The final shot of the last battle of the Great Texas Textbook War has been fired. The clash did not end in a blaze of glory, exactly, more like a flurry of memos. Still, the occasion deserves to be marked. What happened was this: three experts, selected by the State Board of Education, struck down an attempt to insert doubt about evolution into a high school biology textbook, thereby preventing creationists from having any voice in how the origin of life is presented in its pages.
Science didn’t just win. It crushed.
Of course, declaring a winner in a conflict that’s been going on for decades is a risky move. In the past, whenever it appeared as if the anti-Darwin forces were vanquished, they found a way to marshal their troops and launch a new line of attack. For several decades the generals of this holy onslaught were Mel and Norma Gabler. Beginning in the early sixties, the Gablers anointed themselves the watchdogs of the textbook industry, poring over pages at their kitchen table in the tiny East Texas town of Hawkins. Sometimes they singled out silly mistakes, like the passage in a history book claiming that Spain ruled Florida from 1763 to 1783 when, in fact, the British were in charge for most of that time. But their primary mission was ideological, and one issue in particular stoked their zeal: textbooks that espoused evolution, which they considered to be a kind of gateway drug to godlessness. Once kids started doubting the naked-couple-in-the-garden bit, they might lift an eyebrow at the boat big enough for dinosaurs. Where would it end? School might learn the faith right out of kids. “If you want to believe you came from a monkey, that’s fine,” Norma once told a reporter. “But I don’t.”
As a result, in part, of the Gablers’ activism, biology textbooks in Texas de-emphasized Darwin through much of the seventies and eighties. The evolutionary theory that did worm its way into the curriculum was often presented as merely a theory with “strengths and weaknesses”—more like a wild hunch than the central organizing principle of biology. Steadily, though, creationists have been forced to surrender ground, especially once the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1987, that teaching creationism is unconstitutional. In 1997 the board of education established rules stating that Texas students must learn about evolution. An attempt in 2003 by the tireless Gablers to once again make a case for creationism came to nothing when the board adopted all the textbooks the Gablers and their allies objected to. And in 2005 a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the theory of intelligent design, which finds evidence of the Almighty’s handiwork in the natural world without mentioning God, was essentially creationism dressed up in jargon. It can’t even be taught alongside evolution in the classroom. The latest goal of the anti-Darwin forces isn’t to present an alternative to evolution. Instead, they strive to sow doubt, to portray this evolution business as a sketchy affair.
That may be the only strategy left, explains Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that shakes its fist at the school board’s right wing. “Three decades ago we had creationists demanding to teach straight-up creationism in science classrooms. Courts said you couldn’t do that,” Quinn says. “Then they said, ‘We want to teach creation science.’ Courts said, ‘Nope, still creationism.’ They said, ‘Okay, how about intelligent design?’ Courts said, ‘You can’t do that either.’ ”
That has forced evolution opponents to step carefully. Don McLeroy, a dentist and Sunday school teacher who was the chairman of the school board from 2007 to 2009, made no secret of his belief in biblical literalism; in the 2012 documentary The Revisionaries, he explained how Noah squeezed all those animals into that ark. But the current chair, Barbara Cargill, who once taught high school biology, is a bit cagier. Ask her if she believes that human beings share a common ancestor with other primates and she will hem and haw. “Scientists can look at certain evidence and interpret it in different ways,” she says. “The controversy is certainly there.”
The latest and last round in this controversy took place in November. The news this time was that approval of a biology textbook had been delayed after a volunteer review panel selected by the board of education identified twenty serious errors. That seemed like an awful lot considering that the book, Biology, was co-written by Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, and Joseph Levine, a science writer with a doctorate in biology from Harvard. Though the critique of Miller and Levine’s book was officially the work of the whole panel, the objections came from just one member, Ide Trotter, a gentlemanly veteran of Texas textbook fights. Trotter has a doctorate in chemical engineering from Princeton and is a former dean of the business school at Dallas Baptist University, which may account for his donnish demeanor. Trotter doesn’t harangue, he harrumphs. After testifying in front of the school board in 2003, he predicted that the momentum had turned against evolution and that it couldn’t hold out much longer. “There are not enough forces on the side of Darwinism to keep pushing it back uphill forever,” he said at the time.
Evolution has yet to fall, but Trotter is still at it. Ask him about his motives and he will say he’s concerned with making sure that Texas students get the most current and correct information available. Ask him if he is a creationist and he sidesteps the question. Ask him again and he gets mildly annoyed. But listen closely and his position is pretty clear. “The same thing could be explained by common design rather than common descent,” he says, meaning that similarities between, say, a capuchin monkey and a Dallas banker might be evidence of a creator rather than of natural selection. “You either believe there is nothing beyond nature or you believe there is something beyond nature.”
Though he operates on his own, Trotter’s approach aligns neatly with evolution skeptics supported by well-funded organizations like the Discovery Institute. You won’t hear him or them mention the Bible, but they will eagerly toss around scientific citations. Unlike the Gablers, Trotter and his ilk don’t advocate teaching creationism alongside evolution. Instead, they dig for conflict in peer-reviewed journals in order to poke holes in the science supporting evolution. Trotter’s critiques certainly sound scientific, referencing the Cambrian Explosion, punctuated equilibrium, taxonomic trees, and other terms that make you feel like you’re taking a test you forgot to study for. For instance, Miller and Levine wrote in their book that the beak sizes of Galapagos finches are evidence of natural selection. Not so, said Trotter. Those beaks demonstrate nothing more than “genetic drift.”
Trotter was especially miffed at the importance placed on natural selection. In his review he wrote in all caps to emphasize his displeasure: “THE CURRENT UNDERSTANDING OF THE GROWING BODY OF EVIDENCE IS THAT NATURAL SELECTION ONLY PURIFIES BUT SOMETHING ELSE IS REQUIRED TO CREATE SIGNIFICANT VARIANTS TO BE SELECTED.” As proof, he cited the research of James Shapiro, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, whose take on natural selection is out of step with most biologists’. Shapiro believes that the mechanism isn’t sufficient to explain certain changes in organisms.
Nonetheless, when I reached Shapiro, he was displeased to hear that his work was being used to oppose the adoption of the Miller and Levine textbook. “The opponents of evolution are disingenuously trying to confuse the public and the Texas school board textbook review committee,” he wrote in a response to me, which he soon after published as an article on Huffington Post. “They have taken a real scientific debate and tried to make it seem like a challenge to the legitimacy of evolution science itself.”
When Trotter turned in his list of twenty errors, board member Thomas Ratliff, who won McLeroy’s seat in 2010 by running as a moderate, proposed that a committee of three experts be appointed to review them. Ratliff further stipulated that those chosen must hold a doctorate in a relevant field. Such standards are a departure for the school board, which tends to maintain a generously low bar for expertise—pretty much a bachelor’s degree and the ability to speak into a mike. The committee made quick work of Trotter: none of the supposed errors were errors at all, they determined. One panelist, Ron Wetherington, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University, produced a point-by-point dismissal. Regarding those Galapagos finches, Wetherington wrote that Trotter “completely misunderstands what is being demonstrated: the differential survival based on different beak size is, in fact, natural selection. Genetic drift has absolutely nothing to do with this!”
After all that buildup, the speedy resolution was almost a letdown: Miller and Levine’s Biology was approved without alteration and was adopted by the board for use in schools. And then, in late January, the board unanimously established stricter rules for who could serve on the volunteer review panels, giving priority to teachers and professors. Yet while the Great Texas Textbook War may be over, there are signs of new battles over evolution on other fronts. Slate recently reported that one of the state’s largest charter-school companies, Responsive Education Solutions, which has more than sixty campuses in Texas, bypasses the board of education’s approval process and uses textbooks that include classic creationist rhetoric. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise considering that charter schools often have strong religious ties and, in some cases, are even housed in churches.
Meanwhile, Don McLeroy wants to take the fight directly to the people. He thinks that with the proper guidance, savvy students will see through evolution. And McLeroy plans on providing that guidance on his own, traveling the state speaking to youth groups, teachers, and whoever else will have him, about how to argue against evolution in the classroom. “That’s going to be my goal in life for the next two years,” he promises.
Considering that one 2010 poll found that 51 percent of Texans don’t believe that human beings evolved from other species, he’s likely to find a receptive audience.
Tom Bartlett is a writer in Austin.