The Texas Board of Education has sparked controversy in the world of science with a move last week that would require students to evaluate the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of ideas about natural selection and the common ancestry of different species–two key components of modern evolutionary theory.
In a development that was watched closely by science teachers nationwide, the board last week voted to eliminate language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and other scientific theories, a phrase that scientists say has been used to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution and instead promote the fundametalist version of creationism, or intelligent design.
Supporters of evolutionary theory, which is widely accepted within the scientific community as a critical building block of modern science, hailed the board’s initial vote as a victory for science teaching. But their victory ended abruptly when the board added what some critics view as a more specific challenge to the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The new phrasing would require students to learn the arguments both for and against universal common descent–the idea that all organisms have a common ancestor–using fossil evidence as the basis for these arguments.
"There are no good arguments in modern science against universal common descent, which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply," geologist Steven Schafersman, president of the campaign group Texas Citizens for Science, told ABC News. "The board’s effort to undermine universal common descent in public schools will make the state’s science standards an object of ridicule."
Experts say the state’s actions could have significant implications for schools across the nation, because Texas is one of the country’s largest purchasers of textbooks–and publishers are often reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.
Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution will be taught in Texas schools made their case before the state’s 15-member education board last week. Dozens of people lined up to testify as the board considered new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks. (See "Texas grapples with evolution in new science standards.")
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, board member Barbara Cargill disagreed with opponents to the new proposed standards.
"There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions," said Cargill, a former science teacher.
"This isn’t about religion. I don’t know how many times we have to say it before people accept it. It’s about science. We want to stick to the science."
Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, rejected the notion that the new proposed standards weren’t religiously motivated.
"It’s just the same old attempt to add religion to science curriculum. It’s a science classroom, so only science should be taught–not a blend of science and religion; they shouldn’t mix the two," Eberle said.
He continued: "And to base arguments on fossil evidence is antiquated. There have been so many advances in technology, such as new DNA methods, that clearly show the connection between species. We’re pleased that the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ language was removed, but disheartened that this clause was added."
The board will make its final decisions on the wording of the state’s new science standards at a meeting in late March.