Ah, Kansas. Wheat. Tornadoes. State fairs with pig races and booths selling a pork chop on a stick.
Those are some popular images of the 34th state admitted to the Union. But here's a fact: In May 2005 it became ground zero in the culture wars when three members of the state's board of education held hearings to determine how evolution should be presented in the science curriculum.
The hearings drew international attention and were caught on camera by Jeff Tamblyn and Jeff Peak of Unconditional Films in Merriam, Kan. The filmmakers, including editor Mark von Schlemmer, have reconstructed the cultural whirlwind kicked up by the hearings in "Kansas vs. Darwin," now available on DVD.
The 80-minute documentary features mostly talking heads, but those heads have something worth saying—and hearing. They illustrate why "scientific fact" now has to be put in quotes, as it does when a state's definition of science changes according to who sits on the board of education. That's what happened in Kansas.
The Sunflower State's brouhaha had been going on for six years prior to the 2005 hearings captured in the documentary, with science standards changing depending on, apparently, the religious identity of the majority of the state board.
Then in May 2005, Steve Abrams, Connie Morris and Kathy Martin—all Christians skeptical of evolution—volunteered to hold hearings to see if challenges to evolutionary theory should be codified in the curriculum. Let the games begin.
The filmmakers essentially alternate between footage from the hearings and interviews with key players in this drama. Those players include Abrams, Morris and Martin, as well as attorney John Calvert, who founded the Intelligent Design Network. Obviously, "intelligent design" figures heavily in these proceedings. (ID "holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.")
Stacked against these individuals is the evolutionist crowd, represented mainly by Jack Krebs and Harry McDonald of Kansas Citizens for Science. Krebs calls the hearings a kangaroo court. "Connie's got an agenda," he says in an interview. "She's out to refute evolution." Of course she is, claiming early in the documentary that data is "piling up" to show that evolution is a fantasy.
Key to the documentary is that KCS thought the hearings were a way Connie and company were trying to legitimize creationism and ID. So KCS calls for, and gets, a boycott of the hearings by evolutionists. The result is testimony only from skeptics of evolution. They are, however, "cross-examined" by Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka civil rights attorney.
The hearings garner all sorts of coverage: local, state, national and international. Weirdly, a Turkish columnist even shows up and argues that evolution is part of the "materialist" mindset that Islam so hates about the United States and the West. He seemingly posits that rejection of evolution will somehow prevent terrorism.
Repeatedly in the hearings, Irigonegaray is incensed at the apparent lack of understanding of the science by the three-member panel. And by their own repeated admissions, they don't understand much. How can one debate the science, Irigonegaray argues, if he or she doesn't understand the scientific process?
To be fair, most of us probably aren't that versed in prebiotic soup. Which brings up a fundamental question regarding this issue: How do we know what we know (or think we know)? Who do we listen to? What are their motivations and biases?
The evolutionists' chief problem with ID, they say, is that it tries to fill in knowledge gaps with supernatural explanations. Krebs calls that approach both a non-science as well as an attack on science. Krebs and friends are just engaged in, according to Calvert, "a godless conspiracy" increasingly propped up by the "naturalistic philosophy" of the government.
If you're inclined to dislike Calvert, he's humanized by a personal story—a circumstance that he says drove him to embrace religion. The same may be said for Connie or Steve. As for evolutionists and religion, Krebs won't discuss faith. Neither will Irigonegaray. KCS member Rachel Robson knows enough to quote Isaiah, and another interviewee, medical student Burt Humburg, calls himself a theistic evolutionist, saying a minister helped him understand you don't have to choose between God and science.
"Kansas vs. Darwin" gets better as it ticks along. Just over an hour in, the documentary delivers possibly its most interesting part: the sticky wicket of Earth's age.
The expert witnesses at the hearings seem very reluctant to discuss the topic. They hem and haw. Some eventually say as young as 5,000 years, while others offer older than 4 billion. Answering that question is a Catch-22 for the anti-evolution crowd, because it threatens to torpedo the uneasy alliance between biblical literalists who count a few thousand years back to the Garden of Eden, and others—faithful as well—whose wiggle room accommodates billions.
"Kansas vs. Darwin" functions less to educate viewers about the science and more as a document about a real cultural rift. It illustrates well the politicization of "fact" and how American religion operates in this process.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated.
Reviewer's note: Nothing objectionable.
Director: Jeff Tamblyn Writers: Jeff Tamblyn and Mark Von Schlemmer
Cast: Pedro Irigonegaray; Jack Krebs; Harry McDonald; Burt Humburg; Rachel Robson; Steve Abrams; Connie Morris; Kathy Martin; John Calvert; William Harris.
Also read: MOVE REVIEW: "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"