As summer activities chase flagella and mitochondria from the minds of Texas schoolchildren, parents and interest groups are preparing to battle over biology textbooks.
Today brings the State Board of Education’s first public hearing on the new books, continuing a decades-long battle over how Texas public school children are taught about the science of life on Earth.
If past years are any indicator, evolution, sex education and the origins of life will be the hot-button topics for parents and conservative groups who will testify before the board. But this year’s arguments over evolution may swerve from the beaten path.
As traditional creationism has lost political ground in Texas, a national movement that embraces the concept known as “intelligent design” has gained influence by using science rather than religion to battle evolution. Intelligent designers believe certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained as the product of intelligent action, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
Two senior fellows from the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit Seattle-based think tank that has led the intelligent design movement, will testify at today’s hearings.
The institute scored a victory in December 2002 when, after much debate, the Ohio Board of Education adopted science curriculum standards that required the examination of criticisms of the theory of evolution.
Factual errors will be the focus of the institute’s criticisms.
John West, assistant director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, said the institute’s intelligent design theories are not related to its position on evolution. West says evolution should be taught, but its discussion should include disagreements among biologists about aspects of the theory.
“If you are going to cover it, you need to cover it correctly,” West said.
The institute has graded each Texas biology text up for adoption on the basis of four “icons of evolution” they say are inaccurate and misleading.
The institute picks each icon apart. For example, it cites problems with a 1953 experiment that produced organic molecules from a mixture of primordial gases. It also claims that fossil evidence of a sudden explosion of life during the Cambrian era (about 500 million years ago) poses a mystery that evolution can’t solve. It argues that drawings of vertebrate embryos are regularly misrepresented and that photos of moths on tree trunks in England, a classic example of the workings of natural selection, were staged.
Bassett Maguire, a biology professor at the University of Texas, says there is truth to the institute’s claims. The moths were staged, the embryos exaggerated. But Maguire says the examples don’t matter as much as the concepts they teach, which he says are still valid. The icons represent flawed but nevertheless historic moments in science, and the concepts they illustrate have since been heaped with supporting evidence, Maguire said.
The institute has tried hard to publicly extricate itself from creationists and social conservatives who have besieged textbook hearings since the 1980s, most of whom believe that evolution is incompatible with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis in the Bible and that Earth is no more than 10,000 years old.
The Texas Education Agency definitively foiled efforts to get creation taught alongside evolution when they adopted new science education standards in 1997 with a requirement that all students learn the basic concepts of evolution. There is no requirement regarding creationism. Those standards form the basis for the state’s new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which 11th-graders must pass in order to graduate.
West said institute scientists are not creationists and are not associated with religious fundamentalists. However, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that one of its major donors is Howard F. Ahmanson, a wealthy Californian who served on the board of directors for the Chalcedon Foundation, a think tank for Christian Reconstruction, a movement that seeks to replace democracy with a Christian theocracy.
West dismisses attacks on the institute for its motives. “Everyone has motives for everything. Science is about the evidence,” West said.
But Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, says scientists such as William Dembski, Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, all senior fellows at the institute, are not taken seriously by mainstream scientists. Scott and Maguire say work on intelligent design is not published in scientific, peer-reviewed journals.
The institute’s interest in Texas is obvious. Texas is the second-largest purchaser of books in a multibillion-dollar market; California is first. In recent years, publishers have begun tailoring their books to appease interest groups on both sides of the debate.
In California ,the debate has tended to center on politically correct phrasing. Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, a political watchdog group, says Texas is the other side of the California coin. Here, conservative and religious ideologies have made condoms and Cambrian fossils controversial, Smoot said.
“Concerns about how elderly people are depicted are the tip of the iceberg; the rest is in Texas, where accurate scientific and historical information and age-appropriate health education are at risk. We’re not talking about world choices or window dressing,” Smoot, who advocates the teaching of evolution, said.
Smoot says many members of the State Board of Education favor the kind of social conservatism propagated by groups such as the Eagle Forum, Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Texas Pubic Policy Foundation. San Antonio millionaire James Leininger, who founded the Texas Public Policy Foundation, also funded many of the board members’ campaigns in the 1990s, Smoot said.
Vance Miller, husband of State Board of Education member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, serves on the foundation’s board.
Because textbook rejections were being influenced by ideologies, the Legislature in 1995 halted the board’s power to reject textbooks on the basis of anything except a factual error or a manufacturing defect.
Two years ago an environmental science text was rejected for the first time since the law went into effect. Smoot and board member Mary Helen Berlanga condemned the rejection as censorship, but the board majority insisted there were numerous factual errors.
Last year, publishers made several changes in response to complaints, including a reference to the Ice Age as occurring millions of years ago to taking place “in the distant past.”
Though intelligent design theorists and creationists may be a minority in the scientific community, the most recent Gallup poll shows that nearly half the American public leans more toward creationism than evolution.
Research conducted by Kim Bilica, an assistant professor of science education at the State University of New York in Buffalo, indicated that science teachers across the state were not emphasizing evolution as much as the teachers would like..
“Given unlimited instructional freedom, in almost every single case they would prefer to emphasize evolution more than they had that last class year,” Bilica said.
Clay Smith and Nicole Sorto, both biology teachers at McCallum High School, say the controversial nature of evolution affects how they teach it. Both try to accommodate children who say they are uncomfortable learning it.
Gladys Havel, a biology teacher at LBJ High School, said she uses supplemental materials more than the text when teaching evolution, although she says texts remain important .
“At home the kids have their textbooks to read over and reinforce the lesson,” Havel said. Havel said when students bring up creationism, she tells them that they can believe whatever they wish and that evolution is merely an explanation for the changes in life forms. She also teaches them that all scientific theories are just that — theories.
“Science is a constantly changing realm,” Havel said. “There are not many things you can say are absolutely concrete.”
What is it?
Popularized in the early 1990s, the intelligent design movement claims that the development of life can’t be explained by natural selection. Though intelligent designers disagree among themselves about the history of life on Earth, most agree that life suggests the hand of some creator, rather than a series of developments governed only by the laws of nature.
Where is it based?
Center for Science and Culture, part of the Discovery Institute in Seattle.
On what grounds do proponents dispute evolution?
* In 1953, two scientists set out to show how life evolved by sending an electric current through a mixture of primordial gases and growing organic material. Later, it was discovered that the gases used in the experiment weren’t the gases that composed Earth’s early atmosphere. Based on the new findings, the scientists tried the experiment again, and it did not work. (Other scientists say similar experiments have succeeded, and there are other theories for origin as well, including hydrothermal vents and meteorites.)
* Fossils show a huge burst of life during the Cambrian era (about 500 million years ago), posing a challenge to evolutionary theory, which says that life forms developed over time. (The National Center for Science Education says the Cambrian era lasted millions of years and that intermediate life forms are detectable in fossil record.)
* A classic example of natural selection shows light-colored moths disappearing during the English Industrial Revolution because of pollution-blackened trees.Black moths, which were better camouflaged, survived. After the pollution was cleaned up, the example showed light-colored moths returning. Photos of moths on trees were later found to be staged.
If you go
What: State Board of Education public hearing on adopting new textbooks
Where: William B. Travis Building, Room 1-104
When: 1 p.m. today