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Fossil Museum in Kansas Defends the Scientific Method

The Department of Education in the midwestern state of Kansas is considering a change in the science curriculum to permit discussion of evolutionary theories other than Darwinian natural selection. This would include the concept that life was created by an Intelligent Designer, such as God. The debate extends beyond the classroom... to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, in Hays, Kansas.

Towering above the museum's other exhibits is an animated re-creation of a Tyrannosaurus rex. A little boy scoots a little closer to his mother as the robot dinosaur swivels its enormous head toward a group of visitors. It lets out a mighty roar.

Paleontologists say 65 million years ago, that roar echoed across the landscape of what is now America's heartland. One hundred forty years ago, the Sternberg family began to find the fossilized remains of the dinosaurs and ancient fish that once lived in Kansas. The Sternberg Museum honors the contributions of this dinosaur dynasty - 3 generations of amateur fossil hunters -- and is a magnet for people who like to discover fossils themselves.

Today, a young boy brings in an ancient molar he's found. It's so big, it takes both of his hands to carry it. Museum curator Greg Liggett confirms that it came from a wooly mammoth. "This tooth is obviously well mineralized," he tells him. "I would say it's anywhere from say 10,000 years old to 2 million years old."

While holding a 10,000-year-old tooth is pretty exciting, Mr. Liggett says the idea that it could be a 2 million year old tooth occasionally starts an argument. That's because some increasingly vocal Kansans adhere to a Biblical view of how life began. "This is a belief that many people who are promoting this kind of creation idea hold," he says with a sigh, "that in fact, the earth is only 10,000 years old. And then there's a whole suite of beliefs that may or may not go along with it."

This 'suite of beliefs' ranges from the Biblical view of creationists to the more scientific-sounding Intelligent Design. Proponents of these theories say certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause -- such as God -- rather than by an undirected process such as natural selection.

Greg Liggett says that occasionally, people with Creationists leanings criticize the science of the Sternberg science museum. "We've had Creationist-led tour groups . . . church groups, maybe, would come through, and would walk through our exhibits and they would point out, oh, now, this can't be the case because of blah blah blah."

While Mr. Liggett says these visitors are entitled to their opinion, he doesn't think spirituality and science have to be in conflict. "Religion deals with ideas about man's relationship to God, how we should live, how we should live right with God," he explains. "Science is a study of the physical reality of the world. Physical reality and spiritual reality are two completely different ways of knowing about the world. And they're not at all at conflict."

Mr. Liggett points out that even deeply religious scientists base their scientific findings on observations of things that anyone can taste, touch, see, hear or smell. "Where we get [into conflict] is where one tries to talk about the other. If your spiritual belief says the earth has to be this many years old, you're using a spiritual idea to talk about an empirical reality."

The Department of Education in Kansas is considering changing the science curriculum in state schools. The proposed revisions would stress that Darwinian evolution has not been proven and is still a theory… and allow teachers to discuss alternative theories.

However, William Harris, a leader at the Intelligent Design Network in Kansas City, says that doesn't mean teachers would be presenting the Biblical version of creation. "This is not an issue about the age of the earth. This is not an issue of, Are dinosaurs real or not." What it is an issue of, he says, is whether or not science teachers can suggest that an Intelligent Designer may have helped dinosaurs happen, instead if teaching only that natural selection is how they evolved. "What I object to is that it's presented as fact when we don't know that it's true. And we do know that every experiment that's been done to try make that happen -- actually produce a new species -- has failed."

William Harris adds that scientists' failure to replicate evolution in the laboratory is strong evidence for an Intelligent Designer in the universe. He says he'd also like science museum exhibits to present Intelligent Design on a par with natural selection as theories to explain the incredible diversity of life on earth -- today and in the distant past.

The tyrannosaur's place in the Sternberg Museum is secure… no matter what the state Department of Education decides. However, curator Greg Liggett worries that if the school curriculum changes to include theories such as Intelligent Design, critical scientific inquiry in Kansas classrooms might go the way of the dinosaurs.