State Board of Education votes to drop evolution 'weaknesses'

State Board of Education votes to drop evolution 'weaknesses'
from Texas science curriculum
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News - 1/22/2009 - original
AUSTIN — In a major defeat for evolution critics, a sharply divided State Board of Education voted 7-7 on Thursday to follow the advice of a panel of science educators and drop a long-time requirement that “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution be taught in high school science classes.

Under the science curriculum standards tentatively adopted by the board, biology teachers and biology textbooks would no longer have to cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of Charles Darwin’s theory on how humans evolved.

Opponents of the strengths and weaknesses requirement had warned that it would eventually open the door to the teaching of creationism – the biblical explanation of the origin of humans – in science classes, while board members backing the rule insisted that was not their intention.

The seven Republican board members supporting the rule have been aligned with social conservative groups that in the past have tried to publicize alleged flaws in Darwin’s theory that humans evolved from lower life forms.

The key vote Thursday was on an amendment to the proposed curriculum standards that would have restored the “weaknesses” rule. It was defeated on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat was absent.

“We’re not talking about faith. We’re not talking about religion,” said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, who opposed the amendment. “We’re talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do.”

Rep. Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, who supported the weaknesses requirement, said there have been “significant challenges” to the theory of evolution and she cited a recent news article in which a European scientist disputed Darwin’s “tree of life” showing common ancestors for all living things.

She also denied some board members were trying to make it easier to teach creationism in science classes. “I don’t think this means you’re supposed to teach creationism or intelligent design,” she said, referring to another movement related to creationism.

Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who also supported the requirement, described the debate as a battle about “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” over whether students can thoroughly examine evolution.

He also attacked evolution supporters for using false evidence to back the theory, such as once promoting as a “missing link” a human skull with the jawbone of orangutan.

“The other side has a history of fraud,” he said. “Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies.”

Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, rejected the argument by social conservatives that teachers and students won’t be able to question the theory of evolution under the new standards.

“There has never been anything in our standards that prevents a teacher from talking about all aspects of what they teach,” she said, calling for adoption of the plan proposed by science educators. “We need to respect what our teachers have recommended to us.”

Dallas’ two board members, Miller and Democrat Mavis Knight, supported the plan drafted by teachers and opposed the “weaknesses” amendment. They were joined by Republican Pat Hardy of Fort Worth.

The new curriculum standards, tentatively approved on a voice vote, spell out not only how evolution is to be covered but also what is supposed to be taught in all science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as providing the material for state tests and textbooks.

The standards will remain in place for the next decade.

With regard to evolution and other scientific theories, the educator panel proposed language that stated students shall “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing.”

In deleting the “strengths and weaknesses” rule, which dates back nearly two decades, the panel said the requirement suggested that the scientific community was divided on the theory of evolution when in fact there is little disagreement.

The bloc of seven Republicans supporting the rule tried to add a similar amendment calling for science students to be taught evidence “supportive of and not supportive of” the theory of evolution and other scientific explanations. But it was rejected on a 7-8 vote.

A second vote on the science curriculum standards is scheduled for Friday.

Action on the science standards caps several months of debate by groups that sought to influence the board on the teaching of evolution. The issue last flared up when the board adopted new biology textbooks in 2003, as social conservatives sought to reject books that were deemed too pro-evolution.