Monkey Fever in Kansas

Derek H. Davis March/April 2000 The Kansas State Board of Education recently decided to demphasize the teaching of evolution in the Kansas public schools. This recharged the ongoing debate across America about the relative merits of evolution and creationism as curricular subjects in the nation's public schools.

Evolution is the scientific theory that organisms evolve over time by adopting traits that maximize their chances of survival. Creationism is the belief, taken generally from the Bible, that the universe and all higher things were created by a higher power. In Kansas, as elsewhere, this is a controversy that promises not to go away. Meanwhile, students are caught in a political tug-of-war between creationists and evolutionists who each seek to minimize, if not eliminate, the ability of the other to present its case in public school settings. The growing polarization between the two camps serves only to penalize America's youth-who deserve better. Is there not some sensible way to settle on what America's public school students should be taught about the origin and development of life forms? In short, is there a way to handle this persistent problem more responsibly than we have in the past?

The Kansas Board's Action
The current controversy in Kansas over the teaching of evolution began on August 11, 1999, when the State Board of Education voted 6-4 to adopt a modified version of the state's science standards, ignoring the recommendations of a 27-member state committee of scientists that had spent an entire year drafting the standards. After the vote, more than half of the drafting committee members protested by asking that their names be deleted from the standards. John Shaver, a cochair of the drafting committee, called the board's vote a "travesty to science education," adding: "Kansas just embarrassed itself on the national stage."(1) Kansas governor Bill Graves, a Republican, expressed outrage. "This is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didn't exist,"(2) he said. Board member Bill Wagnon said the standards could make Kansas students "the laughingstock of the world."(3)

.Board members who voted for the new standards downplayed the effect of the board's action. Board chair Linda Holloway explained that the new standards leave the question of teaching evolution to the state's 304 school districts.(4) "It's a local control issue," she said. Board member Scott Hill said the new standards "simply give more latitude to local school districts in deciding what to teach about the origins of life. Most teachers will probably continue to teach evolution." He added, "I personally believe that improving the specificity, the clarity, and the content area of our standards is a huge step forward."(5)

Exactly what do the new standards provide? On their face, the new standards hardly appear to be the product of a fundamentalist conspiracy to replace evolution with creationism as a curricular emphasis. Indeed, creationism is not even mentioned in the standards. The board subcommittee that revised the standards reportedly had toyed with language in an earlier draft that would have encouraged classroom teaching of creationism as "the idea that the design and complexity of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer," but that language was withdrawn, presumably to avoid a legal challenge. Nevertheless, the approved version eliminates references to "macroevolution," the process by which one species of life evolves into another. Although the approved standards retain references to "microevolution," or genetic adaptations or natural evolution within a species, omitting macroevolution is a major move, since evolutionary theory is essentially meaningless without it. The omission also means that macroevolution will not be included on the Kansas statewide texts required of all Kansas students. Consequently, some school districts may decide not to teach macroevolution, choosing instead to focus on concepts that will be tested. The standards also dropped reference to the bigbang theory of creation of the universe, the idea that the universe began when all matter was compressed into a single point, which then exploded and has been expanding ever since.(6)

Contrary to some news reports, the board's standards do not prevent the teaching of evolution. Several Kansas school administrators do not anticipate changing their current methods of teaching evolution. One superintendent commented, "I guess it probably would not change our science curriculum much. We speak of it [evolution] strictly as a theory anyway." Sharon Freden, assistant state commissioner of education for learning services, pointed out that the new standards are not the equivalent of curriculum. "Curriculum goes way beyond what the state board has adopted in any of its standards," she said. "What we typically counsel schools is to make sure that their local curriculums include what is in the state standards. We would expect in every area of standards that the local districts go way beyond what is in the standards."(7)

Despite the efforts on the part of some to cast the board's action in positive terms, by all accounts the decision is certain to embolden local school boards seeking either to eliminate or minimize the teaching of evolution. Reportedly some school boards have already said they will consider adopting creationist textbooks. Moreover, the sentiment of the general public would seem to side with those who favor the teaching of creationism. In a June 1999 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (which predates the Kansas board's action), when respondents were asked whether they would support or approve creationism alongside evolution in public school classrooms, 68 percent said they would support it. When asked if they would support or oppose teaching creationism instead of evolution, 40 percent said they would support it.(8)

The Battle Joined
The appearance of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 was a watershed event in human history. Its theory of organic evolution was the first serious challenge to traditional beliefs in divine creation. Darwin seemed to present almost irrefutable proof of the fact of macroevolution, namely, that transformation of the form and modes of existence of organisms occurred in such a way that the descendants differ from their predecessors. In other words, through the interplay of random variation, heredity, and the struggle for survival, an indeterminate number of species can arise from existing species.(9) Darwinism challenged longstanding Western conceptions of natural kinds, or types, in which species were identified and grouped according to their unchanging observable characteristics.(10) In upsetting this conception, Darwinism brought with it a blurring of the view that humans are a distinct species and by extension challenged their status as a unique creation of God.

By the early 1900s evolutionary ideas were clearly visible in the botany, biology, and zoology texts. The texts showed a confidence in evolutionary theory that conflicted with fundamentalists' rejection of it as speculative theory.(11) The proponents of creationism declared war on the evolutionists, a war whose biggest battlefield would be the nation's public schools. Over the course of the twentieth century, creationists would employ a number of basic strategies to prevent or limit the teaching of evolutionary theory in America's public schools.

The first strategy of creationists to limit instruction in evolutionary theory was to lobby the state legislatures to bar the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Between 1901 and 1929 they introduced antievolutionary bills in 37 state legislatures.(12) The first state to pass a law banning the teaching of evolution was Tennessee in 1925. The new law made headlines later that year in the famous Scopes trial in which John Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was convicted for violating Tennessee's statute. Although he was found guilty, Scopes was required to pay only a $100 fine.

Despite the guilty verdict, the victorious creationists had little cause for rejoicing. The prosecution team, led by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, was unable to present any credible witnesses for creationism and came off looking like buffoons in the press accounts of the trial. After the trial the creationists nevertheless continued their crusade to pass statutes banning the teaching of human evolution, and were successful in Mississippi in 1926 and in Arkansas two years later. The "banning" strategy ended, however, in 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Epperson v. Arkansas(13) that the Arkansas statute was an attempt to advance religion (by encouraging instruction in creationism) contrary to what the establishment clause permits. Tennessee and Mississippi promptly repealed their antievolution statutes.

Even before the decision in Epperson, however, the strategy to ban the teaching of evolution ran out of steam in 1928 after Arkansas became the third and last state to pass a "banning" statute. Rather than give up, the creationists simply changed tactics. Instead of lobbying for state legislation banning the teaching of evolution, they shifted their attack to local communities, where they engaged in what one critic described as "the emasculation of textbooks, the 'purging' of libraries, and above all the continued hounding of teachers."(14) Their revised strategy was successful, as school boards, textbook publishers, and teachers all over the country succumbed to the considerable pressure they exerted. Darwinism disappeared from many high school texts, and for years, probably until at least the 1950s, many American teachers feared being identified as evolutionists.(15)

With America basking in the glory of the Allied victory in World War II, American Christianity became preoccupied with two new evils: rampant materialism and the threat of worldwide expansion of Communism. According to one writer, "fundamentalists were preoccupied with maintaining their own subculture, setting up Bible camps, colleges, seminaries, newspapers, and radio stations. To the extent that they attacked the public schools, they focused more on prayers and sex education than on evolution."(16) Darwinism quietly reentered the classroom and the science texts. Hardly anyone noticed until the late 1960s when fundamentalists became aroused by the federally funded Biological Science Curriculum Study Texts,(17) which prominently featured evolution. These texts prompted two California housewives to take action. This would soon mushroom into a third major strategy of creationists to wage battle against the teaching of evolution in the nation's public schools. Nell Seagraves and Jean Sumrall learned of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1963 (Murray v. Curlett)(18) that protected atheist students from mandatory prayer in public school. Madalyn Murray's ability to shield her child from religious practices suggested to Seagraves and Sumrall that such creationist parents as they "were entitled to protect our children from the influence of beliefs that would be offensive to our religious beliefs."(19) With this line of argument they convinced the California Board of Education to grant creationists equal rights; creationism would be taught alongside evolution in California's public schools.

Energized by their victory, in 1970 Seagraves helped create the Creation-Science Research Center (CSRC), affiliated with Christian Heritage College in San Diego, to prepare creationist literature suitable for adoption in public schools. Also joining this effort was Henry Morris, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute who resigned his position to help get the center off and running. By 1972 Seagraves and Morris were at odds over strategy. They parted ways, but Morris stayed at the college to establish the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).

By 1975 Morris had added five scientists to the ICR staff, turning ICR into the world's leading center for the advancement of creationism. As a strategy to ensure that creationism received an adequate hearing in the public schools, ICR adopted the "balanced treatment" framework already approved by the state of California. And rather than contend for equal time for "creationism," ICR decided to seek equal time for "scientific creationism" in which "only the scientific aspects of creationism" would be taught. In other words, creationism would qualify as science, a sure way to avoid court decisions holding that the teaching of creationism is an advancement of religion prohibited by the Establishment Clause. Textbook references to the six days of Genesis and other biblical themes were omitted and replaced by "scientific" evidence for a recent flood catastrophe and "scientific" arguments against evolution. The product was the same, but the packaging was new and improved.(20)

The strategy proved to be effective, at least initially. School boards around the country adopted the two-model approach, and a 1980 poll indicated that 75 percent of the public approved.(21) Two state legislatures, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed legislation to require all secondary schools in their states to provide "balanced treatment" of creation and evolution. Arkansas' statute, passed in 1981, was immediately challenged by the ACLU, and the following year a federal district court in Little Rock held that the law constituted an unconstitutional advancement of religion.(22) In answer to the argument presented by the state's attorneys that all polls favored an equal treatment approval, Judge William Overton wrote, "The application and context of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote."(23)

Louisiana's Balanced Treatment Act was similar to the Arkansas Act and was eventually brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7 - 2 decision the Court in 1987 held in Edwards v. Aguillard(24) that although the act's stated purpose was to protect academic freedom, its legislative history indicated that its sponsor had purely religious motives. The Court held that the "preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind,"(25) thus rendering the statute unconstitutional.

With the Supreme Court's holding, the strategy of teaching creation under a theory of mandatory equal treatment alongside evolution went down in flames. Creationist supporters were not about to give up the fight, however. Efforts to pressure textbook publishers to minimize the coverage of evolution enjoyed only limited success. The movement in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s to challenge the viability and effectiveness of American public school education by lobbying for government funding of private religious schools where creationism could be freely taught also made little headway. A new strategy was needed, a fourth one in the twentieth century, and it was the Kansas Board of Education that rose to the occasion in 1999. The strategy: issue formal guidelines to all of the state's 304 school boards that include virtually no obligation to teach evolution. Correspondingly, the guidelines impose no duty to teach creation concepts, either: to do so would arguably violate the Epperson, McLean, and Edwards cases, which prohibit the advancement of religious doctrines. But the strategy is clear: even if creationism is not taught as a classroom subject, at least it is not disadvantaged by the regular presentation of evolutionary theory.

Will this strategy work? Is it constitutional? Does it advance learning in Kansas? Are the students being deprived of a respectable science education? Is the action of the Kansas Board of Education merely a back-door method of advancing religion? These questions are important, they deserve answers, and they beg a more basic question asked at the front of this essay: As we begin the twenty-first century, is there not a more prudent way to handle the creationism-evolution problem than we have handled it in the century just passed?

In all likelihood, the creationism-evolution controversy will persist for the foreseeable future. But it can be handled more effectively than it has been in the past. It is suggested here that both creation and evolution can be shared in the public schools of America, although with restrictions that may not completely satisfy proponents of either viewpoint. But there is room for compromise on this issue, and there is ample space for constructing a framework that is fair and respectful to both viewpoints while remaining within the law.

Perhaps a starting point would be for both sides to appreciate the other's claims for what they are: diametrically opposed approaches to apprehending truth. Darwinian evolution destroyed for many people the most fundamental assumptions of the biblical worldview. It seemed to affirm naturalism rather than supernaturalism. Everything, including religion, could be explained by reducing it to natural causes in the process of development. Appeals to the supernatural were hardly a reliable means of explaining reality; observable, testable natural forces could produce "scientific" knowledge. This transformation in the method of understanding the physical world was truly a paradigm shift of the first order. No wonder supernaturalistic creationists and naturalist Darwinists could not communicate. They operated with such different worldviews and presuppositions about how to explain the world that they could find little common ground.(26)

Some Bible-believing Christians have been able to accept much of Darwinism without collapsing their entire biblical worldview. The Bible, they contend, explains the fact of origin of life, evolution explains the fact of development of life.

It is on such points of commonality that there is hope for some meaningful discussion on science/religion questions between creationists and evolutionists. But many creationists will always insist that the Bible must be interpreted literally, that Darwinism is purely and simply a feeble alternative explanation for life and its variety. Conversely, many within the scientific community believe that Darwinism empirically eclipses supernatural views of life, and look to science as the only means of constructing an accurate view of reality.

Given that Americans find themselves in the middle of a cultural and scientific paradigm shift from which they are not, as a national people, able to see their way clear, it seems prudent that we need to be open and fair with our youth about presenting conflicting alternatives to the origin and development of life. One research team asserts that, despite a century of instruction in evolution offered by the nation's public schools, "large numbers of people reject the theory of evolution."(27) They further assert that the science education community has done an inadequate job of helping teachers present evolution effectively, and are not able to overcome the fact that "most students . . . view the biological world from a kind of pre-Darwinism perspective."(28) Still another research team reports that the problem of a credible presentation of evolutionary theory is exacerbated by the fact that "a significant number of science teachers have serious questions when it comes to evolution."(29) These kinds of problems are not easily overcome. Proponents of evolution would suggest that the real solution to these problems is to eliminate any consideration of creationism in the public schools and give students and teachers a more intensive grounding in evolutionary theory. But this approach is likely only to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it.

It goes without saying that any solution to the creation-evolution dilemma will have to be crafted within the constitutional parameters already provided by the Supreme Court. It is significant that while legislatures, school boards, and activists have all sought in the past to limit the teaching of evolution, courts have rarely done so. In Epperson (1968) the Supreme Court said that any attempt to ban public schools' right to teach "the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals"(30) (the wording of Arkansas' antievolution statute) is tantamount to elevating religious doctrines and thus a violation of the First Amendment, which requires governmental neutrality toward religion. The Court was clearly affirming Arkansas public schools' right to teach evolution.

The Kansas State Board of Education may be attempting to limit instruction in evolutionary theory, but their action certainly cannot be interpreted as an attempt to advance creationism by prohibiting instruction in evolution, and thus their action, if challenged legally, is not likely to be invalidated. Individual school districts in Kansas may themselves attempt to prohibit instruction in evolution while offering creationism in its place, but such an approach not only would be illegal but would also lack the official sanction of the Kansas State Board of Education. But the Kansas board's strategy is nevertheless a bad strategy. It is a bad strategy because it discourages teachers from exposing Kansas students to a widely accepted and fundamental aspect of science.

On the other hand, despite what many assume, creationism, like evolution, also has never been judicially banned from public school curricula. What the courts have repeatedly said is that creationism cannot be presented in a way that advances religion, i.e., it cannot be presented pursuant to a religious mission. The McLean and Edwards cases struck down the "balanced treatment" statutes in Arkansas and Louisiana because they both required that if evolution were taught, then creationism must also be taught; or that if evolution were not taught, then neither could creationism be taught. The courts assumed that in the first scenario (both positions taught) there was a legislative intent to advance a religious doctrine; in the latter scenario (neither position taught) they found there to be a legislative intent to prohibit instruction in science because it was antagonistic to a particular religious doctrine. Under either scenario, the courts held, the government was using its authority to advance a religious purpose, something the establishment clause prohibits.

The courts, however, have never disallowed teaching about religion, provided it is done in an objective, nondevotional manner. Provided there is no religious purpose in teaching a particular subject, virtually any subject can be presented in the public school classroom. As far back as 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court held:

"One's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."(31)

In short, creationism can be presented in public school settings, provided it is presented objectively and not as truth, thus eliminating religious purpose. What is required is pedagogical neutrality. Many public schools offer outstanding courses in anthropology, comparative religion, history, literature, and philosophy in which religious ideas, including creationist accounts of the origin of life, are presented legally. Traditionally, most schools avoid presenting creationism in science classes because the courts have said that religion is not science. But there is no reason that a science class, such as history, anthropology, comparative religion, or literature class, cannot address subjects interrelated to its discipline, creationism among them. Such is the nature of interdisciplinary education. If science teachers, acting either with or without a mandate from legislatures or school boards, objectively, neutrally, and fairly present creationism without seeking to achieve a religious purpose, but as an alternative explanation to life's origin and development, the presentation should not only satisfy constitutional restraints but might also help to diffuse the creationism-evolution controversy that has raged since the Scopes trial of 1925.

Nell Noddings provides a thoughtful response to the issue of creationism and evolution, focusing on pedagogical rather than constitutional considerations:

"Teaching about religion has long been accepted. The central problem . . . is that religious or metaphysical questions may arise anywhere, and I have recommended not only that they be treated wherever they arise-in, say math or physics classes-but that teachers should assume that students are continually asking such questions implicitly, and, therefore, that they should plan their lessons to include such material. Following such a plan means that students will not be able to escape the discussion of religious questions. They will at least hear (even if they decline to participate in) discussions about God, ethics, creation, religious politics, mystical love, atheism, feminism, and a host of other topics. . . . They ([teachers]) need only refer to beliefs clearly stated by others and let students weigh the evidence or decide consciously to reject it in favor of faith.(32)"

In other words, says Noddings, there should be no legal impediment to presenting creationism alongside evolution, provided it is done with genuine objectivity. One of the greatest tests of any free society is its willingness to allow dissent about important issues of the day. This is a major challenge facing science teachers today. As James Fraser notes, "it is not sufficient . . . to hand the debate about evolution over to the humanities or social science classes. That solution divides the world, and human knowledge, in unnatural ways."(33) The debate, argues Fraser, belongs in the biology class. He is right. The capacity of biology teachers to teach good scientific evolutionary biology while also treating the views of dissenting students and their parents with respect will be one important criterion by which success in twenty-first-century multicultural education in America is measured.

Creationism is fundamentally part of a religious worldview. Public schools, as government agencies, may acknowledge this but not join in embracing creationism as the correct worldview. They may objectively present creationism alongside evolution as an alternative explanation of life's origins, but may not use it to achieve a religious objective. Such is the nature (and wisdom) of the separation of church and state. As Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge wrote in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, "we have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion."(34) Justice Hugo Black added in the same case that the Court "could not approve the slightest breach" of the line demarcating church and state. Kansas and other states can responsibly give attention to both creation and evolution in their public schools without effecting the breach.

Derek H. Davis is director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, Waco, Texas. This material, here abridged and edited, appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of The Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy.


(1) Diane Carroll, "Evolution Question Left to Schools," Kansas City Star, Aug. 12, 1999.
(2) Roger Myers, "Evolution Deemphasized: Divided Board Gives Districts Leeway in What to Teach," Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug.12, 1999.
(3) Pam Belluck, "Kansas Votes to Delete Evolution From State's Science Curriculum," New York Times, Aug.12, 1999.
(4) Carroll.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Belluck. See also Kansas Science Education Standards at
(7) Roger Myers, "Educators: No Revolution in Curricula," Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 13, 1999.
(8) Kevin O'Shea, "No More Evolution in Kansas," First Amendment Rights in Education 5 (September 1999): 3, 4
(9) Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 26.
(10) See John L. Rudolph and Jim Stewart, "Evolution and the Nature of Science: On the Historical Discord and Its Implications for Education," Journal of Research in Science Teaching 55, No. 10 (1998): 1071. In addition, see Jon H. Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859-1900 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
(11) George E. Webb, The Evolution Controversy (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky, 1994), p. 62.
(12) Nelkin, 31.
(13) Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 421 (1968).
(14) Ronald L. Numbers, "The Creationists," in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986), 403.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Nelkin, pp. 32, 33.
(17) Gerald Skoog, "The Topic of Evolution in Secondary School Biology Textbooks: 1900-1977," in Evolution Versus Creationism: The Public Education Controversy, ed. J. Peter Zetterberg (Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1983), p. 67.
(18) Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
(19) Number, p. 411.
(20) Ibid., pp. 412, 413.
(21) Ibid.
(22) McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F.Supp. 1255 (1982).
(23) Ibid., p. 1273.
(24) Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
(25) Ibid., P. 591.
(26) George Marsden, "Understanding Fundamentalism Views of Science," in Science and Creationism, ed. Ashley Montagu (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 100.
(27) M. U. Smith, H. Siegel, and J. D. McInerney, "Foundational Issues in Evolution Education," 4 Science and Education (1995): 23.
(28) Rudolph and Stewart, p. 1070.
(29) R. A. Eve and D. Dunn, "Psychic Powers, Astrology, and Creationism in the Classroom," American Biology Teacher 52 (1990): 10.
(30) Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 99-100 (1968).
(31) Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).
(32) Nell Noddings, Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), pp. 133, 134, quoted in Fraser, Between Church and State, pp. 167, 168.
(33) James W. Fraser, Between Church and State, (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 168.
(34) Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 59 (1947).

Article Author: Derek H. Davis