A six-day courtroom-style debate opened on Thursday in Kansas over what children should be taught in schools about the origin of life — was it natural evolution or did God create the world?
The hearings, complete with opposing attorneys and a long list of witnesses, were arranged amid efforts by some Christian groups in Kansas and nationally to reverse the domination of evolutionary theory in the nation’s schools.
William Harris, a medical researcher and co-founder of a Kansas group called the Intelligent Design Network, posed the core question about life’s beginnings before mapping out why he and other Christians want changes in school curriculum.
School science classes are teaching children that life evolved naturally and randomly, Harris said, arguing that this was in conflict with Biblical teachings that God created life.
“They are offering an answer that may be in conflict with religious views,” Harris said in opening the debate. “Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is currently in schools. This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications.”
Conservative groups are trying to convince state education officials to change guidelines for how evolution theory is taught in science classes at a time when Kansas education authorities are producing new science teaching guidelines.
The hearings — organized by a committee of the Kansas Board of Education — were taking place 80 years after the so-called “Monkey Trial” of John Scopes, a Tennessee biology teacher who was found guilty of illegally teaching evolution.
There is renewed debate over evolution in more than a dozen U.S. states and a resurgence across the nation in the influence of religious conservatives, who played an important part in the reelection of Republican President Bush last year.
TEACHERS AND PREACHERS
The Kansas hearing drew a large crowd that included students, teachers and preachers. National and local scientific leaders for the most part boycotted the event.
Pedro Irigonegaray, a lawyer defending evolution in the debate, said he planned to call no witnesses, though he did cross-examine witnesses, sometimes combatively.
Harris acknowledged under questioning that there were many people who saw no incompatibility between religious beliefs that God created life and evolutionary teachings about how life evolved through natural processes.
Outside the hearing room, outraged scientists challenged the validity of the hearings. “This is a showcase trial,” said Jack Krebs, vice president for Kansas Citizens for Science. “They have hijacked science and education.”
Ken Schmitz, a University of Missouri/Kansas City chemistry professor attending the hearing said he worried that the attack on evolution could confuse students and endanger their ability to excel in science.
“They are not going to understand this,” said Schmitz.
Changes to the curriculum proposed by the conservatives would not require inclusion of Biblical beliefs in science classes, also called “creationism” – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism could not be taught in public schools alongside evolution.
But they would involve questioning the principles of evolution as explanations for the origins of life, the universe and the genetic code. As well, teachers would be encouraged to discuss with students “alternative explanations.”
Kansas has been struggling with the issue for years, capturing worldwide attention in 1999 when the state school board voted to downplay Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in science classes.
Subsequent elections altered the membership of the board and led to renewed backing for evolution instruction in 2001. But elections last year gave conservatives a 6-4 majority and the board is now producing new science teaching guidelines.