Evolution: Still Deep in the Heart of Textbooks

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Evolution: Still Deep in the Heart of Textbooks
Skip Evans
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
To watchers of the creationism/evolution controversy, the textbook adoption process in Texas is not only familiar but also important. Evolution is historically among the most contentious areas in the process. Moreover, decisions on textbooks in Texas affect far more students than just those in the Lone Star State. Because Texas is the second largest textbook market in the country, behind only California, textbooks adopted there will also be offered in states around the country. The stakes are high for the publishers, too: the state is expected to spend 570 million dollars on new textbooks, of which 30 million dollars is for biology textbooks.

As the adoption process for biology textbooks began in early 2003, the ranks of those vocally opposed to evolution education swelled. For decades, Mel and Norma Gabler’s Educational Research Analysts — “a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas” which places “scientific flaws in arguments for evolution” at the top of its list of concerns (http://members.aol.com/TxtbkRevws/about.htm) — has urged the Texas Board of Education to minimize evolution and even to include creationism in the textbooks adopted for use in the state (see, for example, RNCSE 1999 Jan/Feb; 19 [1]: 10). In 2003, the Gablers were joined by a host of homegrown creationists as well as by the Discovery Institute, the institutional home of “intelligent design”, in seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks under consideration.

Anti-evolutionists faced an uphill battle from the start

First, the state science standards, adopted by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in 1997, require students to learn about evolution. There is no mention of creationism or “intelligent design” in the standards. The state standards form the basis of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, which students must pass in order to graduate from high school. Consequently, teachers could compellingly argue that it would be counterproductive to minimize evolution, or to introduce creationism, in the biology textbooks.

Second, whereas in the past the board was allowed to edit textbooks for content, in 1995 the state legislature limited the board’s power. With regard to textbooks, the board is now allowed only to enforce three requirements:

  • they must satisfy each element of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards;
  • they must have good bindings;
  • they must be free of factual errors.
There were no complaints about the bindings. Anti-evolutionists were keen, however, not only to allege that the textbooks were laden with factual errors, but also to claim that the books failed to satisfy the TEKS standards — in particular TEKS requirement 112.43c(3)A, which states that students should “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.” The language of “3(A)” (as it became known) lent itself to anti-evolutionist calls to “teach the controversy”.

Such claims contradicted the assessment of a 12-member review panel commissioned by the Texas Education Agency, which in June decided that the textbooks were both scientifically accurate and in conformity with the TEKS standards. Anti-evolutionists, including board members David Bradley, Terri Leo, and Don McLeroy, were later to allege that the TEA incorrectly instructed the panel — perhaps intentionally, Bradley speculated (see, for example, the Galveston County Daily News 2003 Jul 20, available on-line at http://www.galvnews.com/print.lasso?ewcd=97dd2da2a536a818). Of course, the final decision on whether to approve the textbooks rested with the board.

Throughout the process, news stories as well as letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and press releases from all sides of the controversy filled Texas newspapers; for reasons of space they are not discussed here (although Alfred Gilman’s op-ed, signed by seventeen members of the National Academy of Science and/or the Institute of Medicine, including four Nobel laureates, is reprinted on p 8). Many of these pieces are archived on the web site of Texas Citizens for Science: http://www.txscience.org.

The July hearing

On July 9, 2003, at the first of two scheduled public hearings, nearly three dozen speakers addressed the board, almost all of them speaking in defense of the 11 biology textbooks submitted. (NCSE executive director Eugenie C Scott and postdoctoral scholar Alan Gishlick attended as observers.) “I’m here to keep outside forces from removing science from science books”, said David Hillis, Professor of Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, and president of the Society for the Study of Evolution (San Antonio Express News 2003 Jul 10; available on-line at http://news.mysanantonio.com/story.cfm?xla=saen&xlb=180&xlc=1023426).

Many of the speakers were reacting to a critique of the textbooks submitted by the Discovery Institute (http://www.discovery.org/articleFiles/PDFs/TexasPrelim.pdf). The critique, based largely on Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution (Washington [DC]: Regnery, 2000), graded the textbooks on their discussion of 4 “icons”: the Miller-Urey experiment, the Cambrian explosion, Haeckel’s drawings of vertebrate embryos, and industrial melanism in peppered moths. Only one textbook passed, with a grade of C–.

Two fellows of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture testified at the June hearing: Raymond Bohlin, executive director of Probe Ministries, and Francis J Beckwith, newly appointed as Associate Professor of Church–State Studies at Baylor University. Consistent with the Discovery Institute’s recent tactics, Bohlin insisted that he was not calling for “intelligent design” to be added to the textbooks or for evolution to be removed. Instead, he told CNN, “Every theory has its weaknesses, has its problems, and evolution seems to be the one theory in the textbooks that just isn’t treated that way” (2003 Jul 9). Steven Schafersman, president of the pro-evolution education grassroots group Texas Citizens for Science (see RNCSE 2003 May–Aug; 23 [3–4]: 9), was unimpressed: “They’re trying to get in anti-evolution material by calling it a weakness” (Houston Chronicle 2003 Jun 10).

A complete transcript of the July hearing is available on-line at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/july03transcript.pdf.

Between the July hearing and the September hearing, the BOE received reams of written comments on the textbooks, to which the publishers were required to respond. For example, in his critique of Biology, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Mark Ramsey of the newly formed anti-evolutionist group Texans for Better Science Education asserted that a recent article in a popular journal (RO Prum and AH Bush, “Which came first, the feather or the bird?” Scientific American 2003 Mar; 288: 84–93) “fully discredits the dino-to-bird idea.” The publisher replied that “[t]he hypothesis that birds evolved from dinosaurs continues to have strong support in the scientific community and has been strengthened recently by new fossil finds in China”, and noted that Prum and Bush accept the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, quoting the same article’s acknowledgment that “birds are a group of feathered therapod dinosaurs that evolved the capacity of flight” (http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/2003pubresponses.pdf). In the end, the publishers held the line, agreeing to no changes that would materially weaken the treatment of evolution in their textbooks.

The September hearing

On September 10, at the second public hearing, a standing-room-only crowd was in attendance. More than 160 people signed up to speak before the board, and the testimony continued into the wee hours. Supporters of quality science education, including members of NCSE, Texas Citizens for Science, and the Texas Freedom Network, which led the statewide organizing effort; scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and around the state; educators, including many members of the Texas Association of Biology Teachers; and concerned parents, clergy, and citizens in general were out in force — many wearing their “Don’t mess with textbooks” T-shirts. (The clever variation on the “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter slogan, which became the pro-evolution education movement’s unofficial motto, was due to NCSE’s Archives Project Director, David Leitner; see p 22.)

Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told the board, “The weaknesses of evolution alleged here today are founded on ideology, not science. ... There’s really no debate about any of this in the scientific community.” Her view was confirmed by the testimony of research biologists such as Andrew Ellington and Matthew Levy of the University of Texas at Austin, whose testimony was a devastating critique of the Discovery Institute’s assessment of the biology textbooks’ treatment of scientific research into the origin of life.

Steven Weinberg, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, addressed the common criticism that evolution is “just a theory” by remarking that his theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles won him the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. He added that the existence of phenomena unexplained by a given theory is not, in his view, a “weakness”. He also reminded the BOE:

[Y]ou’re not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, any more than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury. ... I think it’s clear that the reason why the issue was raised with regard to evolution is because of an attempt to preserve religious beliefs against the possible impact of the Theory of Evolution.
The Reverend Roger Paynter of Austin’s First Baptist Church testified, “It is my deep conviction that creation flows from the hand of a creator God. But that is a statement of faith and not something that I or anyone else can prove in a scientific experiment. To lead children to believe otherwise is a disservice to them.”

Creationists, for their part, were vocal, too. Mark Ramsey, of Texans for Better Science Education — who is also the secretary and a board member of the Greater Houston Creation Association — said, “I was indoctrinated, some would say brainwashed, to believe that evolution was as proven as gravity. ... Today, over two decades later, many of us now know better.”

Out-of-state witnesses, including several associated with the Discovery Institute, were not allowed to testify during the hearing; they were, however, permitted to make presentations to board members after the hearing adjourned and to submit written testimony. NCSE’s Alan Gishlick and Eugenie C Scott and NCSE member Robert T Pennock stressed the importance of a sound presentation of evolution in textbooks.

A complete transcript of the September hearing is available on-line at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/sept03transcript.pdf; the passages of testimony above are quoted from it.

Following the hearing, in October the Discovery Institute sent the textbook publishers and members of the board a document intended to support, reiterate, and extend its criticism of the textbooks under consideration. Literally hundreds of pages long, the document contained excerpts from scientific publications as well as the Discovery Institute’s interpretation of them. Evidently attempting to pre-empt criticism of the sort received by its “Bibliography of supplementary resources for Ohio science instruction” (see RNCSE 2002 Aug/Sep; 22 [4]: 12–18, 23–24), the document warned of the likelihood of critics “falsely accus[ing] Discovery Institute of misrepresenting the scientific literature by misquoting or quoting out of context.”

A less lofty appeal to the board came from Columbine Redemption, a nonprofit organization founded by Darrell Scott, whose daughter was murdered in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In a press release with the headline “Bad science produces bad consequences” (2003 Oct 13; available on-line at http://www.strengthsandweaknesses.com/D.Scott.Oct.13.PR.2.pdf), Columbine Redemption alleged that evolution education was responsible for the Columbine massacre and urged the board to “reject proposed Texas biology books that do not teach weaknesses of evolution as required by Texas law.”

The November vote

As the November vote approached, the publishers held firm, making only minor editorial changes, but none of the overhauls requested by anti-evolutionists. “In keeping with their commitment to provide students with the best possible science education, biology textbook publishers have stood up to political pressure,” said the Texas Freedom Network’s Samantha Smoot. The Discovery Institute, however, claimed that the changes were in response to its critique and vowed to continue to pressure the publishers. “We will be seeking more changes in the textbooks,” said John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (Dallas Morning News 2003 Oct 30; available on-line at http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dallas/politics/state/stories/103103dntextextbooks.10ff7.html).

Two public letters to the board that appeared in early November are of particular interest.

On November 1, the American Institute of Physics released a statement signed by more than 550 Texas scientists and educators denouncing attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the textbooks: “Any dilution in textbooks of the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution should sound an alarm to every parent and teacher.” In addition to the AIP, the American Geological Institute, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences and several of its member societies, also encouraged their members in Texas to sign the statement. The statement and a list of signatories are available on-line at http://www.txscience.org/files/texas-scientists.pdf.

On November 4, David Hillis and Martin Poenie, like Hillis a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, sent a letter to the board urging that all 11 textbooks be adopted without changes. Poenie’s co-authorship was noteworthy because his name appeared on the Discovery Institute’s “A scientific dissent from Darwinism” (see RNCSE 2001 Sep–Dec; 21 [5–6]: 22–3) and again, without Poenie’s authorization, on a similar statement entitled “40 Texas scientists skeptical of Darwin” and because he previously wrote a letter to the board arguing that “Darwinian (hyperdarwinian) mechanisms are not the only ones molding the evolutionary history of life and that we should be free to consider alternative non-darwinian mechanisms of change”. In his November letter, however, Poenie explained, “that letter was not intended to oppose basic evolutionary biology or to support poor teaching or coverage of that topic.” Hillis and Poenie went on to say, “We believe that all of the books conform to the TEKS standards and should be approved and placed on the conforming list of textbooks” (their letter is available on-line at http://www.txscience.org/files/ut-austin-profs2.htm).

On November 6, at the first day of a 2-day meeting, a motion to vote on the books individually was defeated 11–4, thwarting the plans of anti-evolutionist members of the board to approve only the textbooks that, in their judgment, presented evolution undogmatically (Fort Worth Star-Telegram 2003 Nov 6; available on-line at http://www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/7198627.htm). A majority of the board was evidently ready to end the discussion, the Los Angeles Times reported (2003 Nov 7):

The chairwoman of the board, Geraldine Miller of Dallas, was twice reduced to slamming her fist down as a conservative wing of the panel tried repeatedly to reject most of the books.

After tense arguments, a board member voting with the majority, Joe Bernal of San Antonio, urged Miller to simply stop recognizing people who were holding up their hands to speak. That way, he said, she wouldn’t “prolong this agony.”

Eventually, in a preliminary vote conducted on the same day, the board voted 11–4 to approve the books. In both votes, David Bradley, Terri Leo, Gail Lowe, and Don McLeroy were in the minority.

On November 7, the board conducted its final vote, approving all 11 textbooks for use in Texas’s public schools. (At the time of writing, the minutes of the meeting are not available, and it is unclear from the news reports what the exact tally was.) The vote, David Hillis said, “means we will be able to provide good quality biology textbooks to the students of Texas” (UPI wire, 2003 Nov 7). “This is great news for the children of Texas,” said Samantha Smoot. “The board sent a clear message that educational and scientific standards come first for Texas schools, not the ideological preferences of a few people” (Austin Chronicle 2003 Nov 14; available on-line at http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-11-14/pols_feature8.html).

The Discovery Institute, for its part, declared victory, in a press release with the headline “Textbook reformers see last-minute victory in Texas decision” (2003 Nov 7; http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=1634&program=News-CSC). Noting that TEA Chief Deputy Commissioner Robert Scott promised to address any remaining factual errors in the books before they arrive in Texas schools, the Discovery Institute implied that its criticisms of the book were still in play, and later a spokesperson was explicit: “[W]e were happy to hear ... Scott publicly pledge that publishers must address the errors that Discovery had previously identified” (Science & Theology News 2003 Dec; 4 [4]: 10). However, a TEA spokesperson explained that the sorts of errors that are corrected after a book is accepted are usually minor, involving such minutiae as dates, pagination, and punctuation (UPI wire, 2003 Nov 7).

Students in Texas’s public schools will learn their biology from textbooks in which the treatment of evolution is uncompromised. NCSE is proud to have worked closely with the dedicated Texans who helped to ensure victory, including not only NCSE members but also the members and staff of the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Citizens for Science, and the Texas Association of Biology Teachers. Thanks and congratulations.

About the Author(s): 
Skip Evans
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477