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Kansas: 8, Darwin: 9 -- Echoes of Dover

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Damned dirty apes.
The never ending seesaw battle taking place in Kansas between religious fundamentalists, and people supporting the teaching of the theory on the evolution of species, has once again tilted in favor of science and Darwin's famed theory.

Over the years, voters have shifted the balance of power on the Kansas state board of education in repeated attempts to influence the teaching -- or lack thereof -- of evolution in public schools.

Sometimes, staunch conservative Republicans dominate the board, making attempts at excising evolution from the states science curriculum that range the gauntlet to removing it from tests that students are required to pass in order to graduate, to forbidding the teaching of the theory altogether.

In other years in what seems to be a regularly alternating trend, parents upset with religions intrusion into the classroom throw out solidly conservative Republicans and replace them with moderates from both sides -- typically ones who ran their campaigns on fixing whatever their opponents supposedly broke -- who then flip the switch and roll back changes made during the previous school year.

Just this week, according to Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian, the anti-evolution majority was swept out of the majority and replaced with a board that voted 6-4 to again alter the teaching guidelines, this time to restore evolutions place in science class and on state mandated tests.

In the fall of 2005, another battle over evolution was just getting underway in Dover, Pennsylvania. A local school board had voted on a new policy that would require a disclaimer to be placed in every book addressing evolution, stating that:

The Pennsylvania academic standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's theory is a theory it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered.

The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent design is an explanation of the origins of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encourage to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards based assessments.

The book referenced in the disclaimer was a point of contention during the trial because in its original form, the book taught the religious concept of creation, where the Earth is 6,000 years old and God created all life and for that matter all of existence.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law that forbid the teaching of evolution in public schools unless it was also taught alongside "creationism" was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and put a permanent end to any attempts to teach creationism in schools, short of a constitutional amendment, or a shift in the sentiment of the nations top court.

Many of the players in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial were either directly involved in Edwards v. Aguillard, or were inspired by it to find an alternative to creation that would pass a test of constitutionality, while still being able to attack evolution as false and champion life as a work of God.

Because the disclaimer encouraged students to examine the book "Of Pandas and People", the plaintiffs focused heavily on the fact that the book as it existed at the time of the trial, and currently supporting the theory of intelligent design, was nearly identical to the version that was examined in Edwards v. Aguillard.

Beyond trivial differences in wording, it appeared that books author had simply done a search & replace on the books source text, replacing instances of the word "creation" and its variants with the words "intelligent design." If memory serves, there was also an additional chapter authored by Michael Behe.

Behe is a well regarded biochemist, but also an advocate of intelligent design, and chief proponent of "irreducible complexity", by which Behe believes parts of the human body at the smallest scales are simply too complex to have been capable of coming into existence at random.

The Dover trial hinged on many points, including Doctor Behe's explanation of irreducible complexity, defendants attempts to prove that the book students were referenced to was not a book of religious beliefs, and that in any case they were only told they could seek it out in the library if they choose; they were not required to read it.

The intentions and actions of the school board previous to the vote that brought about the new policy were also examined.

There was also the primacy of whether or not the theory of intelligent design was a scientific theory at all, or was based on religion.

Judge Jones ultimately found that intelligent design was simply another incarnation of creation, and that the school boards policy of disclaiming evolution was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

No policy in Kansas has lasted long enough to be challenged legally like it was in Dover, though with both creationism and intelligent design both being persona non grata in public schools, it is unlikely that any policy bringing either "theory" front and center will be likely to survive for long.

What is not certain however, is whether or not creation and intelligent design proponents will be successful at simply removing evolution altogether, without addressing any kind of alternative. There are no laws in the United States that require students to be taught evolution, or science at all for that matter, in the strict sense.

Kansas, Dover, and Louisiana are not the only states and towns that have taken a controversial stance on teaching religion in the classroom.

"In the last five years", Goldenberg wrote, "anti-evolution legislation has been introduced in 24 state legislatures and similar policies were under consideration in at least 20 states."

The Dover area school board, much like the state board in Kansas, experienced a shift in ideological stance during the election that followed the beginning of the trial -- one that saw almost the entire school board that previously consisted of Republicans replaced by a slate of Democrats that ran on reversing the previous boards policies regarding evolution.

That change had the side effect of making the ruling a standing legal precedent, as the new board had no intention of appealing a case that their side had just won. The lack of an appeal however also means that the precedent only covers the district where the case was heard, and has no effect on the other states.

As such, we will almost certainly see intelligent design get another day in court in the future, and this fight seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.