Evolution Challenged in “Textbook” Case: As Goes Texas, So Goes the Nation

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.
Matthew 26:75

Ken Mercer says evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional fossil forms between dogs and cats and cats and rats.

Cynthia Dunbar would like to make it required that “any person desiring to govern have a sincere knowledge and appreciation for the Word of God in order to rightly govern.” She also calls public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”

And Don McLeroy, the leader of this group, argued passionately at last month’s public hearing that someone in this country needs to stand up to the science experts.

As members of the 15-member Texas Board of Education, Mercer, Dunbar, and McLeroy are some of the most powerful decision-makers in the country in terms of what children read in public school science class.

And last week they, and a bare majority of their fellow board members, pushed through new science standards that could very likely determine what your kid learns in biology class in the next decade.

For more than a year, board members, led by McLeroy, a Young Earth Creationist, had been leading efforts to preserve wording in Texas’ science education standards that waters down the teaching of evolutionary theory:

The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. (Italics added)

At a series of hearings in late March, they were unable to muster a majority vote in favor of the “weakness” language. However, in a last-minute push for alternative amendments, they were able to eke out a majority vote to insert other dubious phrases through a back door. As a result, creationist and pro-intelligent design organizations like the Seattle-based Discovery Institute are now claiming victory “for science education.”

But science watchdogs say the board actually created a road map to pressure publishers into putting false arguments into their textbooks attacking the validity of evolution.

In what was a confusing and convoluted flurry of back-and-forth motions—during which science experts who had testified earlier in the week were not permitted to come back and address the proposals—the board finally agreed to what some board members thought was compromise language.

After ignoring a petition from fifty-four scientific and educational societies urging the board to reject language that misrepresents or undermines the teaching of evolution, the board adopted a new standard that directs students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records.”

It also passed another amendment that says students will “analyze and evaluate the scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.”

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, said “They’ve opened the door to junk science.”

He said the “complexity of the cell” is undoubtedly an invitation to include language in the textbooks about intelligent design—the idea that life is too complex to have evolved and therefore demands a divine guiding hand. And the phrase “sudden appearance” and “stasis” are codes for the Genesis account of creation in which living creatures didn’t evolve, but appeared fully formed in the Garden of Eden.

The new revisions also eliminated the reference to the age of the earth; it originally said, “about 14 billion years ago.” Now it only says, “current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe.”

The revisions will surely influence the writing of science textbooks, and publishers were paying attention. But in case they weren’t, McLeroy drove his point home to the Dallas Morning News when he said publishers heard the debate and know that “they’ll have to get their textbooks approved by us in a few years.”

With almost $30 million set aside in the budget, Texas is second only to California in the bulk purchase of textbooks. But Texas, unlike California, approves and purchases books for all the state’s school districts. Publishers often edit and revise textbooks in order meet the specific demands of the Texas board members. Other states pay attention too, and what’s adopted in Texas is also adopted in many conservative states.

Now the issue is whether there is enough prima facie evidence to challenge the Constitutionality of the wording now, or wait for the textbook review process in two years.

“They have shown clear religious motivations that certainly raise some questions,” Quinn said. “But if the board requires phony religious arguments in the science textbooks, I can’t imagine somebody won’t challenge it.” Publishers may end up producing a textbook for Texas and other conservative states and a separate version for other states—because under the new guidelines, a Texas textbook “will be poison in states that value education,” Quinn said.

While the results may not yet be clear, one thing is evident in the tactics.

Four years ago, near the conclusion of Dover, Pennsylvania’s First Amendment trial in which intelligent design was exposed as a religious fraud, plaintiff attorney Eric Rothschild asked in court, “Will we be back in a couple of years for the ‘sudden appearance’ trial?” Judge John E. Jones III retorted, “Not on my docket.”

And McLeroy’s speech on standing up to the experts sounded little different than Dover’s creationist board member Bill Buckingham who proclaimed at a public meeting that someone needs to stand up to “liberals in black robes.”

Roll back the clock to earlier battles—in Kansas, in Ohio, in Cobb County, Georgia, even 1989’s Edwards v. Aguillardin Louisiana—and the motives are always the same. People of fundamentalist faiths say they are only standing up for science. They deny that they are trying to lead a religious revolution.

An Evolving Creationism

But Don McLeroy says he has evolved.

In January 2008, as I was reporting on the “strengths and weaknesses” controversy, he wrote me an e-mail in which he referenced the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Here is an example of my strategy to point out to my friends on the board the inconsistency of holding a completely naturalistic scientific system with other personal belief systems. Children are either ‘disinherited children of God’ or they are not.”

King was writing of a people denied their civil liberties sitting down at lunch counters and “standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage.” McLeroy, in contrast, was outlining a strategy was to attack science’s naturalist worldview by upholding the strength and weakness language in Texas’ science standards.

“These two systems of thought, with completely different starting points for their worldview, are not slightly opposed to each other but fully dispute the other’s claim; to not do so would show a weakness in their own beliefs,” he wrote in the e-mail. “Also, these two opposing systems give a foundation for thought that conflict along the entire range of scientific and moral philosophy. To try to blend them would be intellectually impossible and dishonest.”

But in a recent interview, McLeroy says he changed.

“I’ve evolved. I don’t argue for two separate belief systems,” he said. “I never pursued that strategy.”

He said the reason for change is the National Academy of Science’s revision of its definition of science as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”

As McLeroy also wrote, on March 25 in the Austin-American Statesman, the change from the previous definition from “natural explanation” to “testable explanations,” leaves room for the supernatural.

What McLeroy fails to grasp is that supernatural explanations aren’t testable, for one can never disprove a God-did-it hypothesis. But that’s beside the point. McLeroy was saying to me a year ago, just as he has said in conversations before Texas churches, that he was leading a righteous movement to return God to science class. Now he says he’s merely interested in making sure students are taught the best science standards from the best science textbooks.

After the “strength and weakness” wording was rejected, McLeroy launched into an impassioned speech during the recent hearings about the fossil record. He spoke of the “sudden appearance” of life forms during the 70- to 80-million-year-period known as the Cambrian Explosion and evolutionary stasis, in which life forms exist long periods with little change.

“Someone has to stand up to these experts!” McLeroy said.

In his Austin-American Statesman op-ed, he wrote of inserting questions about sudden appearance and stasis into the standards, “It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true. And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and ‘stasis is data.’”

But when I asked him how these raise questions about the validity of evolution, McLeroy at first said, “Are you kidding me?”

He then brought up paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, which offers an explanation for the Cambrian Explosion, but does not contradict evolutionary theory. Finally, McLeroy would only say that this lets “kids critically examine these issues and I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

He’s right. Teaching students to critically examine the evidence is a laudable goal. But that’s not what this is about. If it were, McLeroy’s fellow board member Ken Mercer would never display such an astonishing ignorance of even a most rudimentary knowledge of evolutionary theory with the argument, “Have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat?”

No. McLeroy’s echoes of Dr. King and religious revolution seem closer to the philosophy of the Discovery Institute, which played a prominent role in the revisions process. Discovery’s vice president Stephen Meyer was a member of the curriculum review panel, advising McLeroy and other board members.

Discovery’s Wedge Document outlines the ultimate goal: To use intelligent design to “reverse the stifling materialist worldview and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.