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Evolving in Kansas

A SELF-INTERESTED New Englander might hope that the Kansas Board of Education comes out decisively against teaching evolution. That would put at least one state at a disadvantage as it competes for biotech business. But the anti-evolution movement, advocating the pseudo-scientific notion called ''intelligent design," is making inroads as far east as Pennsylvania. Only if the concept is rejected will Americans show they are committed to the growth of scientific knowledge.

The Kansas school board, an elected body, held hearings this month to discuss revisions in the standards for public education. A majority is sympathetic to the idea that the standards should deemphasize evolution and give equal weight to intelligent design, which holds that complex structures of life were created by divine intelligence rather than natural processes.

Every high school student needs a thorough knowledge of evolution. It is the overarching concept of the biological sciences. A change would encourage students to equate untested beliefs with rigorously tested science.

Scientists in the coalition that supports evolution boycotted the hearings in the belief that their presence would imply that intelligent design deserves equal consideration. They're right that the board was stacked against them, but abstention by itself is an empty strategy. The intelligent design forces are as persistent as they are wrong. They gained control of the board in 1999, tried to rewrite the standards, and lost their majority in the next election. A convincing rout in the next election would ensure that scientific instruction is safe.

Last year, the Kansas Legislature approved a $500 million initiative to attract biotechnology companies into the state. Kansas will be less appealing to these companies if it becomes a haven for antiscientific dogmatism. Scientists would do well to join forces with business leaders to prevent that occurrence.

Evolutionary theory guides the development of flu vaccines, which change every year to cope with evolving viruses. Evolutionary theory helps to track HIV infections. Computer scientists have applied evolutionary theory to software programming. Intelligent design can make no such claims. A public education campaign ought to inform Kansans about the value of solid, time-tested science.

The school board in Dover, Pa., has mandated that intelligent design be taught to ninth-graders. A New York legislator has filed a bill to impose it on that state's public schools. The theory is itself spreading like an evolving virus. New Kansas standards are expected by the fall. Half the 10-member board will be up for reelection in 2006. Those who favor intelligent design ought to be swept from office by an informed electorate.

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