Stateline Story

Evolution Battle Flares in States

  • February 14, 2008
  • By Pauline Vu

Creationism v. evolution in schools has been for many years a battle in the nation's culture war, and these days it's no different.

Texas had an evolution casualty in the recent resignation of a state education official over the divide, Florida next week will consider acknowledging evolution by name for the first time in its proposed new curriculum and South Carolina in December approved a textbook teaching evolution after a skirmish over its content. But though evolution has won some recent battles, its supporters aren't relaxing. Instead, they're bracing against what they see as a growing effort to undermine the theory's credibility.

"There's a big push to teach the weaknesses of evolution," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, which supports separation of church and state. "It's all just phony arguments in an attempt to raise doubt among students that evolution is a valid theory."

But evolution's detractors argue that the science has too many gaps to be considered ironclad. They say, for example, there is an incomplete fossil record to support evolution's claims and that random processes are incapable of producing complex systems.

"There are some very specific items where students are only getting one side of the story and we would like to see students getting all of the information," said Robert Crowther, a spokesman for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which favors more education about evolution's weaknesses. "If a 10 th grader can understand some of the evidence that supports evolution, they can certainly learn some of the evidence that challenges it."

Evolution states that natural selection and gene mutations are responsible for all life on earth and is considered by most scientists to be the cornerstone of modern biology. Creationists, on the other hand, believe that the development of life is the work of a supernatural being.

On Jan. 3, the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the government on scientific matters, released a book that reiterated the group's previous position: evolution, and not creationism, should be taught in American public schools.

Over the years, those who oppose evolution have changed tactics. They originally pushed for schools to teach creationism. But when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 equated creationism with religion and found it unconstitutional for public schools, the movement began promoting the "intelligent design" argument as a scientific concept which posits that biological processes are so complex they must be the work of a greater force than nature.

But a federal judge ruled in 2005 that intelligent design is also rooted in religion. He barred the Dover School District in Pennsylvania from its first-in-the-nation inclusion of intelligent design in a science curriculum. The school district had required that a statement be read during ninth-grade biology classes that said evolution had inexplicable gaps and referred students to a book about intelligent design.

This year, the Florida and Texas state boards of education will decide which direction to take their science standards, which are up for review.

On Feb. 19, Florida's Board of Education will vote on proposed revised standards that for the first time require students to learn about evolution as the basis of modern biology. Florida, whose standards currently require students to learn about "biological changes over time," is one of only a handful of states that don't use the word "evolution" in their standards.

Florida's new standards have won praise from teachers and scientists.

"If we expect Florida to become a hi-tech biotechnology center, we've got to teach the kids good science," said Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science.

But others say the curriculum should include the option of discussing other theories. At least eight local school boards, out of 67 in the state, have passed resolutions objecting to the new standards.

One state Board of Education member has already signaled her opposition. In a November newspaper interview , former middle school principal Donna Callaway said evolution should be taught, but not "to the exclusion of other theories of the origin of life." She added that though she didn't feel intelligent design should be taught, it should still be "acknowledged as a theory which many people accept along with others."

Last week, three Republican legislators - including future House Speaker Dean Cannon - said they were considering filing a bill to force the board to specify that evolution is a "theory" and not fact which would raise questions about the credibility of evolution.

Opponents say such a move is disingenuous. In everyday language, a theory is a guess. But scientific theory is an explanation for phenomena that can be tested and is supported by evidence, they say.

Texas will begin debating its revised standards later this year, although the fight has already begun. In November, Chris Comer, the state's nine-year director of science curriculum, resigned after forwarding an e-mail announcing a speech by an intelligent design opponent. She said she was pressured to quit by state education officials, who said that sending the e-mail signaled that she improperly endorsed evolution.

Texas students are required to learn about evolution, but the standards include a provision that allows students to "critique scientific explanations…as to their strengths and weaknesses." In 2003, that provision resulted in a campaign by conservative members of the state Board of Education to reject biology books that they felt did not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

The effort failed 11-4, but the board's makeup has since grown more conservative, and one member on the losing side is now the chairman of the board. "Even though it's incredibly strong that (scientists) all agree on evolution, they could be wrong," Don McLeroy said. "They'll be the first ones to admit that they don't know anything for sure; they always say it could change."

He pointed that there was a time when science claimed "the sun went around the earth… and Galileo was the outlier."

Texas is in the early stages of reviewing its science standards, but McLeroy said a group of science teachers has already suggested removing a provision that allows criticism of theories like evolution. If such a move passed, it would eliminate the kind of books McLeroy wants to see in schools. This type of decision could dictate the textbook options for smaller states since Texas is the country's second largest textbook purchaser.

The one evolution fight that has already taken place recently followed the trend of the past few years: a victory for evolution.

In December, the South Carolina Board of Education held off endorsing a biology textbook because a retired Clemson professor challenged the book's claim that evolution was the foundation of all lessons about life. The book's author, Ken Miller, had testified against intelligent design in the Dover, Pa., case.

Several scientists, including Miller, came to the board's January meeting to defend the book. The board voted to approve it.