In 1860, Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s “bulldog”) trounced Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the Oxford debates, and the science community cheered. At the Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow bested William Jennings Bryan and, although teacher John Scopes was found guilty, scientists celebrated a media victory. But last spring, we chose not to participate.
When the Kansas State Board of Education subcommittee issued invitations for a debate between the intelligent design advocates and scientists, the state and national science community boycotted the event. And the moderate Board minority refused to serve on the subcommittee.
Therefore, the conservative Board subcommittee members heard four days of testimony from about two dozen anti-evolution speakers. Only a handful were university biologists or held credentials that would allow them to apply for such a position. The rest were drawn from school teaching, philosophy, and other areas.
The rationale for not participating was that this was a “kangaroo court” that had already made up its mind. However, events in this last month suggest this boycott may have been unwise.
Some science rebuttal did occur in the brief two- and three-minute speaking opportunities at the open forums held at each state board meeting. In October, a K.U. physics professor presented a fascinating definition of fact versus theory, and all nine Board members present were completely attentive. But it takes more depth than can be provided in several minutes to address the days of ID testimony that occurred this summer.
And at final Board deliberations of the science standards earlier this month, again and again, the “new” challenges to evolution were referred to by the conservatives.
The lack of science counter-arguments gave certainty to their stand, and was a constant frustration to the moderates who only had a few minutes to allude to science arguments that could have been fully detailed in a debate.
Would the Board vote have been different had the scientific community participated in the spring debates? Probably not. But several Board members would have been less absolute in their conviction that evolution was a theory in crisis. And more important, the majority of folks in the undecided middle, who are neither pro- nor anti-evolution, would not be vulnerable to the claim that “science didn’t participate because evolution is now on-the-run.”
We don’t vote in science, but we do vote on school boards, in legislatures, and for those who appoint government personnel who administer science grants. Evolution will continue whether boards choose to believe in it or not. But research grants and future students are at risk if we fail to defend science.
Failing to enter the debate was a mistake. We not only appeared arrogant, we were arrogant.
John Richard Schrock, a biologist, lives in Emporia.