Debate over biology is brewing

Debate over biology is brewing
By Gary Scharrer - San Antonio Express News - 5/31/2008 - original
AUSTIN — After feuding for months over how to teach school children to read, the State Board of Education soon will shift to a topic that could become much more controversial — the science curriculum.

Science, after all, involves biology. And biology is built on the theory of evolution, raising fears among some observers that social conservatives on the 15-member panel will try to shade textbooks with religion.

“The issue is ... whether or not creationism will be taught alongside evolution as science, which will absolutely undermine our kids' science education and their ability to compete for the best colleges and jobs of the 21st century,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that advocates religious freedom and individual liberties.

Those fears amount to hogwash, says board Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

“I hate to take the air out of their balloon. They're going to be very disappointed if they come for a fight,” said Bradley, a leader among the board's social conservatives. “The only thing that this board is going to do is ask for accuracy.”

It's been 11 years since the state of Texas last updated standards for the science curriculum for its public schools. Things change. Pluto, for example, lost its status as a planet two years ago, but students in Texas still see it listed in textbooks as one of nine planets in the Earth's solar system.

“So that changes how we look at the solar system and how we teach students about the characterization of planets,” said Anita Givens, a deputy associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

The State Board of Education recently finished a three-year rewrite of standards for the English language arts and reading curriculum. Some called the process tortured, with revisions slipped under members' hotel room doors in the early morning hours just before a final, 9-6 board vote.

Bradley and the board majority faulted English teachers for forcing too much of their own ideas into a proposal the board had tentatively approved two months earlier. That's why board members had to salvage a final document with a last-hour cut and paste job, he said.

“I don't think this will happen again because they got spanked,” Bradley said. “Science teachers should work with the board on their process and not try to do an end run around this elected body and steal the process.”

English and reading educators vigorously deny hijacking the process, saying the curriculum facilitator hired by the board decided to use a teacher work group's revised the document.

David Hillis, a distinguished biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted some board members would try to “replace real science with religious instruction.” He warned that the “intelligent design” theory preferred by evolution skeptics, which holds that living things are too complex to be the result of natural selection, has no scientific support or basis.

“We should rely on scientists to establish the science standards, not non-experts with a particular religious or political agenda to promote,” Hillis said.

Board members say it's unlikely that intelligent design will even be considered. Bradley said a fight pitting evolution against creationism simply will not materialize.

“It's all going to be in the Texas anti-Freedom Network's mind. They are working themselves into a frenzy,” he said.

More likely is a fight over whether to keep an existing requirement that teachers present both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including evolution.

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said that standard is clear and worth keeping.

“We want our children to be able to think and understand the strengths and weaknesses of any theory. Some ultra-radical groups have not evolved to the point where they realize that the ‘theory of Evolution' is just that — a theory,” Mercer said.

“Any real scientist understands there are major weaknesses in evolution,” said Mercer, who has a degree in biology from the University of Texas at Austin. “If we truly believe in intellectual debate, let's discuss those weaknesses.”

Bradley said he doesn't foresee any successful effort to remove the “strengths and weaknesses” requirement from the science standards.

“There are issues in the evolutionary process that have been proven wrong,” he said. “Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions.”

It may sound like a good idea to require teachers to point out the weaknesses of scientific theories, but Hillis contends that when it comes to evolution, “its main purpose is to introduce religious ideas and anti-science ideas into the science classroom.”

“The fact that biological populations evolve is not in question,” he said. “Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon, and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt. The ‘theory' part of evolutionary theory concerns the experiments, observations, and models that explain how populations evolve.”

“At this level of introductory instruction, it is ludicrous to think about teaching what some people disingenuously call ‘weaknesses.'” Hillis said. “We teach what is known and has been supported by a huge body of scientific research.”