidents of all six major public universities in Kansas wrote to the school board as well to express their opposition to the proposed standards. Because the state board's decision leaves it up to local school boards to decide whether to teach evolution at all, the KGS is planning to provide materials to the state's school districts and offer to serve as an information source for teachers and administrators.

On September 8th, AGI President David Stephenson wrote to Kansas Governor Bill Graves expressing support for the governor and the Kansas Geological Survey in their strong stance against the new state science standards that eliminate any mention of biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the universe. The letter includes a 1981 AGI position statement on evolution. Copies of this letter were also sent to the Kansas state school board.

On September 23rd, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), AAAS, and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) announced that they were denying the Kansas State Board of Education's request to use portions of education documents developed by their organizations in the new Kansas science education standards. The denial of permission to use portions of the National Science Education Standards (published by NAS), the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (published by AAAS), and Pathways to the Science Standards (published by NSTA) was due to the failure of the Kansas standards to meet the claim that they "...embrace the vision and content" of those documents. The presidents also requested that reference to and acknowledgment of the national Standards, Benchmarks, and Pathways be removed from the Kansas document and otherwise disassociated themselves and their organizations from the Kansas standards. More at http://www.project2061.org/newsinfo/kansas.htm.

On October 15th, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) adopted a Statement on the Kansas State Board of Education Decision on the Education of Students in the Science of Evolution and Cosmology.

AGI Member Society Actions
The American Geophysical Union has been out front on this issue, sending out a press release from Executive Director Fred Spilhaus exhorting geoscientists to take up the challenge and become more actively involved in local and state government (see http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/prrl/prrl9924.html). AGU has been cited as a source in a number of articles and broadcasts in the popular media. Just prior to the school board vote, AGU sent an e-mail alert to all of its members in Kansas urging them to make their voices heard (see http://www.agu.org/cgi-bin/asla/asla-list).

The AGU 1999 Fall Meeting featured a special session on this controversy. On December 16th, the Council of the American Geophysical Union, the organization's governing body, adopted a position statement supporting the teaching of evolution and opposing the teaching of "creationism" in science classes. The statement is a revision and expansion of an earlier statement, "Creationism is not Science," originally adopted in 1981 as AGU's first position statement on an issue of public policy and reaffirmed three times since, most recently in 1998. The new statement reads:

The Geological Society of America's Geology and Public Policy Committee developed a letter for GSA to send to its membership again urging them to get more involved. The GSA Annual Meeting in October 1999 was already slated to have a number of sessions and workshops dealing with evolution, made more timely by events in Kansas.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) mobilized its membership in Kansas and elsewhere to contact their local school boards and encourage them to continue to teach evolution despite the new standards.

AGI was involved in discussions with AGU, the American Physical Society, American Institute of Physics, American Chemical Society, and other societies about developing targeted approaches such as op/ed pieces in local Kansas newspapers and letter-writing campaigns. The October 1999 issue of Geotimes featured a series of perspectives on the Kansas situation from geoscience community leaders along with columns addressing the ramifications from both public policy and curriculum development standpoints.

Additional Resources
The National Academies have produced several publications for teachers and the general public. They are available, along with an extensive array of links to other resources, at http://www4.nationalacademies.org/opus/evolve.nsf

A number of geoscience organizations have issued statements on this issue in addition to the ones described above. They are listed at http://www.awg.org/docs/evolution.html. They are included in a compilation of statements by scientific, educational, religious, and civil rights organizations published by the National Center for Science Education called Voices for Evolution. It is available online at the American Association for the Advancement of Science website: http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/dbsr/Voices/Voicetoc.htm. A position paper by the National Science Teachers Association is available at http://www.nsta.org/handbook/evolve.asp.


Letter to Kansas Governor Bill Graves from AGI President David Stephenson

September 8, 1999

The Honorable Bill Graves
Office of the Governor
State Capitol, Second Floor
Topeka, KS 66612

Dear Governor Graves:

On behalf of the Executive Committee of the American Geological Institute (AGI), I commend you for your strong support of the teaching of evolution in your state's public schools. We also support the active involvement of the Kansas Geological Survey in this issue. The new state science standards passed by the Kansas State Board of Education are misguided and send a signal to local school districts that will have long-term consequences for the quality of science teaching in Kansas.

AGI is a nonprofit federation of 34 geoscientific and professional associations that represent more than 100,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists. Founded in 1948, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in mankind's use of resources and interaction with the environment.

In 1981, amidst an earlier controversy over the teaching of evolution in public schools, AGI approved the following statement, which is very relevant to today's situation:

Studies show that science and technology have been the driving force behind more than half of the economic growth in this country over the past fifty years. In order to continue that growth, we must provide the next generation of Americans with the best science education possible. A strong science curriculum cannot be one that omits the core of our understanding of the development of life and Earth itself over geologic time.

Evolutionary theory, like plate tectonic theory or the theory of gravitation, is the product of scientists' continual commitment to search for a better understanding of how natural systems operate. Creationists seek to foster a popular perception that evolutionary theory and religion are contradictory, a view rejected by the many mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish denominations that have publicly stated that evolution is compatible with their faith.

If AGI can assist your office in any way, please do not hesitate to call on me or AGI Government Affairs Director David Applegate (703-379-2480 ext. 228; applegate@agiweb.org).

Sincerely yours,

David Stephenson
President

cc: Kansas Board on Education



Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Associated Press, National Academies, National Center for Science Education, Association for Women Geoscientists, Kansas Geological Survey

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs Program and Alison Alcott, AGI/AAPG Geoscience Intern

Posted October 1, 1999; Last updated: March 18, 2001

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