The San Antonio Express-News November 6, 2003

Board to vote on texts' take on evolution

Karen Adler

Educational trends and scientific theories have come and gone since 1925, when Tennessee teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution to his students.

Not everything has changed, though - how students learn about the origin of life still can rivet the nation.

After being inundated with passionate testimony from dozens of teachers, students and scientists this summer, the State Board of Education will take a preliminary vote today in Austin on whether to accept 11 high school biology textbooks as proposed by publishers.

At issue is whether those books should stress to students that evolution remains a theory. Since public hearings in July and September, publishers have made small changes and clarifications to the sections on evolution, but they contend there are no scientific weaknesses to include.

Because Texas is the second-largest textbook market in the country, the board's vote could determine which books are sold in other states. The final vote is Friday.

Robert Scott, the chief deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, has recommended that all the texts be approved and placed on the conforming list.

Despite pressing from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, the board likely will vote in favor of Scott's recommendation, said Joe Bernal, who represents San Antonio on the 15-member board. Based on discussions at previous meetings, it's unlikely more than five of the members will vote to reject the books, he said.

Discovery Institute representatives argue many of the books still contain factual errors and should include both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a theory to comply with requirements for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test.

The group supports "intelligent design," an emerging theory that science can't explain everything, but rather that certain features of life evolved according to an intelligent, purposeful cause.

However, at this time the group is not pushing for intelligent design to be put into the textbooks, said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute.

Whether a textbook conforms to state standards is up to the board. Even if the board decides a book is nonconforming, the state still can pay for it. If, however, the board rejects the book altogether, no money is provided.

It's up to school districts to pick which book to use in the classroom, but it's rare for a district to select one on the nonconforming list.

Richard Blake, a spokesman for the publishing firm Holt, Rinehart & Winston, said that while some passages were slightly changed or enhanced, political pressure did not affect the books.

In the Holt book, for example, the statement "Darwin's theory of natural selection is the essence of biology" was changed to "Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provides a consistent explanation for life's diversity."

"You're under competitive pressure ... to produce the best book, the best program," Blake said.

But "we did not feel under pressure to accommodate anyone's point of view," he said.

Don McLeroy is one of the board members pushing for changes in books that portray "descent with modification from a common ancestor" as fact.

Over the summer, he spent weeks reading scientific material on both sides of the issue and says he realized students weren't being taught the whole story.

"It would be so great for the schoolchildren of Texas to have this material covered properly," he said.

McLeroy said it's ironic that Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, went to great lengths to point out difficulties with his theory in "The Origin of Species." McLeroy said he wants textbooks to do the same.

McLeroy said he won't vote to reject any of the books, but he does want the most dogmatic texts to be placed on the nonconforming list.

West, with the Discovery Institute, said he's happy some corrections have been made, but he said contradictions among books and factual errors remain.

Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the "Religious Right," said some of the changes in the books do put a drop of doubt in the theory of evolution, but overall she's pleased with the end product.

"We're pleased the publishers stood by scientific principles," she said.

Whatever the board decides will put the issue to rest only until 2010, when biology textbooks once again will come up for consideration.

File Date: 11.06.03