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Textbook battle over evolution

In 1997, the last time the Texas Board of Education considered new biology books, the board almost accepted textbooks that did not mention evolution. The Texas Education Agency, which writes the state education standards, virtually eliminated the possibility of that reoccurring by requiring that textbooks include evolution, and that students learn evolution’s basic concepts. But now that the Texas board is considering 11 biology and science textbooks for adoption and use in its 2004-2005 school year, the evolution debate has once again erupted in Texas and around the country.

Opponents of evolution have been lobbying to introduce what they perceive as weaknesses of evolution into the science books. At a July 9 hearing, the board heard from nearly three dozen scientists and educators from across the state who defended the tenets of evolution and challenged the board to reject the lobbyists’ attempts at “watering down evolution.” Evolution proponents refuted findings from a recent report by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s (DI) Center for Science and Culture, which criticizes the accuracy of evolution discussions in the biology textbooks in question.

As Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks in the country, if the board rejects these textbooks for language it dislikes about evolution, publishers are likely to remove the language or change it to meet board standards. These compromises could then show up in other states.

DI is a nonprofit organization that promotes intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Their 41-page analysis of the treatment of evolution is based almost entirely on biologist and DI fellow Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution. The report calls the tenets of the theory of evolution erroneous and says evolution is falsely portrayed in the textbooks.

Louis Jacobs, a paleontology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says that poking holes in evolutionary theory is merely a thinly veiled attempt to interject fundamentalist religion into schools. “First there was an attempt to ban evolution,” Jacobs says. “Then there was an attempt to instigate equal time for ‘creation science,’ and now there is ‘intelligent design.’”

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network (a nonprofit, nonpartisan alliance of more than 7,500 religious and community leaders), who attended the hearing, told the Associated Press that intelligent design is biblical “creationism dressed up in a laboratory coat.” Evolution supporters fear that the Texas board will use the DI analysis to influence publishers to include references to intelligent design as scientific theory.

But DI, which denies any affiliation with religious organizations, states that its support for intelligent design is not related to its position on teaching evolution — that students should learn about evolution, but should also learn the controversies and weaknesses of the theory.

Some evolution supporters are quick to point out that several DI fellows and donors are noted members of the Christian right, including fellow Raymond Bohlin who serves as director of communications for Probe Ministries. Bohlin represented DI at the public hearing.

Critics also say that the DI analysis fails to offer a solution, other than the removal of evolution entirely or the teaching of “evidence against” evolution. “If it is an educational issue, improve education,” Jacobs says, by teaching geology in high school, for example.

Geologist Edward Roy of Trinity University in San Antonio has spearheaded the effort to include earth science in the curriculum of Texas high schools. He and other geoscientists believe learning earth science is critical to the intellectual development of students (Geotimes, September 2002).

In May, the Texas House of Representatives passed legislation giving the state board the authority to reject textbooks for any reason, overruling its own law that the board could only reject textbooks for factual errors or for not meeting the state’s curriculum requirements. The state Senate Committee on Education is currently considering the bill, which has not yet reached the floor for a vote. If passed, the bill will make it easier for the board to reject textbooks over issues such as evolution. Regardless of the outcome, the board can decide in November to allow weaknesses of evolution or intelligent design into the textbooks, but it cannot wipe evolution entirely out of the curriculum.

Board members said at the meeting, which reportedly had about 200 attendees, that they would try to keep open minds and consider all options. The board is now sifting through arguments before its next public meeting on Sept. 10. In the meantime, publishers, watchdog groups, scientists, teachers and students are awaiting the final vote in November.

“I do not know how the decision of the Texas school board will turn out,” Jacobs says. But “if the science of evolution overcomes anti-evolution forces in this textbook struggle, the same conflict will arise the next time textbooks are evaluated.”

Megan Sever

Link:

Earth Science in Texas: A Progress Report, Geotimes, September 2002



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