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Evolution of a creationist victory

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

For years, Tom Willis has watched earnest creationists struggle unsuccessfully for a toehold in public schools.

“They’re flicked away like little worms by the school officials,” said Willis, president of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, which promotes Genesis-based creationism over the evolution theory that links humans to apes.

A string of U.S. Supreme Court rejections and overwhelming support from the scientific community for the theory of evolution has hurt the cause of creationists like Willis. Most major religions -- including Catholicism and mainline Protestantism -- allow their faithful to accept evolution as God’s method of creation. (A Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans consider themselves to be creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent describe themselves as theistic evolutionists who believe that God guided creation over millions of years; 7 percent are Darwinists who believe that God played no role in evolution, and 10 percent are undecided or don’t know.)

Willis and his allies are undeterred. They continue to wage a holy war against evolution, using a battle plan that now focuses more on the deficiencies of evolution than on the merits of creationism.

Every once in awhile, they win.

On Aug. 11, they won big.

Six members of the Kansas Board of Education voted that day to drop evolution from state standards and tests. The swing vote that sealed their decision -- cast by a soft-spoken Mennonite seeking a compromise between creationism and evolution -- capped a bitter debate that continues to echo across the nation. Experts say that Kansas may be just the first of a spate of states where anti-evolution forces are working to change the curriculum.

The decision in Kansas shocked pundits, parents and politicians alike. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, cringed publicly and threatened to dismantle the elected board. Evolution-friendly voters vowed to take revenge at the polls next fall, when four conservative board members are up for re-election. Scientists lamented the arrogance of elected officials who “vote” to determine principles of science. Journalists covered the story with breathless incredulity. No one, it seems, really thought the board would do this.

Well, almost no one. Creationists like Willis worked hard to make it happen. And pro-evolution outsiders, like Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education, have seen enough evolution skirmishes to sense what was coming. Since the start of last year, the center has dealt with new or ongoing evolution controversies in 40 states, at the rate of about one new conflict a week.

In many ways, Kansas bore all the marks -- rural, conservative, religious -- of an evolution war zone. The evolution fight does not divide neatly along state or even partisan lines, but creationists enjoy hearty support among rural voters with conservative Christian ties. And the struggle over state education standards -- like the clash over textbooks that often follows it -- offers creationists a perfect opportunity to crusade against evolution.

In Kansas, conservatives pushing for local control against a backdrop of national and state education standards won several seats on the state board in 1996. Their arrival split the board evenly between conservatives and moderates. Critics say fundamentalists targeted the less-visible state board races for a quiet conservative coup. Others say the candidates were elected on open promises of a more autonomous board that would support local control of schools.

“I didn’t have a big issue about evolution,” said Steve Abrams, a conservative who led the anti-evolution charge and joined the board several years before the 1996 conservatives arrived. Abrams said he did not enter office seeking to oust evolution or promote a religious agenda: “I am not trying to push religion into public schools.”

After the 1996 elections, conservatives pushed successfully for a refinement of state standards that were last updated in 1995. Kansas standards do not mandate curriculum, but they guide the state tests that drive assessment of Kansas schools. So the content of state standards informally guides what is taught and what is not.

To revamp state science standards, the board and the state education commissioner convened a committee of 27 scientists and science educators last year. Committee members modeled their work on the National Science Education Standards, which identify evolution as a “unifying concept” that must permeate science education. They also consulted with the National Center for Science Education to find ways to keep evolution front and center in the standards.

When the committee’s second draft appeared for public comment that winter, its evolution emphasis aggravated conservatives like Abrams and their creationist constituents. The draft also alarmed Kansas Catholic Conference lobbyist Mary Kay Culp. Culp said she knows Catholics can accept evolution, but the committee’s work was modeled too closely on the national standards, which “deify evolution,” reflect a troubling social agenda and denigrate religion.

The committee’s fiercest enemies were creationists, who turned out in force to blast the draft standards after their release last winter. Creationists like Willis -- linked by an e-mail chain that keeps them abreast of evolution battles -- decided to draft their own standards. For five months, Willis said, a group of creationists wrote eight drafts of science standards that were periodically reviewed by conservative board members. They worked in teams and communicated on-line.

“If it hadn’t have been for e-mail, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” said Willis, who holds degrees in physics and operations research.

Willis also credits “tough, steel-minded board members” like Abrams, a Baptist veterinarian who once led the state Republican Party, and Scott Hill, a Methodist farmer who also toed the anti-evolution line.

Abrams, who said he does not belong to creationist organizations or receive financial support from them in his campaign for office, said he started working with Willis and his group in the spring. Abrams turned to them for help in drafting standards when it became clear that the science committee would not drop its emphasis on evolution.

“I couldn’t get [the committee] to listen,” said Abrams, who refused to discuss his views on evolution except to say that credible evidence exists to refute it. “Instead of just bitching and complaining, I decided to do something about it.”

In May, Abrams presented a set of creationist-friendly standards to the board. The standards -- which referred to an intelligent designer of the universe and praised applied science over theoretical science -- ratcheted the evolution debate to a new level. The creationist-friendly standards did not win approval, but they wrenched the board’s debate to the right. Now board members faced two choices -- standards developed by their own committee of scientists, or standards developed by one of their own.

Abrams said he submitted his own set of standards because the committee refused to differentiate between microevolution, the idea that living things adapt to survive, and macroevolution, the theory of origins that links humans to apes. By making macroevolution a “unifying concept,” Abrams said, the committee was attempting to teach a scientific theory “as fact” and ignore evidence that contradicts evolution. That, Abrams told the board, is “not good science. ... [Good science] is observable, measurable, repeatable and falsifiable.”

His argument is a popular one among today’s creationists. Many take it a step further, asserting that no one has seen evolution take place, so evolution theory is no more credible than the Bible’s creation account.

Such relativistic rhetoric may sound odd coming from fundamentalists, but it has served them well in states such as Alabama. Science textbooks there warn students not to accept anyone’s conclusions about the origins of the universe because no one was around when life began.

Abrams’ argument left little common ground between board conservatives and the committee. The two sides reached an impasse. That’s when Abrams and Hill joined with moderate Harold Voth to draft a third set of standards based on the committee’s work. Voth, a moderate Mennonite and retired school superintendent, had agonized over the evolution question for months. In the end, Abrams and Hill persuaded him to drop macroevolution and elements of cosmology.

“Students should develop an understanding of the universe,” the revised standards said. “The origin of the universe remains one of the greatest questions in science. Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables, cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated.”

On Aug. 11, the three men presented their new draft of standards. The draft passed by one vote -- Voth’s. The draft bore no names of committee members, who pulled out of the enterprise in disgust.

It also bore no mention of the shared ancestry between humans and animals. The standards left local school districts -- and individual science teachers -- to grapple with the origins question, if they bothered to discuss it at all.

The uproar that ensued traveled across America and as far away as Canada, France and China. Much of the clamor came from critics of the decision, who saw the vote as a throwback to the Scopes monkey trial. Abrams said he received negative feedback from “people with lots of letters behind their names,” but his rural and suburban constituents applauded him.

Matsumura said the Kansas case should be a lesson to apathetic and uninformed voters. Creationists across the country continue to use grassroots campaigns and school board decisions to attack evolution, since their efforts on the federal level have borne no fruit. School board reviews of science standards and textbooks give creationists the opening they need to influence science curriculum. So concerned parents should pay attention to state and local school board races and quiz candidates about their evolution ideas.

“Be active citizens,” Matsumura said. “This issue ... often does take people by surprise.”

Surprising as the Kansas decision was for evolution supporters, it did not fully satisfy Abrams or even Willis. The standards that ultimately passed may inspire some creationists to “harass the anti-God groups of our culture,” Willis said, but the standards were “more or less sickly.”

“Politics,” Willis said after the decision, “is a fragile enterprise.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999