The Centre Daily September 10, 2003

Biology textbooks spark ideological fireworks at hearing

by R.A. Dyer

AUSTIN, Texas - (KRT) - Although not exactly the Scopes Monkey Trial, scores of sometimes unruly critics and proponents of modern evolutionary theory squared off Wednesday before the Texas State Board of Education.

To loud groans from the audience, applause and occasional shouts of ``Witchhunt!'' a coalition of scientists and biology educators warned against watering down textbooks with Christian-based ideas. Others said publishers should make changes that reflect flaws in evolutionary theory.

At stake: about $30 million in biology textbooks set to hit Texas classrooms in the 2004-2005 school year. The result will influence textbooks across the United States. The 15-member State Board of Education will vote on the books Nov. 7.

Evolution is required by the state to be included in textbooks. But arguments against evolution have been successful over the past decade in other states. Alabama, Nebraska and New Mexico made changes that, to varying degrees, challenge the pre-eminence of evolution in the scientific curriculum.

Much of Wednesday's testimony revolved around the concept of ``intelligent design,'' which proponents call a legitimate alternative to Darwinist evolution, but which critics call pseudo-science.

Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said ``intelligent design'' proponents want to use the concept of an intelligent design behind man's evolution as a way of introducing religious creationism into science classes.

``Teaching creationism in science classrooms is unconstitutional,'' said Smoot, whose group opposes Christian conservative groups. ``Teaching `intelligent design,' the new creationism, is radically unscientific, and, despite the protests of `intelligent design' proponents, profoundly religious in nature.''

But William Dembski, identified as a leading proponent of ``intelligent design'' in a ``New York Times'' report, told state board members that ``Darwinian lobbyists'' are striving to maintain an illusion of scientific consensus related to evolutionary theory.

``I, and other mathematically trained scientists, regard claims for the creative power of natural selection as implausible in the extreme,'' said Dembski, an associate professor at Baylor University. ``All the textbooks under consideration grossly exaggerate the evidence of Neo-Darwinian evolution, pretending that its mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic change is a slam-dunk. Not so.''

An evangelical Christian, Dembski conceded that his interest in alternatives to Darwinism was partly spurred by his faith. Besides holding a Ph.D in mathematics, the Waco resident holds a divinity degree.

The next generation of textbooks will cover courses of biology, family and career studies, and English as a second language. The state board can only reject books based on factual errors or for not meeting the state's curriculum requirements.

Because Texas is the second-largest textbook buyer in the nation, the board's final decision on those books could affect education nationwide. The new books will get distributed next summer.

The list of more than 160 speakers Wednesday included scientists, educators and advocates from special interest groups from across Texas. About a half-dozen out-of-state witnesses were barred from speaking, but were allowed to submit written testimony.

Smoot said she found it distressing that the fight over evolution in classrooms continued in 2003, more than 75 years after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial that pitted Clarence Darrow, one of the nation's finest defense lawyers, against populist orator William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate.

At the center of the 12-day proceeding in 1925 was John T. Scopes, a 24-year-old football coach and science teacher who stood trial for teaching evolution, a new crime under Tennessee law. Scopes was convicted and fined $100 but the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out the conviction on a technicality.

``The weaknesses of evolution alleged here today are founded on ideology, not science,'' Smoot said. ``There's really no debate about any of this in the scientific community.''

But Mark Ramsey, who represents the rival Texans for Better Science Education, insisted that educators should consider alternatives to evolution theory.

``I once believed in evolution - I was surprised when a friend told me that there were inconsistencies with the theory,'' he said. ``I was indoctrinated, some would say brainwashed, to believe that evolution was as proven as gravity. Today, over two decades later, many of us now know better.''

Satisfying the state board is only half the battle for textbook publishers. School districts choose which books to use. They are reimbursed by the state for purchases of approved texts. Districts may buy rejected texts, but the state will not reimburse them.

The last time the state reviewed biology textbooks, in 1997, the State Board of Education considered replacing all biology texts with new ones that did not mention evolution. The board defeated the proposal by a slim margin.

File Date: 09.15.03