Darwinists Attack!

The State Board of Education doesn't understand the meaning of 'separation of church and state'

A certain dinosaur bearing the likenes of Barney attended last week's SBOE meeting.
A certain dinosaur bearing the likenes of Barney attended last week's SBOE meeting. (Courtesy of Texas Freedom Network)

Beware that beady-eyed biology teacher in your child's high school. She might be one of those "militant Darwinists."

State Board of Education member Terri Leo of Spring actually used that phrase to refer to supporters of evolution last week in a public hearing on possible changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements for the teaching of science in public schools. The SBOE will vote next year on the revisions.

For years, Texas teachers have been required – over the objections of many in the scientific community – to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of various scientific theories, including evolution. In September, a writing team appointed by the board removed that language from the TEKS, but in a new draft released Nov. 17, similar language reappeared – now, in three courses, students must learn "strengths and limitations" of the theories. Also added was a requirement for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for natural phenomena.

Two days later, that brought to the hearing a standing-room-only crowd composed largely of academics and activists worried that the language would be used to sneak the concepts of creationism (or the creationist-based pseudoscience of "intelligent design") into the classroom.

"All of a sudden, a new draft appears with loaded buzz words that evolution deniers have used repeatedly to launch phony attacks on evolution," complained Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan nonprofit that combats the religious right, in a prehearing press conference. "This raises serious questions about what and who is driving the process here. We hope writing teams will have an opportunity to fully discuss and reverse this troubling change.

"Scientists have been crystal clear in explaining that these phony arguments against evolution are based on ideology, not science," Miller said. "It's like arguing that there are weaknesses or alternatives to gravity or that maybe Earth doesn't really revolve around the sun after all. And the price for dumbing down the science curriculum will be paid by Texas kids who aren't prepared to compete and succeed in the 21st century."

Religious figures joined the scientists to dispel the notion that science and faith are completely at odds. "Acknowledging that we can never know everything there is to know about our world is not an argument for dismantling the things that we have been able to discern and prove about the world," Rabbi Nancy Kasten of Dallas said in the press conference. "Questions of theology, morality, and faith can be addressed in public schools, but they should be separated from proven science and included in curricula that deal with theology, culture, and other related topics."

The anti-evolutionists mobilized, as well. Jonathan Saenz of the Plano-based Free Market Foundation – and no, we're not quite certain what the connection is between free markets and evolution – handed out a frothing-at-the-mouth, and quite misleading, counterattacking press release, writing that the proposal before the board is to "eliminate a 20-year policy of teaching the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories. The recommendation is being veraciously supported by a radical left-wing organization that opposes academic freedom," presumably meaning TFN. (And presumably he meant "voraciously," as "veraciously" would mean it's being supported in a truthful manner.)

"I don't know of any respectable scientist who would sacrifice the basic tenets in the progress of science for left-wing ideology," Saenz wrote. "Saying you can't teach the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories – that's what science is all about – critical thinking and questioning. The Board is being asked to choose between free and scientific inquiry and censorship; that's an easy choice."

Saenz must not know many scientists. TFN just completed a survey of 464 biology and biological anthropology faculty members at 49 colleges and universities around Texas, and 95% of them fully oppose teaching anything other than evolution in biology classrooms. And 98% of them reject "intelligent design" as valid science. (You can read the report on the survey at www.tfn.org.)

During the hearing, in an exchange with former legislator and former board member Joe Bernal, Leo worried that "federal law basically says that you can't pull out evolution and teach it separately. But that's what we would be doing if we removed that language, because we apply scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses to all theories, not just the theory of evolution. People who are militant Darwinists ... want to pull out that language and treat evolution separately than how we teach all other theories." Guffaws broke out from the crowd at the phrase "militant Darwinists."

Bernal shot back with pointed criticism of the board. Three members of the writing team are strongly anti-evolution, including Stephen Meyer of the Seattle-based Discov­ery Institute, a prominent and well-funded promoter of "intelligent design theory."

"You would apply scientific methodology [in the exploration of evolutionary theory's 'limitations']?" Bernal asked. "And it has no relationship to prior creationism and intelligent design? Although the people you brought in from outside, to counter what your teachers are saying locally – these people from the outside, from Seattle – my understanding is that they're connected to the old creationism and intelligent design concepts. And you're bringing them in as experts against the teachers you selected to write the revisions."

"Their scientific credentials can stand on their own, just as the other experts can stand on their own," Leo replied, noting that she didn't appoint Meyer, before board Chair Don McLeroy of College Station cut off the discussion to move on to more witnesses.

The board members – all of whom are presumably militant gravitationalists, since they didn't float out of their chairs at any point – are expected to vote on the final revisions in March.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

State Board of Education, Texas Freedom Network, Terri Leo, evolution, creationism, intelligent design, Discovery Institute, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills

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