On the Lege

Unevolved: Same Old Silliness, Slim Victory for Science

SBOE Chair Don McLeroy, dentist
SBOE Chair Don McLeroy, dentist (Photo by Jana Birchum)

All you students aspiring to become biologists, recognized at the heights of academia, and possibly winners of the Nobel Prize ... start looking into the nation's best dental schools.

If that doesn't make sense to you, then you'd certainly have been baffled by the State Board of Education meeting last week, at which a dentist from College Station and other similarly qualified board members spent two days lecturing distinguished biology researchers from the University of Texas and elsewhere on how they really didn't know very much about evolution or the scientific method. Ultimately, the pro-science and pro-evolution side prevailed, but barely and with very mixed results. And if religious fundamentalists can secure one more seat on the board in 2010, Texas education will be in even deeper trouble.

The board convened in Austin Jan. 21-23 to hear public and expert (depending on wildly uneven definitions of "expert") testimony on evolution and then cast a first-reading vote on revising the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills requirements for K-12 public education. Amazingly, although the TEKS comprises several pages of text, almost all the controversy revolved around one word: "weaknesses."

The TEKS in each academic area comes up for review every 10 years, and for the past 20, teachers have been required to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. In recent years, evolution opponents – especially supporters of creationism or its gussied-up pseudoscience equivalent, "intelligent design" – have seized upon that language to push their ideas into public schools. A committee of scientists and educators appointed by the SBOE recommended instead a requirement to "evaluate and analyze" theories – partly for the political implications but also to emphasize that evolution, as an explanation of biological development over time, has no significant weaknesses and is as sound as the theory of gravity. Despite a federal court ruling last year (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) barring the teaching of creationism, anti-evolutionists led by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute pressed hard here to retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language, supported by a bloc of seven anti-evolutionists on the 15-member board.

Scientists defended the committee's language – and evolution itself – some eloquently, some angrily, and some from right across the street (only a parking lot separates the SBOE boardroom from the UT-Austin campus). Recalling "the words spoken by our new president just yesterday," said Arturo De Lozanne, an associate professor in molecular cell and developmental biology at UT, "We need to restore science to its rightful place." Anti-evolutionists portrayed their crusade as essential to protecting "free speech" and academic inquiry in classrooms, but "the proposed standards do not limit in any way the ability of students to ask questions," De Lozanne said. Instead, they "describe in much better detail the real, critical thinking involved in modern science. The new standards make clear the distinction between hypotheses and theories and explain that theories may be subject to change as new areas of science are developed. ... Believe me when I tell you that scientists are not afraid to discuss information that may support or refute a scientific theory, as long as that information is not pseudoscience."

No less eloquent but notably more hostile was UT's David Hillis, an integrative biology professor and member of the National Academy of Sciences who seemed understandably insulted at being scolded by board members. He charged that most of the Discovery Institute's criticisms of evolution are "19th century ideas" criticizing Charles Darwin that have been "long since discarded" and that modern science has moved far beyond its founding father. Perhaps recalling that board member Terri Leo of Spring described evolution defenders as "militant Darwinists" at the SBOE's November meeting, Hillis said: "I'm not really a Darwinist. A Darwinist is someone who is an expert on Darwin. I haven't read most of Darwin's books. Most are irrelevant to biology today. ... Why are we banging out these arguments Darwin wrote about 150 years ago that aren't relevant to today's classroom?"

When Fort Worth board member Pat Hardy – one of the pro-evolution Repub­licans – tried to smooth ruffled feathers by saying, "Obviously all of you are very accomplished and recognized in your field," Hillis took a shot at the Discovery Institute's invited "experts," saying, "I think that's an unfair characterization to call ... us equivalent in our accomplishments," which drew protests of "Decorum!" from Leo and others.

After the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer produced four binders full of scientific papers supposedly questioning evolution, Hillis said he'd leafed through the binders and that Meyer mischaracterized the essays therein. "Most of [the authors] are good friends of mine," Hillis said. "They're all ardent evolutionary biologists."

When the vote came, evolutionists grew tense – board member Rene Nuñez, a crucial evolution supporter, mysteriously vanished for a while and missed the "strengths and weaknesses" vote. The drama was palpable when the board split 7-7 and the motion failed. Nuñez later said that he missed the vote because he was feeling ill, but said the timing wasn't entirely physical: He was also testing where "a certain Democrat" would stand on a close vote. He wouldn't specify, but presumably that was San Antonio's Rick Agosto, widely viewed as a swing vote.

The anti-science side did score points later, however, when The Woodlands' Barbara Cargill and board Chair Don McLeroy of Col­lege Station – the aforementioned dentist – managed to pass some narrower amendments. Cargill – appallingly enough, probably the most expert opinion on the board as a former science teacher – proposed 13 amendments to weaken teaching on the origin and history of the universe, including removing the phrase "Big Bang." Five narrowly passed, but Big Bang stayed in.

McLeroy read selected passages from late evolutionists Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr supposedly supporting his anti-evolution doubts and asked that teachers "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." Surprisingly, this narrower version of "strengths and weaknesses" passed 9-6.

Ultimately, however, "I still think that the majority of the board clearly voted today to support the classroom teachers and the experts and refused to reinsert the culture war code words 'strengths and weaknesses' into the science curriculum standards," said Kathy Miller, president and executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that fights the influence of the religious right. "It's true McLeroy made an end-run around 'strengths and weaknesses' and succeeded in passing an amendment that does undermine a central component of evolution, and we'll spend the next two months working as hard as we can fixing that error."

Final reading and passage of the TEKS will come at the SBOE's next meeting, March 26-27.

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State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, Terri Leo, David Hillis, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, TEKS, 81st Legislature

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