Slow to Evolve

Mon December 1, 2008 6:00 am

Gail Lowe: The National Academy of Science has still stated that it is not a fact and we don’t believe evolution ought to be taught as a fact. Katy, do people argue about gravity?
Katy Vine: No.
GL: No. But do they argue about evolution?
KV: Yeah.
GL: So evolution can’t be equated to the law of gravity because evolution does not have the full evidential experience that gravity does. People do still argue about evolution theory.

—February, 2008

For a few hours on Thursday morning, I was relieved to read in the Texas dailies that most of the folks who gave testimony at the State Board of Education meeting last Wednesday wanted strong language in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills ( TEKS) supporting evolution. Hello, progress!

Later in the day, however, I had a depressing thought—one that may have been obvious to folks who’ve followed the evolution saga. The reason so many Texans testified in favor of strong language supporting evolution in the TEKS is because they’re having to play defense and they’re losing.

They’re not losing with the majority of scientists, of course. But they lose where it counts: the State Board of Education. I went back in my archives and found my interview (above) with state board member Gail Lowe from this past February. I suspect her logic is shared by the majority of the board: Evolution is debated and is, therefore, debatable. Along this line of thinking, if I believe I don’t exist, my existence is debatable. Amazing.

After my interview with Lowe and some other board members this spring, I created a quiz that appeared in our October issue (“ How Well Do You Know Your State Board of Education? ”). Afterward, some board members may have indeed wished my existence were debatable. Some of the opposition to the questions about evolution, however, came from unexpected sources. One sixth grade science department chair in Texas e-mailed me: ”The shots made against Intelligent Design [in the quiz] are just low. In question 11, the answer is ‘evolution is both a fact and a theory.’ I know Ms. Vine is quoting the [National Academy of Sciences], but please explain to me how something can be a theory and a fact. The textbook that I teach out of would have a hard time reconciling those two things as being equal.”

My heart sank. A science teacher—a department chair, no less—didn’t know the scientific definition of a theory? I replied with a link to the National Academy of Science’s book “ Science, Evolution, and Creationism ,” which explains that a scientific theory is not a hypothesis; it is “a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts.” Then I hit my head on the desk a few times.

Since the last state board review of the science TEKS, in 2003, Texas’ Nobel laureates, Academy members, and biology professors have banded together to form the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas and the 21st Century Science Coalition. Both groups ask for strong, unequivocal language supporting evolution. A day before last Wednesday’s meeting, the Texas Freedom Network released a report surveying 464 biology professors in Texas: 94 percent of them said “weaknesses” are not valid scientific objections to evolution.

But who knows if any of the decision makers will care what specialists say. For many years, the TEKS have included wording about teaching the “weaknesses” of evolution, and I imagine that when the board finally votes in January they’ll argue to keep the theory up for discussion in classrooms. This sounds harmless to a lot of folks, but I think Physics Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg addressed this reasoning beautifully when he testified at the textbook hearing in 2003: “There is a natural answer which is very congenial to the American spirit, I think. And that is, well, let the students judge. Why shouldn’t they have the chance to judge these issues by themselves? And that, I think, is the argument that many are making. But judge what? Judge the correctness of evolution through natural selection? Judge the correctness of Newton’s law or the conservation of energy or the fact that the Earth is round rather than flat? Where do we draw the line between the issues that we leave open to the student’s judgment and the issues that we teach as reasonably accepted scientific facts, consensus theories?”

I have to admit, the idea of watching kids with enough expertise to go toe-to-toe with scientific experts is sort of thrilling. Ph.D.’s all around! I’d love to see this happen—who wouldn’t? But when you look at Texas’s education challenges, that day is far in the future. We should probably focus on getting kids to graduate first. Hopefully they’ll be able to define a scientific theory.

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