Evolution Debate Under Way in Texas

By Sean Cavanagh — November 20, 2008 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Texas board of education is the latest state entity to begin debating the status of evolution in the state’s science academic standards.

To provide a quick overview: The current version of Texas’ science standards calls for students to understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. That language irks scientists, who see it as a way of falsely implying that evolution is riddled with flaws, as opposed to being one of the best-established principles in science. A draft produced by an expert committee recommended dropping that language, as part of a broader reworking of the standards. Then Texas’ board of education appointed a separate, six-member panel to review that document (see their comments in the link above), some of whose members were critical of the first draft and recommended changes. Some scientists are worried that those appointees are interested in seeing evolution presented in a more critical light.

A couple observations about the Texas debate:

—The scientists seem to be out in force. As recently as a few years ago, I heard a lot of criticism that too many scientific experts were content to stay on the sidelines, as anti-evolution forces carried the day. The complaints were that scientists didn’t know how to get their message out to the public (and in quotable form to the media). Much of the frustration I heard came from scientists themselves.

I hear much less of that criticism now. Scientists testify at meetings, create their own citizens’ groups and Web sites, and in general, seem far more determined to convey their views than they were a few years ago. Difficult to say when this surge in science activism began, but academic scholars, researchers, and K-12 science teachers certainly took an active role in major debates in Kansas, Dover, Pa., and Florida.

This is not to say that those who want more critical views of evolution presented have lost interest. They’re showing up in Texas, and will continue to do so.

—Understanding evolution is being linked to economic growth. This is not a new argument put forward by scientists, but I’m hearing it more and more. The account of yesterday’s Texas hearing in the Dallas Morning News quotes a professor who notes that the debate is playing out as Texas Gov. Rick Perry is attempting to make the state a center for cancer research and treatment. More scientists seem to be arguing that high-profile disputes over evolution have the potential to turn off future employers in science industries choosing among states, who will simply take their business elsewhere. Opponents of efforts to weaken the treatment of evolution in public schools made a similar case during the recent evolution dispute in Florida. Scientists and CEOs, the thinking goes, have a strong interest in making sure that their workforce is scientifically literate and has a good understanding of evolution, in agriculture, medicine, disease control, etc.

The Texas board’s hearings will continue this week. The board is expected to make a final decision on the science standards early next year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.