Dissing Darwin

As Texas grapples with the future of biotech, our long-standing hostility toward one of modern science’s founding fathers is about to cost us plenty.

April 2005By Comments

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, CHARLES DARWIN was quite a nice English gentleman. A former divinity student who had once hoped to become a country parson, the reclusive naturalist was so concerned for his family and friends that he kept his theory of evolution to himself for a couple of decades; he was finally forced by a competitor to reluctantly publish On the Origin of Species in 1859. Still, that turned out to be at least 146 years too soon for most Texans, whose animus toward one of the founding fathers of modern science has been a remarkably enduring feature of our cultural and political landscape.

While it would be political suicide in today’s Texas to fling early-twentieth-century prejudices at African Americans, Hispanics, or women, this particular dead white male can still be bashed as blithely as he was eighty years ago. If anything, the vehemence has only amped up across the generations, from Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who vowed in the twenties that she was “not going to let that kind of rot go into Texas textbooks,” to current House majority leader Tom DeLay, who blamed Darwin for the Columbine massacre (“Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud”). This perennial pique was a fairly cheap indulgence throughout the twentieth century; despite widespread conviction that the age of the earth did not exceed the Biblical six millennia, we always had enough geologists who understood how to find oil in rocks hundreds of millions of years old. But as Texas enters the twenty-first century, dissing Darwin is about to get very expensive.

That’s because the scientific revolution Darwin started in the nineteenth century—transforming biology from the domain of amateur naturalists like himself into a disciplined science probing ever deeper into the mysteries of life—has finally come to fruition. We are leaving behind the digital age and entering the biotechnology era, with the promise and peril of regenerated limbs, cloned replacement organs, and genetic cures. Indeed, George W. Bush’s first major televised address as president concerned “stem cells,” a term that has now entered the everyday lexicon. (Found in days-old human embryos, stem cells are capable of developing into any kind of body tissue and could potentially yield treatments for everything from paralysis to Parkinson’s disease.) Although the president dismayed researchers with his split decision to limit federally funded embryonic stem cell research to several dozen “lines” previously obtained from embryos unused in in vitro fertilization, his cautious approach created an opening for enterprising states. Last November, California voters committed $3 billion to fund largely unrestricted stem cell research over the next decade; not wanting to miss out on what is being called the biotech “gold rush,” a host of governors from Wisconsin to New Jersey have proposed spending hundreds of millions each to compete for biotech businesses and researchers.

Texas isn’t out of the running for the biotech gold. All that oil money built Nobel-laureate-staffed biomedical research complexes at the Texas Medical Center, in Houston, and the University of Texas’s Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, and high-tech Austin has become a promising biotech business cluster, where academic researchers can partner with for-profit biotech start-ups. Rick Perry has often sounded like the biotech governor, creating a Governor’s Council on Science and Biotechnology Development and earmarking significant chunks of his $300 million Texas Enterprise Fund, as well as his proposed $300 million Emerging Technology Fund, specifically for biotechnology. But our ability to compete has already become an issue in the preliminary sniping between Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has hinted that she’ll challenge him in next year’s Republican primary. Hutchison recently remarked that Texas would be “left in the dust by California” without a policy to permit embryonic stem cell research, a position that echoes that of the 39,000-member Texas Medical Association. Perry, who also believes that “we can’t afford to be left behind” by California, fired back that he would oppose any taxpayer dollars’ being used on “research that ends a human life.” (The embryo is discarded after the stem cells are removed; however, many more embryos perish in the process of routine in vitro fertilization.)

Even if Perry didn’t oppose the most promising form of stem cell research, Texas would still face big challenges in narrowing the biotech gap with California. Various studies, including the one by Perry’s own biotech council, have uniformly pointed to our serious shortage of both the venture capital and the human capital necessary for the kind of clustering that has made San Diego, Boston, and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area the nation’s top biotech business centers (Austin rates twelfth on the list). A study of San Diego’s successful formula observed that a kick-butt cluster requires not only star researchers but also a life-sciences-literate local workforce, from lawyers and investors to lab managers and technicians. But Perry’s council found that Texans don’t know much biology. Our students test below national averages in science achievement, our science curriculum isn’t competitive, and we have a shortage of science teachers. According to the council’s report, little more than a third of Texas students are taught science by teachers “who consider themselves well-prepared in key science disciplines.”

However, the real problem isn’t that Texas’s science teachers can’t teach; it’s that Texas’s teachers can’t adequately teach evolution, thanks to our long legacy of Darwin-bashing. Ma Ferguson really didn’t have to worry about protecting Texas schoolchildren from evolutionist rot: Though the celebrated Scopes “Monkey Trial,” in 1925, widely discredited the Biblical version of natural history, evolution remained a topic too hot for American textbooks until the late fifties, when the Soviet Sputnik revealed a national science gap. By then Darwin’s theory had been rejuvenated by neo-Darwinism as modern geneticists and cellular biologists observed evolution on the molecular level. The state’s schoolchildren, however, didn’t learn much about either Darwinism or neo-Darwinism. During the seventies and eighties, Texas textbook vigilantes like the late Mel Gabler and his wife, Norma, hectored the State Board of Education to include creation science—the Bible-based view that the species were created in their present form within the past 6,000 to 10,000 years—in the biology textbooks. Though teaching creation science was never required (it was finally classified as a religious doctrine in a 1987 Supreme Court ruling), the SBOE sought political cover and didn’t require much in the way of teaching evolution either.

The primitive state of science education in Texas today has been put in national perspective by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Washington, D.C., educational think tank run by President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of education that is much beloved by conservatives for its sponsorship of charter schools and its excoriation of politically correct textbooks. The Fordham Foundation believes that Darwin’s concept of biological evolution is so fundamental to understanding modern science that it rated all the states according to their curriculum standards for teaching evolution—and often found a strong correlation with their overall effectiveness in teaching science. On the basis of the new, vastly upgraded Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum implemented in 1998—which is still in effect—Texas got a mediocre C for evolution and another C for its science curriculum in general. Not surprisingly, the states that aced evolution, like North Carolina (almost as red and religious as we are) and California, are the leaders in the biotech gold rush.

But Texas’s Darwin haters haven’t settled for mere mediocrity—not while there’s a chance of bringing that C down to Arkansas’ D or Oklahoma’s F. With creation science sidelined by the Supremes, the new look in anti-Darwinism was rolled out during the 2003 SBOE hearings on the adoption of new high school biology textbooks, ones that most teachers felt finally provided an adequate framework for teaching evolution. The latest slam against Darwin is intelligent design theory, which is being promoted with a lot of media savvy by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. ID doesn’t dispute that evolution occurs but insists that life is too complex at the molecular level to have evolved in Darwin’s process of random natural selection; the only explanation can be “design” by an unnamed “intelligent cause” (wink, wink). ID makes for intriguing theology or philosophy, but as one of its top theoreticians has noted, it has yet to produce any useful science. (Darwin’s theory, as the National Academy of Sciences has noted, “is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.”)

An idea that goes back as far as Aristotle, ID would make an interesting addition to what Texas students are already required to learn about world religions, though as its ideologues no doubt know, that would immediately take the wind out of its sails. Religious conservatives who now endorse the movement simply because of its opposition to Darwin would soon realize that ID doesn’t support a Biblical history of the universe, and its intelligent designer could be anything from some New Agey spiritual entity to aliens from outer space.

The state’s science community, from Nobel prize winners to high school biology teachers, appealed to the SBOE to stop messing with textbooks, and the board’s 11—4 vote to accept the books opposed by the anti-Darwin faction was hailed as a great victory for modernity in Texas. But what was saved were books that had been written to standards already dumbed down by decades of censorship. Nor did the putative victory mark the end of ID in Texas. It resurfaced just last summer in the state Republican party platform: “The Party supports the objective teaching and equal treatment of scientific strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories, including Intelligent Design . . .”

At this point, Texas biotech is in dire need of what California has: unequivocal leadership. Our state’s potentates know that we’re barely passing science, but the current efforts to pump up science education—such as Perry’s Master Science Teacher program, intended to mentor new teachers, or the SBOE’s proposal to add another year of science to the three now required—won’t lift our students’ sagging scores if Texas teachers are continually pressured to include old-time religion in the science curriculum. The TEKS science curriculum is due to be revisited beginning in 2007, and the next governor of Texas should make clear that he or she expects that C in evolution to be raised to an A, regardless of the howls of the Darwin haters. And that new (Republican) governor should also powwow with his or her party apparatchiks and explain the facts of life: Texas, like the other mega-states (California, New York, Florida), really is a nation now, with a vast, diverse workforce and the world’s eighth-largest economy. Planks in the platform of a nation-state’s ruling party should be taken seriously; the national Republican party didn’t invite the flight of biotech capital by promising to hamstring the science education of every American kid. For the state party to call for teaching intelligent design as a legitimate scientific theory—something even the anti-Darwinists weren’t demanding at the SBOE hearings—is a childish indulgence that can only discourage biotech venture capital already skittish about doing business in Texas.

On the other hand, Texas voters can always choose a faith-based economy, akin to those of some Middle Eastern countries where clerical challenges to modernity have postponed prosperity but leave most of the faithful sustained by their presumed moral superiority to the technologically superior West. Of course, our nation-state will never fall as far behind the curve as Iran or Pakistan; we still have plenty of ways to make money, even in the sciences, that don’t require embryonic stem cell research or Mr. Darwin’s help. Instead, we’ll just lose our economic edge. The rather spectacular accommodation of piety and prosperity in Texas, where mega-churches with their celebrity pastors and medical centers with their Nobel prize—winning researchers have thrived in concert, will slowly come to an end. Call it a piety tax or the we-hate-Darwin tax, but Texas businesses and taxpayers will pay an ever-increasing hidden levy for the privilege of dissing Darwin. We started the last century as one of the poorest states in the union, and it’s not inconceivable that if this biotech century passes us by, we’ll end it as an economic also-ran once again.

Related Content