Ala. Board Mulls Taking Stand on Evolution as Theory

By Millicent Lawton — November 08, 1995 3 min read

With the blessing of the new Alabama schools chief, the state board of education this week will consider including a letter in biology textbooks that says evolution is “not a statement of fact.”

Board member David Byers proposed inserting the one-page, five-paragraph letter into high school biology textbooks at a public work session of the board late last month. The letter he proposed would be added to six or seven biology texts; it would be addressed to students and signed by the state board.

State Superintendent Edward R. Richardson, who was appointed at the beginning of the school year, said last week that he supports the letter as a way to avoid getting bogged down in a highly polarized debate among board members over the religiously sensitive issue.

The board will consider the proposed insert at a meeting this week at which it also plans to vote on whether to adopt the hundreds of science textbooks recommended by the state textbook committee.

The letter calls evolution an “interesting and controversial theory.” It goes on to say: “No one was present when living things first appeared on the Earth. Therefore, any statement about how they appeared is a statement of theory, not a statement of fact.”

The letter then suggests a series of questions students should ask teachers. Among them are “Why did most of the major groups of animals ‘suddenly’ appear in the fossil record?” and “Why do most major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record?”

Evolution generally holds that animals and plants developed through hereditary changes over successive generations. Other theories, such as creation science, say that biblical accounts of creation can be scientifically verified and reject much of what is taught in biology and geology.

Looking for a Compromise

At least two of the board’s nine members offered suggestions about how the insert might be shortened or reworded when it was proposed at last month’s work session.

One, Bradley Byrne, suggested keeping the insert but cutting out the list of questions students should ask teachers. The board has asked Mr. Richardson to come up with a compromise on the wording of the insert.

The Eagle Forum of Alabama, a branch of the national conservative activists’ group, has endorsed the insert.

But the Alabama Academy of Science, a private organization of college professors and high school teachers, has sent a letter to the board urging it to reject Mr. Byers’ proposal. “We believe the state board of education should not be in the business of addressing specific questions of science content,” the academy wrote.

Mr. Byers said in an interview last week that the science books up for adoption this year are “extremely aggressive in their presentation of the issue of evolution.” Mr. Byers is one of three Republicans, including Gov. Fob James Jr., who sit on the board.

He said he objects to what he says are assertions in the textbooks that chance--rather than a supreme being--brought about the process of evolution. “I think it reflects an extreme bias of the textbook writer,” Mr. Byers said, “that shouldn’t be in textbooks given to impressionable students.”

Mr. Byers said he favored a written insert rather than elimination of the texts because weeding out objectionable sections would mean dispensing with most of the proposed science textbooks.

“I do not want to impede the teaching of factual science in Alabama,” he said. “I would like to simply ensure students are not indoctrinated into purely materialistic evolution.”

Mr. Richardson said the letter was a way to defuse some of the controversy surrounding the issue without disrupting the integrity of the textbooks or infringing on a teacher’s ability to teach evolution.

“What we’re trying to describe for the reader is that evolution is a theory,” said Mr. Richardson, who is a former science teacher.

The board had agreed in the spring that Alabama’s newly adopted K-12 science curriculum would not give preferential treatment to evolution. At the time, the board assured critics that evolution would be taught as a theory.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as Ala. Board Mulls Taking Stand on Evolution as Theory