On the first day of December, the public affairs experts of two Washington, D.C. based geological groups held a strategy session in Alexandria, Va.
Given their shared interests, the meeting was not unusual -- but the driving force behind it could be seen as remarkable, even astounding:
The possibility that creationist doctrine might replace the teaching of evolution in American schools.
This issue already had claimed many hours of attention from David Applegate, director of governmental affairs for the American Geological Institute (AGI) in Alexandria, and Peter Folger, manager of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C.
Both believe that geologists and other scientists must become more involved in local politics to preserve high-quality science instruction -- a concern that was sharpened by events in Kansas during last summer.
In August, the Kansas State Board of Education adopted new science standards for the state's public schools, which delete references to the evolution of one species to another, or "macroevolution." However, they do mention natural selection and changes within species.
The revised standards state, in part:
"The origin of the universe remains one of the greatest questions in science. Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables (and) cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated."
Science groups across the United States expressed concern after the Kansas board voted to de-emphasize evolutionary concepts. Many worried that evolution would not be taught if it were not required or included in testing, and that in some cases creationism might be substituted for evolution in the classroom.
"We're reaping the whirlwind of scientific illiteracy in this country," Applegate said.
"The creationists' real success is in making people feel they have to choose between their religion and science," he added.
"And science to people is a black box."
Some press reports found public support for the Kansas decision, citing a 1997 Gallup Poll in which 44 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement, "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so."
Sixty-eight percent of those polled also thought "creationism should be taught along with evolution in public schools."
In November, an Oklahoma textbook committee debated whether or not to restrict evolution instruction. As a compromise, it voted to adopt a 260-word disclaimer for science textbooks, stating that evolution is a controversial and unproven theory.
Alabama adopted an evolution disclaimer for textbooks in 1996. Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas also have approved or proposed limitations to evolution instruction.
Kentucky is reportedly considering evolution teaching restrictions.
Yet evolution instruction has not been forbidden in any state school system. Is the science community over-reacting?
"Absolutely not," said Lee Allison, Kansas state geologist and director of the Kansas Geological Survey.
"The reason so many scientists, so many geologists have been concerned about the events that happened in Kansas over the summer is the recognition that it potentially has a tremendous impact," he said, "not only on biology and geology, but on all science."
Allison said he prefers the term "anti-evolutionists" to "creationists" when discussing the new Kansas science standards, because some creationists also accept evolution as fact. He said recent attempts to alter school standards are a change of tactics by anti-evolutionist groups.
"They're not doing it on a frontal assault. It's more of a stealth approach," he said. "It's a way for them to demand equal time for a creationist approach or a creation science approach or a biblical approach."
By counting the generations listed in the Bible, creationists estimate the age of the Earth -- or the time since creation -- at about 10,000 years. Allison said that leads some to believe dinosaurs roamed the plains of Kansas up until the 20th century.
"Some of the people in the creation science group have challenged gravity," he said. "They're saying the idea of gravity is as much in question as evolution."
So Who's Fighting?
Apathy and lack of awareness among scientists help to create a social environment where evolution instruction can be challenged, according to Allison.
"We've obviously had our heads buried in the sand," he said. "We've thought, ‘Well, this can't happen here.' Or if there is a fight, someone else will fight it."
When the fight began, there were no "anti-evolution" marches. Instead, there were non-event elections and nominations to key decision making boards of persons who shared a common agenda -- a "standard issue" strategy for those pursuing personal political aims in the 1990s, observers agree.
Applegate and Folger believe personal commitment is essential in forwarding the pro-evolution viewpoint. In October, the New Mexico State Board of Education voted 13-1 to revise state science standards, adopted in 1996, that excluded evolution.
Applegate said the New Mexico chapter of the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education was instrumental in the campaign for evolution instruction.
Another group, the Kansas Citizens for Science, is working to reverse the evolution exclusions in that state's standards, he said. In their meeting, Applegate and Folger discussed plans for an evolution-support workshop at the AGU's annual meeting in San Francisco.
"This session we're working on is a primer on how to get involved," Folger said. "How do you organize yourself into a coalition, like these groups in Kansas and New Mexico? What are the problems?"
One problem is getting scientists involved at a grass-roots political level, Folger noted.
(Editor's note: AAPG and other non-profit organizations are severely limited in their organizing of "grassroots" political efforts due to IRS regulations. However, individual members of these non-profit organizations may become active on their own, individual initiative.)
"This isn't a national issue in the sense that Congress is involved," Folger said. "It's more of a state and local issue."
The Kansas education board adopted the new science standards by a 6-4 vote. The board member from Lawrence, Kan., who voted for the standards, "was elected by 13 votes in an incredibly low turnout," Applegate said. "If the geology department (at the University of Kansas in Lawrence) had voted, this whole thing might have gone the other way," he said.
AGI produces instructional materials for young students and has faced some anti-evolution criticism in the past, according to Applegate. It now develops curricula based on National Academy of Sciences standards "and evolution is definitely a big part of it."
"The Kansas board took much of what they used right out of the National Science standards," he noted. "It's just that they took out the part about (macro)evolution."
The Kansas Compromise
Tom Willis of Cleveland, Mo., near Kansas City, serves as president of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America. He helped draft a creationist-oriented set of science standards for consideration by the Kansas education board. Willis said he wasn't satisfied with the standards adopted in August.
"I don't know anybody that was," he said. "The standards that were adopted were a political compromise -- but they were better than the ones that were proposed.
"All they did was hit evolution on the head. That's all that was achieved."
Willis thinks students get "watered-down-science" in high school. He would like students to receive more instruction in reasoning and more exposure to the philosophy of science.
"The reasoning process is not even taught in science class in high school," he said.
"We certainly don't teach learning-by-thinking. Although there are quite a few intelligent science teachers, practically none of them have examined the popular viewpoints." In particular, Willis questions the "tentative nature of the empirical method.
"The 'good science' of today replaces the 'good science' of yesterday ... We still don't know what gravity is. All we know is that rocks come down a certain way. We don't know why they do. We don't know what light is, particle or wave," he said.
Asked for a definition of "creation science," Willis offered a dictionary-derived explanation:
"Science comes from the Latin 'scientia.' Every dictionary I've ever checked defines science as knowledge. So creation science would be knowledge of creation," he said.
"We think you can know as much about creation as evolution."
Home Schooler, Public Agenda
Willis has three children, aged 6, 10 and 12. He acknowledges that science teachers suffer from a lack of instruction time and a lack of attention from students.
"We home-school our kids, and that's a real problem," he said. "We resolved it in my own case, and I resolved it by teaching the basics. My 10-year-old can outread any kid I've seen in the nation, in terms of reading for comprehension."
Overall, Willis thinks home-schooled students outperform public-school students only "slightly." He's open to doubts about the effectiveness of home-schooling, and he knows the challenges.
"It's tough," he said, "but I'm tough and my wife is tough. A lot of people weaken, but I see a lot of benefit in it. My kids can do anything."
He isn't sure if he will continue his efforts to introduce new school-science standards in other states. He said he receives several messages a week asking him to get involved:
"We've had a number of requests from other states, but it seems that the press of other matters detracts from things," Willis said. "We don't get paid for this."
Willis sees geologists relying more on a study of the past than on theoretical pursuits or a "knowledge of calculus." He traces the beginnings of modern geological thought to the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell.
"To read Lyell, it wouldn't hurt if you could think," he commented. "I've never met a geologist who's read Lyell, but I've read enough of him to know that Lyell didn't have much to say.
"If you're going to study the past, it's very important to do a lot of reading and know how to think."
Alan Bennison, a long-time petroleum geologist and public critic of restrictions on evolution instruction, also emphasizes the need to read and think.
Bennison, who lives in Tulsa, received a degree in paleontology in 1940 from the University of California-Berkeley.
"(Creationists) don't read the literature. The scientific library is full of thousands of volumes supporting and explaining the concept of evolution," he said.
"I wish those who disclaim evolution would read the biological and stratigraphic texts and get better educated," he said. "They don't have any business dictating to our school system."
Bennison rejected the idea that evolution can be dismissed as "only a theory," since scientific theory has to withstand scrutiny. He believes ignorance of scientific method has contributed to the anti-evolution movement.
"When you've got a bunch of yahoo lawyers and other people who aren't scientifically trained, this is what happens," he said. "People have the wrong idea of what theory is. Theory is a collection of facts supporting a general concept. It's not guesswork."
Limitations on teaching evolution "will detract from what is taught in science because so many sciences revolve around evolution," he added.
"Geology, biology, astronomy, anthropology, all hinge on the idea that species are changing."
In general, geologists and other scientists should not try to confront anti-evolution activists in public debate, according to those involved in promoting evolution instruction.
"It's a tricky business if you get into arguing this in a public forum with the creationists," Folger said. "There are a lot of logical pitfalls you can get into in front of an audience that is not scientifically trained."
"A scientist who goes and debates with these folks is going to get chewed up," he said. "They've got all sorts of buzzwords and keywords that they can trip you up with, if you aren't familiar with their tactics."
He has faith that Kansas will adopt another set of science standards, one that includes instruction in all aspects of evolution. Four of the six education board members who voted against macroevolution requirements are up for re-election next year, Allison noted.
"I think we're going to fix this in Kansas," he said, "but I don't know how quickly."