Commentary

Q: Whatever Happened to Creationism? A: It's Still Around.

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In 1981, the issue of "scientific creationism" was all over the news, mainly because of a nationally publicized trial over an Arkansas law requiring "balanced" classroom treatment for the theories of evolution and "creation science." In early 1982, that law was found to be a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition of state advancement of religion. A similar Louisiana law has been challenged and the case is slowly winding its way through the courts. Most observers believe that law will be found in violation of the First Amendment also. As a result of such defeats, there is an assumption that the creationism movement is dead, and media interest in the issue has virtually disappeared.

But creationism only appears to be a dying issue. Behind the big trials, creationism is alive and thriving at the state and local levels. Its proponents have become more diversified and sophisticated in their techniques, and they are more effective. The creationists are now attempting to accomplish their goals by using the existing rules of the system and by working at lower administrative levels. There, the opposition is apt to be poorly organized and the publicity less glaring. In some cases, the creationists are winning.

Take, for example, the coverage of topics related to evolution in high-school biology textbooks. Gerald Skoog, professor of education at Texas Tech University, has documented a marked decrease in coverage of evolution over the past 10 years. When six biology texts published between 1973 and 1976 are compared with current editions published between 1980 and 1983, coverage of evolution is found to be reduced in four. The coverage was unchanged in only two--both of which are the products of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), a government-funded curriculum-writing project whose texts strongly emphasize evolution. The reduction in evolution coverage in the other books ranges from 17 percent to a shocking 79 percent.

A text published in 1981 by Laidlaw Brothers, a division of Doubleday, has no chapter on the subject and fails to list either "evolution" or "Charles Darwin" in the index (although some topics related to evolution are covered). The New York City school system rejected this book along with two others for their inadequate treatment of evolution.

When searching for explanations of this weakening of biology education, one encounters three major factors: the Texas State Board of Education, a little-known administrative rule used in the board's textbook-selection process, and publishers who view their textbooks as "products." These are links in a chain that is being used by creationists to shackle the teaching of evolution while they attempt to introduce religion in the guise of science.

The Texas board sits as gatekeeper to the lucrative Texas textbook market. In 1983, textbook sales in Texas topped $64 million, making it the largest single purchaser of textbooks in the country. Under Texas selection procedures, only five books per subject area are allowed to compete for the Texas market. After books are chosen, they will be used for six to eight years. As a result, publishers tailor their books to meet the demands of the Texas board. The board has absolute veto power over every book recommended for adoption, regardless of the choices offered by the professional educators who make up the board-appointed Textbook Selection Committee.

And the Texas board can reject a book without ever publicly stating why it did so. Consequently, publishers know where the real power lies, and when their "products" do make the recommended list of five they usually agree without hesitation to delete, modify, and add words, phrases, and sometimes paragraphs to meet specific demands of the board.

If the effects of this process stopped at the Texas state line, one might ignore it, but the economics of textbook publishing are such that whatever "products" are published for Texas will be marketed throughout the nation. At least for textbooks, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.

The guiding document in the elaborate selection process is the board's annual textbook proclamation, which provides publishers with previews of what the Texas board wants to see covered in specific subject areas up for adoption that year. Proclamation 60, which was formally adopted in January, covers Introductory Biology and Biology I and II. More important, however, are the general content rules (found in the Texas Administrative Code). These are the rules under which each proclamation is written. It is here that one finds a rule that is appalling in the ignorance it displays of science.

Known to its opponents as the "anti-evolution" rule, this 1974 rule states in part that textbooks treating the theory of evolution "shall identify it as only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind and avoid limiting young people in their search for meanings of their human existence." The rule further requires evolution to be treated as "a theory rather than fact" and "in a manner which is not detrimental to other theories of origin." A direct result of this rule is that every biology, life-science, and earth-science textbook published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston contains a sentence preface that states that any material on evolution is presented as theory rather than fact and that "the information presented allows for the widest possible interpretation."

By adopting this rule at the request of Texas creationists, the Texas board has managed to equate scientific theories with religious explanations, to confuse theories with mere speculations, and to separate evolutionary theory from the body of scientific knowledge. As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, Josey Regental Professor of Science at the University of Texas at Austin, has explained, "The only rational purpose of the [Texas] rules regarding evolution is to leave room for particular religious belief to remain unchallenged by what students learn in high school."

Mr. Weinberg was recently joined by the astronomer Carl Sagan, the Rev. Charles Bergstron, a Lutheran Council spokesman, Arthur Kornberg, a Nobel laureate, and some 50 scientists, clergymen, educators, and citizens groups in presenting a statement to the Texas board calling for suspension of the anti-evolution rules and the appointment of a committee to study their negative effects. A state senator asked the state's attorney general to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the rule. [Editor's note: Last week, in a nonbinding opinion, the Texas attorney general said the rules are unconstitutional. See story on page 8.].

Mr. Weinberg's view is confirmed when one reads the content requirements for textbooks for Biology I and II as specified by Proclamation 60: Nowhere is evolution or Charles Darwin mentioned. In fact, the board in January rejected an effort by scientists to improve the content of biology textbooks in 12 specific ways, including the addition of topics such as natural selection and the fossil record.

Proclamation 60 poses two dangers to science education. First, it sends a clear message to Texas science teachers that they are not required to teach evolution in biology classes. (And that, if they do teach it, teachers cannot expect administrative support should parents complain.) Second, the proclamation sends an equally strong message to textbook publishers: To pass scrutiny in Texas, biology texts are not required to discuss the cornerstone of modern biology.

The Texas textbook-selection process illustrates how little-known administrative rules, quietly enacted following pressure from creationists, can be used to further a dual agenda of casting doubt upon evolution while promoting creationism.

Another problem is that ambiguous teacher-certification rules that fail to define proper training in science are being exploited by fundamentalist colleges to get their biology graduates certified to teach in public schools. The graduates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College, for example, are now certified to teach biology in Virginia as well as some 30 other states. The Virginia State Board of Education certified the Liberty Baptist programs despite Mr. Falwell's claim that "we want to see hundreds of our graduates going out into the classroom teaching creationism. Of course, they'll be teaching evolution, but teaching why it's foolish, and then showing the proper way and the correct approach to the origin of species."

A group founded last summer, called the National Association of Christian Educators (NACE), states: "Creation science should be taught with evolution as a two-model curriculum on origins." Robert L. Simonds, president of the NACE, wrote the following in his manual, Communicating a Christian World View in the Classroom: "Christian teachers should give both the Christian and secular-humanist views of subjects that are appropriate."

We of course cannot measure the number of teachers who are successfully proselytizing in their classrooms, but there are many who do. For example, in Oakland, Calif., an anthropology teacher presented creationism equally with evolution and instructed students to bring their Bibles to class to prove the case for creationism. Jewish students were identified by a show of hands and asked to bring the Torah. Fortunately, the principal at this school quickly and effectively halted this blatant violation of religious freedom, but how many other similar cases go unreported and unchecked?

There is also pressure being exerted on teachers to weaken the teaching of evolution. This school year in San Diego, Kelly Segraves, the director of the Creation Science Research Foundation, had his son enroll in an advanced biology class, then demanded that a popular college-level text used in the course be dropped. According to Mr. Segraves, the textbook treated evolution dogmatically. When the local board of education refused to cave in to Mr. Segraves's demand, he took his complaint to the California State Board of Education. He again failed to win support, but this has not halted pressure from others to have the teacher of the class reassigned.

Nor has it halted the chilling effect such confrontations have on teachers. The chairman of a Texas high-school science department recently said that evolution is not being covered by biology teachers in her school because of "fear of turning students off and fear of lack of administrative support if there are parental complaints."

Thus, we are not finished with creationism, and we won't be until Americans understand the issue and the ramifications of what creationists are demanding. The issue is not simply a scientific one. Rather, it is religious, political, and educational, and it will have to be fought over in these arenas, often at the school-district level, by people who are tenacious, well-informed, and dedicated to the American concept of religious freedom.

The creationists will never compromise. Those of us who believe in the integrity of science and the separation of church and state must be no less zealous.

Vol. 03, Issue 26, Page 24, 19

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