Kansas City Star, September 7, 1999 Tuesday

Debate Over Evolution Hits Home in One County


By Jim Sullinger
The Kansas City Star

PRATT, Kan. If state biologist Chris Mammoliti is successful, public school students in this Kansas community will not be getting the same old Darwin next year. Mammoliti, who works for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, has asked two Pratt County school boards to add "intelligent design" to their science classes as a supplement to Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. That is something no other school district in the nation has done, according to the National Center for Science Education.

Intelligent design suggests that life is too complex to have occurred by chance and that it is more likely the result of an intelligent cause. While efforts such as Mammoliti's might achieve few results in some communities, they are being taken seriously in this rural southwest Kansas town of 6,300. Critics accuse Mammoliti of trying to sneak religion into the schoolhouse through the back door, and they fear he might succeed.

"Pratt could be a tossup the test case," said former state Sen. Fred Kerr, a Pratt farmer who opposes such a curriculum change. The effort by Mammoliti, who said he represented concerned parents, was made about the same time the Kansas Board of Education was making national news by deemphasizing evolution in the state's science standards.

To their surprise, people in Pratt suddenly found themselves in the middle of a national debate. Willa Beth Mills, Pratt Board of Education president, was being quoted in The New York Times. A crew for NBC was on Main Street doing interviews. CNN, CBS and the Los Angeles Times were putting together stories on the town.

"This has brought more attention to Pratt than anything in its history," said Kerr, who worries that all the publicity is hurting the town's image.

"It's not every day I can read about my hometown in The New York Times," an embarrassed 1965 Pratt High School graduate living in Ohio wrote to The Pratt Tribune.

"I think it's been blown way out of proportion," said Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Bohn, whose wife is a school board member. "I don't see the big deal."

Teachers such as Joyce Depenbusch, a math and science teacher in Pratt County's Skyline district, worry that the publicity will overshadow all the good education that occurs in a community that prides itself on high-quality schools. A lot of people have stopped talking to reporters. Kerr said the issue had even strained relationships between neighbors. Mills declined a request for an interview, saying she could not add anything to a statement issued by the board.

That statement lists the steps in arriving at a new science curriculum and says the process normally takes a year. Ken Kennedy, Pratt superintendent, said he expected final board action as early as February.

While the new state science standards affect only what goes on state assessment tests, each district has a curriculum guide that directs what is taught in the classroom.

State standards often influence the way district guides are written. Kennedy said Pratt postponed work on its science guide because of the delay by the state Board of Education in approving its standards.

The current Pratt science guide, written almost nine years ago, contains the following references to evolution: Sixth grade "Explain how similarities in body chemistry and development show evidence of evolution. Describe the basis of (French naturalist) Lamarck's and Darwin's explanations of evolution."

Tenth-grade biology "Summarize the history and the development of the theory of evolution. Contrast the work of Lamarck and Darwin." Mammoliti said that he was not trying to dump Darwin or evolution but that he wanted to add the book Of Pandas and People to the curriculum guide as a supplement to the study of evolution.

He said science textbooks presented evolution as a fact. The Pandas book, he said, presents another viewpoint, intelligent design, and questions some of evolution's assumptions.

"Used together with your other text, it should help to balance the overall curriculum," the authors state in the book's introduction.

But is this science, or religion in disguise? Mammoliti, who served on Pratt's science curriculum review committee, said that the book was "pure science" and that those who wanted to keep it out of the classroom were using religion as a means of censorship.

"There are people who support the use of this book who have no church affiliation whatsoever," said Ernie Richardson, a Pratt lawyer who accompanied Mammoliti when he made his presentation to the local boards. Mammoliti and Richardson said they were surprised at the media attention their effort garnered. "We didn't want this to be a divisive issue in the town," Mammoliti said.

Critics and splits, however, have arisen. The Rev. Larry A. Carver, vicar for Episcopal churches in Pratt and several other towns, said the Pandas theory suggested an "intelligent designer," which would be interpreted by most people as God.

That, he said, brings religion into science class. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that teaching Bible-based creationism in publicschool science classes violates the separation of church and state.

Mammoliti said the Pandas authors did not reach any conclusion about the designer, because it was impossible to show scientifically who or what it was. He said some people, for example, believe that life on earth was "seeded" by extraterrestrial beings.

"I get real concerned when people try to limit the boundaries of science," he said. "We found that only evolution was taught, and only information that supported it."

The Pandas book is promoted by those who support creationism. Mammoliti, however, said it had nothing to do with that theory. He said those who hoped his effort would end the teaching of evolution also might be disappointed.

Sarah Ashley, a 17-year-old senior at Pratt High School, is editor of the school newspaper and plans her first editorial next week in support of Mammoliti. She said that many students did not understand the issue and that media coverage had left a negative impression.

"When they understand it better, they'll see that it only broadens their knowledge," Ashley said. "What's bad about that?"

The American Civil Liberties Union is closely watching a situation in Burlington, Wash., where a teacher uses the Pandas book in his high school biology class. The teacher, Roger DeHart, said he wanted only to give students a balanced view of a scientific debate.

"This is a smoke screen for creationists who have lost in the courts," said Doug Honig, the Washington chapter's public education director. He said the overwhelming number of scientists backed evolution as the underpinning of biology and did not accept arguments put forth by advocates of intelligent design.

Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU's Kansas and Western Missouri chapter, said his office was monitoring the situation in Pratt. He said the ACLU was prepared to move if the Pratt or Skyline districts added intelligent design. "When it happens, we'll be ready," he said.

The Kansas National Education Association also is watching school districts across the state. Organization officials said Pratt was their main concern.