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Monkey Trial or Kangaroo Court?

In three days of testimony in Kansas, witnesses painted a picture of evolutionary biology as a tyrannical discipline that can be salvaged only by admitting the bright light of the supernatural.
 
 
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The hours passed, and the chilling phrases kept on coming: "security police," "fear and tension," "significant personal sanctions," "enforcement of the Rule," "suppression of evidence," "conflict of conscience," "trampling on those who believe man is purposed."

The man on the stage might well have been talking about life in a totalitarian state, but John Calvert, a lawyer who directs the Intelligent Design Network of Shawnee Mission, Kan., was describing the state of science education in America.

For three days in May, in a cramped auditorium across the street from the Kansas Capitol building, Calvert and his 22 witnesses -- scientists, philosophers, teachers, and other scholars -- painted a picture of evolutionary biology as a tyrannical, "naturalistic" discipline that can be salvaged only by letting the bright light of the supernatural shine in.

Witness Nancy Bryson told the story of how she lost her position as head of the Department of Science and Mathematics at Mississippi University for Women after she spoke out against evolution in 2003. After that, she said, other faculty members would slip into her office after hours to talk with her about the situation, saying that it was "not safe" to talk openly.

California high school teacher Roger DeHart testified that administrators reassigned him from biology to earth science because he had been telling students about what he called the "misrepresentation" of evolution as an explanation for life. When the controversy eventually forced DeHart to move to a different school, he was warned by one of his new colleagues, "I'll be keeping an eye on you." 

When parents complained that her by-the-book teaching of evolution showed "humanistic bias" and asked her for her personal opinion, Kansas high school teacher Jill Gonzales-Bravo could only tell them, "I don't feel at liberty to discuss it." She felt compelled to testify at the Topeka hearings, she said, despite her fear that it was "not really a [good] career move."

Creationism Reincarnated

For a brief period between 1999 and 2001, Kansas science teachers had labored under state standards that de-emphasized evolution. In 2004, voters once more gave conservative religious members a majority on the state's Board of Education; as a result, science standards are to be rewritten yet again, in a way that deprecates evolution and permits discussion of intelligent design. 

"ID," as it's often called, is the idea that natural processes cannot account for the appearance of new species of plants and animals throughout the earth's history -- that although genetic diversity may shift around a lot within species, the species themselves were designed by an entity outside of nature. 

Mainstream scientists are nearly unanimous in rejecting ID, which they say is just a reincarnation of old-fashioned biblical creationism, carefully articulated to avoid going afoul of the Constitution.

In March, a 26-member writing committee assigned by the Board submitted a new draft of science standards that was, well, standard stuff. But eight dissenters on the committee submitted an alternative version that included anti-evolution language. Board members who liked the alternative version decided to schedule hearings for early May in Topeka, to weigh the relative merits of the competing drafts. 

Calvert's witnesses turned out in force. Their side was coming off a big win in Ohio, where, in 2002, they had fought for and gotten a change in school science standards. They knew that Kansas, with a newly elected, pro-creation majority on its school board, would be an easy mark. 

But Kansas's mainstream biologists boycotted the hearings, comparing them to the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." They said the outcome was already decided anyway, and that to defend evolution in what they called a "kangaroo court" would only give the proceedings a veneer of respectability they didn't deserve. 

'A Good Product'

At the hearings, witness after witness spoke of gaping holes in evolutionary theory, the power of ID to fill those holes, and ID's potential to give students the complete and exciting science education they deserve. 

Ohio biology teacher Bryan Leonard testified that he helped write a state lesson plan called "Critical Analysis of Evolution." He said he knows it's a "good product" because of the overwhelmingly positive reaction from students: "The key is to find out what students want and teach toward their interests."

Daniel Ely, professor of biology at the University of Akron, praised the Ohio plan, saying that when students are presented a subject in the form of a controversy and are permitted to argue one side or the other, they "take ownership" of the subject. "When I was a kid, we learned about Communism," he said. "You have to understand both sides." 

Philosophy professor Warren Nord of the University of North Carolina, declaring himself a "liberal in every sense," explained that justice demands inclusion of religious groups in classroom discussion, just as it has ensured that "women and blacks" are included. 

John Sanford, Courtesy Associate Professor of Horticulture at Cornell and co-inventor of a "gene gun" for incorporating DNA into cells, said that as he sees it, evolution through natural selection is "amazingly not true, which is very exciting." Arguing that that's the kind of excitement needed in the classroom, Sanford said, "Being able to discuss their doubts is awesome for students."

For three days, witnesses delivered a message of openness, fairness, and democracy, declaring that when it comes to biology in the classroom, "you have to let students follow the evidence wherever it leads." And judging from their testimony, all roads lead to intelligent design.

The biologists, chemists, and biochemists who spoke in favor of ID made a host of well-worn points that are regularly debunked by the scientific majority. (The pro-ID argument is laid out in detail on the Center for Science and Culture website of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Mainstream explanations of evolution as a natural process are well described for the non-scientist on the Kansas Citizens for Science site and a Science and Creationism publication by the National Academy of Sciences.)

Scientists boycotting the hearings, including members of Kansas Citizens for Science, kept an eye on the proceedings while they staffed a press-relations center on the fifth floor of the capitol. Among their many charges was that pro-ID forces had simply inserted into the science standards a lot of inflammatory language ("an unpredictable and unguided natural process"; "no discernable direction or goal") that was meant to make evolution sound "atheistic." 

And by the time the hearings adjourned on Saturday evening, Calvert and his witnesses had made it clear that the formula "evolution = atheism" did indeed lie at the core of their legal case for the new standards.  

Atheistic Darwinists

The language of the testimony was largely academic, but the tone was at times reminiscent of an old-time revival meeting. Conversion experiences were the rule. 

This was how witness James Barham, "independent scholar" and Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame, introduced his testimony: "I was a convinced atheist Darwinist for 20 years. Slowly, it dawned on me that my interest in the spiritual side of humanity could not be reconciled with my study of science."

Jill Gonzales-Bravo: "At Kansas State University I learned quickly that anyone who believed differently [from evolution through natural selection] was not a true intellectual. I became part of the liberal movement and went into the Peace Corps. But I had children and my worldview changed." She came to see that "evolution takes from students the belief that they are here for a purpose."

John Sanford: "Most of my career I was an atheistic evolutionist. Then I became a theistic evolutionist and finally a biblical Christian. My belief in evolution had been based solely on authority. To the atheist, there is no alternative hypothesis."

Just Confused

The Board of Education had appointed Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray to argue the case for the science standards drafted by the writing committee's 18-member majority. With the scientific boycott in place, Irigonegaray's chief task was to cross-examine the pro-ID witnesses.

In Summer for the Gods (1997), a history of the notorious Monkey Trial held in Dayton, Tenn. 80 years ago, author Edward Larson noted that when cross-examining adversary William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow avoided questions that would allow Bryan to "answer with his well-honed remarks" about the deficiencies of evolution. Rather than give Bryan a "soapbox for his speeches," Darrow focused on exposing him as a religious extremist.

Irigonegaray appeared to be following Darrow's example. He steered clear of most scientific issues, attempting instead to demonstrate the fundamentally religious nature of the witnesses' arguments. (To back up his contention that ID is a fringe theory even in the religious sphere, Irigonegaray read from a document signed by more than 3,700 clergy. An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science praises the theory of evolution as "a core component of human knowledge.")

He asked James Barham, as he did several of the witnesses, if teaching evolution to Kansas children was equivalent to teaching materialism and atheism. "That depends on how it's interpreted by the child," said Barham. "But that is the framework. Teachers who disagree with that framework should be allowed to teach as they feel is right." 

He asked Angus Menuge, a professor of philosophy at Concordia University, "How do you explain the many theists, including evangelical Christians, who don't see [evolution through natural mechanisms] as a contradiction of faith?" Menuge didn't flinch: "Some of those people are just confused." 

During the two days of hearings that I attended, Irigonegaray began his cross-examination of each witness with the same three questions. In response to the first, "What, in your personal opinion, is the age of the earth?" nine witnesses cited the widely accepted figure of around 4.5 billion years. 

Other witnesses bowed at least somewhat to biblical orthodoxy. Gene-gun inventor Sanford put the earth's age at "maybe 10,000 years" but "not as young as 5,000." Pressed for an answer, Roger DeHart finally concluded that "I'm fine with" an estimate of 5,000 to 100,000 years. Daniel Ely and Nancy Bryson gave themselves plenty of room for maneuver, putting the earth's age at somewhere "between 5,000 and 4.5 billion years." 

Irigonegaray's second and third questions went to the core of what ID proponents call "the controversy." He asked each witness if she or he agreed that life as we see it today is the result of "common descent" (that is, that species evolve from other species through purely natural causes) and that humans are descended from pre-hominid ancestors. Eleven of 13 witnesses rejected both statements, with varying degrees of force.

Pressed to provide an alternative explanation for the origin of the human species, some witnesses declined, while others offered earnest responses: 

"Design, which implies a designer, but we don't go there."

"A creator, but I wouldn't expect the State to teach that."

"An intelligent designer, based on my theistic views."

"Humans and the non-human living world have qualitatively different features that are very mysterious."

"God, by special creation."

Warren Nord enthusiastically recommended that schools should wrap every subject, including biology, in its religious and philosophical context. An incredulous Irigonegaray asked him, "Is it important to have religion taught in economics class?" 

Nord: "Yes."

Irigonegaray: "What about math class?"

Nord: "I can make a case for that."

Several witnesses flatly refused to discuss their personal religious views, but only one of them was explicit about being a non-Christian. Mustafa Akyol of the International Dialogue Platform in Istanbul, Turkey argued that opening biology classes to ID in the United States would do wonders for our relations with the Muslim world. Muslims today, he said, are alienated by the West's materialism, which "includes atheistic philosophy." 

Apparently, Calvert had invited Akyol in order to demonstrate that the ID camp pitches a big tent. But Akyol himself may be more of a small-tent kind of guy. The week of the hearings, Kansas City's Pitch Weekly reported that Akyol is associated with a cultish organization called Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, which has harassed, threatened and slandered Turkish academics who teach evolution.

Keeping the Designer Under Wraps

A biology teacher who discusses with her students the case for intelligent design -- as she would be allowed to do under the alternative science standards -- might well be asked by students, "So, tell me, who or what did the designing?" At the hearing, most witnesses wanted to discuss only design, not a designer. That often required some fancy footwork. Here is Irigonegaray's exchange with Russell Carlson, professor of biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Georgia:

Irigonegaray: "The intelligent designer is God?"

Carlson: "Well, yeah, I'd agree with that."

Irigonegaray: "Science should be neutral with respect to religion?"

Carlson: "Yeah."

Irigonegaray: "But intelligent design places faith in ... "

Carlson: "No, the designer is neutral."

Irigonegaray: "You said the designer is God."

Carlson: "We shouldn't discuss the identity [in the classroom]."

Irigonegaray: "We should keep that a secret?"

Carlson: "When children have questions about the materialist explanation, we now send them to their parents or pastors. Instead, design should be offered as an explanation."

Carlson later added that if a child asks about the identity of the designer, that is the point at which he or she should be sent to a parent or pastor. 

Following Angus Menuge's testimony, I asked him what should happen when children ask, "Who's the designer?" Menuge said, "You should cut off discussion at that point, and pursue it in a forum other than the classroom."   

But it will be teachers and administrators, not university professors, who determine what actually happens in Kansas public schools under the new standards -- and the pro-ID members of the state Board of Education do not appear to be so circumspect when it comes to religion. During an intermission, I asked board member Kathy Martin whether, as Menuge suggested, a teacher should cut off discussion of the designer's identity.

"Oh, no," she said. "If a student wants to have that conversation, there's nothing wrong with the teacher discussing that. It's all about the students' needs, and as you know, they have a lot of needs these days. I was a teacher myself. If, say, a student's puppy has been run over by a car, the student and I might pray about it together, privately. It's not about religion -- it's about helping the student."

Connie Morris, another pro-ID school board member, told me, "No, we can't mandate intelligent design or creationism in the school standards. But as the fellow from Ohio said, we have to let students go where the evidence leads. I'll give you an example. Did you know there is evidence now that prayer is beneficial in treating cancer?" I asked if teachers should be able to teach about that. Morris, her eyes brightening, said, "Absolutely!"

Those school board members gave substance to a scenario foreseen by Harry McDonald, spokesperson for Kansas Citizens for Science: "They don't even have to introduce ID into the standards. All they need is for a child to ask about it, and that will open the classroom door to religion."

The Legal Strategy

The final witness was Calvert himself, who announced that he planned to file "an extensive legal brief" in the coming days that would provide the basis for revising the science standards to allow ID. His legal argument, which had been implicit in all of his questioning of witnesses, goes like this: 

(1) Evolution as it's now taught in Kansas schools is based on methodological naturalism, that is, the search by science for explanations only in the natural world.

(2) Methodological naturalism always implies philosophical naturalism, the belief that there is nothing beyond the natural world. (This, say anti-ID scientists, is the fatal flaw in the argument.)

(3) Philosophical naturalism is atheistic.

(4) Atheism is a religion. (Needless to say, this is a proposition not universally accepted.)

(5) Therefore, religion is already being taught in Kansas biology classes.

(6) So religious fairness requires that evidence for intelligent design and against evolution through natural selection also be allowed in the classroom.

By arguing, implicitly, that the supernatural should be introduced into science curricula alongside "naturalistic" ideas, Calvert is relying on the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that teaching be "secular, neutral, and non-ideological" with respect to religion. 

For three long days, many in the audience had been wondering which witnesses were correct -- those who said the new standards would not inject religion into the curriculum or those who said or implied that they would. 

In his testimony, Calvert cleared up that confusion. To meet the legal requirement of neutrality as he defined it, schools either must allow religious teaching in biology classes or else allow nothing at all to be taught about how biological species come to be.

The ID forces' reliance on federal law is significant. After the hearings, Irigonegaray told reporters, "What we saw in there was religious extremism, and what we are seeing in Kansas is happening all across this country."

Adding to that, Harry McDonald of KCS noted that only four of the nearly two dozen witnesses were from Kansas. "They had to scour the nation to find enough people to testify. With a word, we could have had thousands of Kansas scientists here to support evolution."

But this struggle is unlikely to be decided in the scientific arena. In America, where polls have shown that a majority believe in some form of creationism and want it taught in their schools, it's easy to portray the defenders of biological evolution as anti-democratic, overly educated elitists. 

One KCS scientist provided this understated assessment of the hearings' outcome: "Looking around at the audience in there, I realized that we do have a communication problem."

By walking a couple of hundred steps from the door of the hearing room, witnesses and audience members would have found a reminder that Kansas has been an ideological battleground longer that it has been a state. In a hall just off the Capitol rotunda is John Steuart Curry's great mural of John Brown towering over Union and Confederate forces as he brandishes a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other. 

Then as now, Kansas was a magnet for out-of-state religious radicals. But then, a century and a half ago, they were on the right side of history. 

Someday, historians may kick around the question of who was right and who was wrong in the Kansas battle over science education. The state's schoolchildren also will be weighing that question, and they won't have to wait very long for the chance to do so. Their new science standards are due out this summer.

Stan Cox lives in Salina, Kan. He has a Ph.D. in plant breeding and cytogenetics and has been a plant breeder for 22 years.