Censorship of Evolution in Texas

Creation Evolution Journal
Censorship of Evolution in Texas
Steven Schafersman

Recent textbook adoptions by the Texas State Textbook Committee continue the state's suppression of the topic of evolution in science textbooks. On September 8, 1982, the Textbook Committee refused to adopt the top-rated world geography textbook, Land and People (Scott, Foresman, and Co.), because it contained the following sentence: "Biologists believe that human beings, as members of the animal kingdom, have adjusted to their environment through biological adaptation." The book also contained many passages stating that the earth and its features were millions of years old and that the universe began as stated by the Big Bang theory. These items were heavily criticized by a religious fundamentalist and creationist husband-and-wife team, Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas, whose sole business is reviewing textbooks. The Gablers are known in education circles throughout the nation as the most effective textbook censors in the country. This couple has been promoting their narrow fundamentalist views for over twenty years by criticizing and influencing the removal of textbooks that contain material opposed to their views. Some of the Gablers' objections to the Scott, Foresman world geography textbook were that "most people do not consider themselves animals," that "many people, including scientists, do not believe the earth is millions of years old," and that "the text is biased in favor of evolution. By not including other theories, the text implies that evolution is the only credible one. . . . Many people, including scientists, believe that the mammals were created, not 'developed.' . . . The text contains evolutionary speculations presented as fact [and] violates [Section] 1.3 of the [Texas Textbook] Proclamation."

During the Textbook Committee's discussion, two members spoke against the book, claiming it overemphasized the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution and violated the proclamation dealing with evolution. Mr. Noon, from Longview, obviously motivated by the criticisms of the Gablers, said that the book was the most "controversial" book on the entire list and that "we will be in trouble all around Texas if we put it on the [adoption] list." Because of the attack by religious fundamentalists, the book failed to be adopted, despite its high quality.

Other world geography textbooks, all adopted, were mostly inferior to the Scott, Foresman book, but they did not make the "mistake" of saying something about evolution and the Big Bang theory.

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Michael Hudson, Texas coordinator of People for the American Way, was present at the Textbook Committee meeting and made the following observation: "It seemed apparent to all in the room—especially the publishers—that the treatment of evolution had condemned an otherwise excellent book to be the sole casualty of the seven books that were bid."

The Texas Textbook Proclamation contains the rules that textbooks must follow if they are to be adopted by the state of Texas. Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the country. Its centralized book-buying policy controls 8 percent of the total school textbook market in America, and it spends $60 million a year to buy textbooks for Texas's 1,150 school districts. Since only a few titles of each subject are selected at six-year intervals, publishers vie ferociously to get their textbooks on the adoption list, and, since the Texas adoption choices can make or break a publisher, the publishers bend over backwards to comply with the Proclamation. Furthermore, the textbook designed for the lucrative Texas market is used throughout the country, so the enormous economic influence of Texas shapes the contents of America's textbooks. Concerning evolution, the only scientific topic that Texas feels compelled to regulate at present, the Proclamation states the following:

1.3 Textbooks that treat the theory of evolution should identify it as only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind and avoid limiting young people in their search for meanings of their human existence.

(1) Textbooks presented for adoption which treat the subject of evolution substantively in explaining the historical origins of humankind shall be edited, if necessary, to clarify that the treatment is theoretical rather than factually verifiable. Furthermore, each textbook must carry a statement on an introductory page that any material on evolution included in the book is clearly presented as theory rather than fact.

(2) Textbooks presented for adoption which do not treat evolution substantively as an instructional topic but make reference to evolution, indirectly or by implication, must be modified, if necessary, to ensure that the reference is clearly to a theory and not a verified fact. These books will not need to carry a statement on the introductory page.

(3) The presentation of the theory of evolution should be done in a manner which is not detrimental to other theories of origin.

My discussions with some of the state Board of Education members who were responsible for writing and passing Section 1.3 have convinced me that it was promulgated primarily for religious reasons and is hence a violation of the principle of church-state separation.

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For example, former board member Johnnie Marie Grimes believes that evolution is "a powerful force against the spiritual dimension of man" and that, if we teach it as a demonstrated scientific fact, then our public schools will be a "barrier" to the Christian and Jewish religions. Board member William Kemp calls scientists "narrow-minded and bigoted" for preferring to believe in evolution rather than creationism. He made these remarks to me when I suggested that Section 1.3 was a misrepresentation of science. He then told me, "You will only get something worse if you try to change the current regulation." Board chairperson Joe Kelly Butler says that scientific knowledge consists of just the "opinions" of scientists and that such opinions are "irrelevant" to how the state board should treat the topic of evolution. He maintains that the present policy is "about as good as we can do." Butler was not interested in a statement signed by scientists that protested Section 1.3; he said that the "opinion" of scientists would not change his mind. It is possible, however, that a statement signed by the regents of the University of Texas and Rice University against the Proclamation might cause him to alter his view. Presumably, the other board members share these fundamentalist anti-scientific sentiments.

The history of the adoption of Section 1.3 provides the most important evidence for the religious intent behind the Proclamation. Section 1.3 was adopted largely in its present form at the urging of Mel and Norma Gabler. In their letter to the Commissioner of Education, dated August 10, 1973, the Gablers protested the teaching of evolution in the state's schools. They complained that the biology textbooks taught evolution as a fact, not a theory, and omitted any reference to creation. They asserted that:

Textbooks completely censor the fact that there is more scientific evidence against than for evolution. This denies students their academic freedom to learn.... Strictly speaking, evolution is not a science because it cannot be proven—it must be accepted on faith as a philosophy or as a religion.... Textbooks include evolutionary dogma with none of the important evidence for special creation. Why? ... At present all evidence and assumptions are directed toward evolution being the only explanation for life. But the theory of special creation is just as scientific and requires equal treatment.... Either include equal space for scientific evidence for special creation or delete all evolutionary dogma!

The Gabler letter ironically justified their demand for equal time by asking for "fairness and objectivity" and for teaching "all the facts" about evolution, including "all the bad" facts. This justification directly conflicts with all the well known Gabler demands to remove the "bad" from textbooks dealing with other topics and present only the viewpoint favorable to the desires of the Gablers. Perhaps the most ironic example of this, in their letter is their analogy of the treatment of evolution and the history of the United States. It states:

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We're often told that students must be given the bad about our country, so let's do the same about evolution and discontinue the present double standard. . . . Supposedly, students who reach college without having been told "all the bad" about our country are so disillusioned to find the "truth" that their confidence is shaken. Let's begin telling them "all the bad" about evolution if we want to be fair.

During the August 1982 textbook adoption hearing, the Gablers objected to a Scott, Foresman civics text because it presented the United States "in a bad light, criticizing the American system and slighting American achievement." If the Gablers opinion about fair play and equal time for topics in American history has changed during the past nine years, why hasn't it changed for topics in biology as well?

Also, in their letter, the Gablers say, "Let's practice what had been told us for years: Students have the right to know the truth even if we don't agree with what they are taught." If the Gablers truly believe this, they would have retired from their textbook protesting business in 1973.

The Gablers' letter was convincing enough to the state Board of Education that they adopted on May 11, 1974, what is now Section 1.3 of the Proclamation. Although the Gablers had asked that either equal space for scientific creation be included in textbooks or evolutionary dogma be deleted, the state board found that, because of prior court decisions, they couldn't do this. Therefore, the current wording was chosen by the Priorities Committee to come as close as possible to the demands of the Gablers without violating, in their estimation, case law. The official state Board of Education minutes for May 1974 reported that, because of the changes in the 1974 Textbook Proclamation, Mrs. Mel Gabler "had withdrawn the complaint" and the new policy "was satisfactory to the Gablers." Paragraph (3) of Section 1.3 was added to the Proclamation in 1977 by William Kemp. Why this was thought necessary is not known, but Kemp's well-known anti-evolution prejudices suggest that he thought a further inhibiting factor was necessary to ensure that public school students were protected from the pernicious dogma of evolution.

The impact on textbooks of the Gablers' complaint and the Texas Board of Education's action was dramatic. The post-Sputnik increase in the quality of the biology textbooks was halted and reversed in 1974. Since then, many biology textbooks have been revised to reduce the amount of space devoted to evolution and to present the subject in more tentative terms. Almost all pre-college science textbooks preface any sentence mentioning evolution with the words "scientists believe" (this is the least objectionable way to make a statement theoretical rather than factual). The word evolution is rarely used today; euphemisms are employed, such as adaptation, development, or simply change. The 1977 edition of Otto and Towle's Modern Biology reduced word coverage of evolution by a third over the 1973 edition.

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Several texts mention creation, such as textbooks by Smallwood and Green, Houghton Mifflin, Prentice-Hall, and Burgess Publishing Company, without characterizing it as a supernatural explanation that is outside the domain of science. An executive with Doubleday's Laidlaw Brothers asserted, "You're not going to find the word evolution in our new biology textbook. The reason for self-censorship is to avoid the publicity that would be involved in a controversy over a textbook. We'd like to sell thousands of copies." Many editors admit that they try to satisfy both the scientific and creationist camps, a seemingly impossible task. Editors today may rewrite biology and geology textbooks to suppress the evolution content, sometimes over the authors' objections. An example of this is Houghton Mifflin's Investigating the Earth, a team-written textbook sponsored by the American Geological Institute. Some biology textbook writers have received letters from their publishers asking them to leave the topic of evolution out of their books.

All of these science textbooks are being used throughout the country, and all are written to conform to the Texas Textbook Proclamation. Since publishers have written their pre-college science textbooks to comply with the Texas Proclamation, the educational results have been uniformly regrettable. Textbooks include equivocations and misrepresentations about evolution, have reduced coverage of this established theory to a couple of pages or nothing, omit any connection between evolution and other biological phenomena, and even include pro-creationist statements. The result has been that high school graduates have received a censored, second-rate biology education in most schools in the country and will continue to do so until this Proclamation is repealed.

About the Author(s): 

Steve Schafersman, a geologist and evolutionary paleontologist, is president of the Texas Council for Science Education and director of the Texas chapter of The Voice of Reason.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.