Kansas City Star April 2, 2002

Ohio emerges as next battleground for schools' evolution debate


by Kate Beem

John Calvert believes he came too late to the dispute over Kansas science standards. The conflict had become creationism versus evolution with little room for a third alternative.

Influenced by young-earth creationists, the Kansas Board of Education in 1999 approved science standards that left out references to evolution.

The young-earth creationists -- who hold that science can prove the Earth is only a few thousand years old -- defined the national and international discussion that arose from the Kansas fray.

Calvert, a lawyer from Lake Quivira, thinks a third possibility exists to explain life and its diversity: "intelligent design," the theory that everything in the universe was designed, not the result of natural processes. Intelligent design adherents don't disagree with evolutionists over the age of the Earth or many other tenets of evolution, such as natural selection.

After elections changed the Kansas board, members threw out the 1999 standards.

Now, armed with his knowledge of what happened in Kansas, Calvert has moved on. This time the battleground is Ohio.

As in Kansas, a team of Ohio scientists and science teachers has written new science standards that detail what students should learn and be able to do. The standards are laced with evolution, the scientific theory that living things share common ancestors but have changed over time.

Those standards will go out for public comment several times before arriving at the Ohio Board of Education in December. By state law, the board must vote on the standards by Dec. 31. But the state board could discuss the issue as early as its Monday meeting, some board watchers say.

Since late 2001, Calvert has traveled to Ohio many times. He has spoken to a crowd at Ohio State University in Columbus. He has addressed the Ohio Board of Education's standards committee. He helped write a bill now in the Ohio General Assembly that would permit public school science teachers to engage students in objective discussions of intelligent design.

Calvert's Ohio target isn't evolution so much as methodological naturalism -- the view taken by modern science that only natural explanations for scientific phenomena are acceptable. Calvert and others argue that naturalism requires that life developed only from natural processes and not by design.

Excluding design excludes the designer, they say, and is itself a religious statement.

"Where do we come from?" Calvert, 61, asked recently in a Kansas City debate with an evolutionary biologist. "No question is more important."

Once again, the science community responds that the question is best answered outside science classes, where the search for truth is guided by the natural world and nothing else.

Most scientists dismiss intelligent design because it does not rely solely on natural explanations but accepts the idea that a supernatural creator may have played a part in establishing life's diversity.

But the arguments of the intelligent design movement resonate with a populace that cannot separate religion from science, said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

The intelligent design community makes an argument that is vague enough to appeal to more people than creationism does, Scott said.

"It tends to attract more people into a bigger tent," she said.

The man largely credited with starting the intelligent design movement, University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, and his Seattle-based Discovery Institute have a plan called the "wedge strategy." It seeks to legitimize the discussion of intelligent design in scientific circles, universities and the national media.

The Kansas board's 1999 vote on its science standards provided the push that the "wedge" needed to be successful, Johnson has said. The Kansas situation unearthed a grass-roots effort that has spread to other states through the work of people such as Calvert, Johnson said.

"In Ohio as in Kansas, the most important thing is not the immediate outcome but the building of the broad-based movement with the right strategy," Johnson said. "We can afford a defeat in Ohio. But the Darwinists cannot afford a defeat anywhere."

Scientists such as Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, see the rise of such grass-roots organizations as proof that American science education needs an overhaul. That's why science standards are being developed in the first place. The Ohio science writing committee understands that, Krauss said. But he's not so sure about the state board, which so far is split on the idea.

"The people at the board don't understand science," Krauss said.

The Kansas debate

In 1999, Calvert was in the right place at the right time. With an undergraduate degree in geology and an avid interest in science, Calvert had become convinced years earlier that Darwin's theories are inadequate to explain the complexity of life. His studies of intelligent design became an avocation, a respite from his day job as a corporate lawyer with the Kansas City firm Lathrop & Gage.

When he learned that the Kansas Board of Education would be receiving new science standards that included evolution as a concept unifying all the science disciplines, Calvert traveled to Topeka to offer the board his views.

The board room was packed. Calvert and more than 30 others spoke about the standards and an alternative set written by members of a Missouri creation science group. Calvert listened as the speakers continued coming, and one in particular caught his attention: William Harris of Prairie Village, a lipid researcher at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City and a professor with an endowed chair at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Harris appealed to the board to consider intelligent design, and Calvert knew he'd found an ally.

Sitting in the audience was a third intelligent-design adherent: Jody Sjogren of Lenexa. An illustrator with a master's in science, Sjogren didn't address the board that day. But she took notes as Calvert and Harris spoke, and weeks later she tracked down Calvert. Soon the three formed the Intelligent Design Network Inc., exactly the sort of grass-roots endeavor Johnson was looking for.

The network is a loosely linked group of intelligent-design supporters from across the region and the country. They correspond over the Internet and have gathered in Kansas City the past two summers for a weekend symposium on intelligent design.

As the Kansas debate simmered through the 2000 election cycle, the Intelligent Design Network offered the board Harris' scientific expertise and Calvert's legal knowledge. What intelligent design supporters want is simple, Calvert said: They want science standards to allow objective discussion of both evolution and intelligent design. And they want discussions to remain "religiously neutral," with no comments on the designer's identity or existence.

"Anybody involved in this issue is going to have a religious view one way or the other," Calvert said. "Once `origins science' is done objectively, I'm ready to fold up the tent and go home."

The Ohio issue

In January 2001, Calvert retired early from the law firm to devote himself to the Intelligent Design Network. He wrote legal opinions on teaching "origins science" and took over the group's administrative duties.

At last summer's symposium, where Johnson gave the keynote address, Calvert, Harris and Sjogren learned about the Ohio situation. Robert Lattimer, who favors intelligent design and is a member of the Ohio science standards writing committee, attended the event and approached Calvert and Harris. They helped him revise a set of alternate science standards he had written.

In September, Sjogren moved to Columbus for personal reasons and found a group of people ready to mount pressure on the board to include more than just evolution in the new standards.

Sjogren's group is called Science Excellence for All Ohioans. A pro-evolution group called Ohio Citizens for Science, modeled after Kansas Citizens for Science, has also formed.

Comparisons between what happened in Kansas and what's going on in Ohio are common, and the Ohio science community is wary, said Patricia Princehouse of Ohio Citizens for Science. Princehouse teaches in the philosophy department at Case Western Reserve University.

The similarities between the two situations "seem kind of odd," Princehouse said. "People do feel like we were targeted by Kansas and the Discovery Institute."

But the most striking difference between the science standards issue in the two Midwestern states remains the framers of the debate. The absence of young-earth creationists from any visible role in the Ohio science standards discussion is an important distinction, both sides agree.

The courts have repeatedly found that creation science is religion, not science. Legally, it cannot be presented in science classes.

But the law isn't so clear cut when it comes to intelligent design. And that's what worries people such as Scott of the National Center for Science Education.

Intelligent design won't pass muster with scientists, Scott said, but it's gaining popularity with the nonscientific public, and its proponents are clearly looking for a victory through legislation or a lawsuit.

Intelligent design proponents "want to cut to the head of the line, so to speak," Scott said.

Calvert sees it differently. His legal background convinces him that freedom of speech and religion guarantees intelligent design a place at the table. Science won't bend, so someone has to make it. In the United States, that's a job usually left to the courts, he said.

"We have a Berlin wall," Calvert said. "It's called `naturalism.' That wall's going to come down. There's absolutely no question in my mind that's going to happen."

"Where do we come from?"

In debates over science standards for schools in Kansas and Ohio, three leading explanations for the origin of life have emerged:

• Evolution: Living things share common ancestors but have changed over time. Under this theory, only natural explanations for scientific phenomena are acceptable.

• Intelligent design: Intelligent causes, such as a designer, not natural processes are responsible for the origin of the universe and for the diversity of life. Intelligent design adherents don't disagree with evolutionists over the age of the Earth or many other tenets of evolution. But they believe scientists should look for logical, not natural, explanations.

• Young-earth creationism: God created the universe and everything in it in six, 24-hour days. Advocates believe proof that the Earth is only a few thousand years old can be found through science and the Bible.

File Date: 04.07.02