New York Times, August 13, 1999, Friday, Page A20


Willful Ignorance of Evolution

Deep sadness is the most sensible response to this week's decision by the Kansas Board of Education to downgrade the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools. Religious and cultural conservatives on the board may have thought they were taking a bold stand against a scientific theory they regard as a threat to "creationist beliefs" in the origins of the universe and all life within it. But the real losers here will be the very schoolchildren the board members thought they were protecting. If local school boards follow the state board's lead, bright students who might be inclined to pursue scientific careers may now reach college age with little or no exposure to the fundamental organizing principle of modern biology, and all students will be the poorer for lacking scientific literacy.

The Kansas school board did not explicitly ban the teaching of evolution, but it did its best to discourage it. The board adopted new statewide science standards the basis for statewide testing of students that eliminate biological evolution as a way to explain the emergence of one species from another. That action makes it likely that many schools and teachers will spend less time on evolution and more time on concepts that will be tested.

That seems a tragedy, given that evolution has become one of the best established of all scientific theories. The central concept of biological evolution that all organisms have evolved from common ancestors through a process of "natural selection" in which those best able to reproduce themselves survived is even more firmly supported today than in the time of Charles Darwin. The revolution in modern genetics has only deepened our understanding of how evolution works by providing a mechanism by which species can change. Yes, there are still arguments and controversies. Critics rightly note that scientists have not yet been able to explain how natural selection could produce the enormously complex machinery inside a human cell, for example. But that may be a matter of time.

The Kansas action is a victory for creationists. Blocked by the courts from forcing creation theory into science curriculums, they are now working to drive references to evolution out of the schools and textbooks. They will be repelled only when the advocates of sound science mount an equally vigorous campaign to keep evolution in the curriculum.