Evolution Fight Retuns in Texas

By Sean Cavanagh — March 24, 2009 3 min read
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They’re going to be debating common ancestry in Texas this week.

Common ancestry is a core piece of the theory of evolution, and as such, it’s broadly accepted by the scientific community. It posits that humans and other living things have descended from common ancestors through an evolutionary lineage, and that all living things share common ancestors. Yet some members of the Texas state board of education want to insert language in the standards that calls common ancestry into doubt. The board, following up on a preliminary vote in January, is scheduled to consider language that says students should “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency and insufficiency of common ancestry,” as part of the Texas state science standards. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, a preliminary vote for Thursday, and a final vote Friday.

To quickly recap, scientists felt they had achieved some measure of success when the board decided, during earlier discussions, to remove language from the current standards that calls for students to understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Since evolution is one of the best-established theories in all of science, many experts said that wording improperly singled out evolution for criticism and misled students.

Yet the board also tentatively approved an amendment that asked students to take a critical look at common ancestry—another benchmark theory of modern biology.

Common ancestry rankles some religious conservatives, who hold the belief that all living things were created by God, as written in the Bible.

Evidence for common ancestry exists across the natural world, scientists say. A commonly cited example of the concept is that of humans and chimpanzees, who scientists say descended from a common ancestor and a species that lived 6 or 7 million years ago. (It’s not that humans and chimps came from apes, as is often said, but from a species that no longer exists.) Another example: Humans and puffer fish have a common ancestor believed to have lived about 400 million years ago, as was noted in a recent guide to evolution, published by the National Academies and the Institute of Medicine. Here’s a fuller explanation of common ancestry from an earlier blog entryon the Texas debate.

Changes to Texas state standards can have a major impact on schools. Publishers tend to write textbooks to meet the academic guidelines of that state and others that occupy a big chunk of the market.

Board members on both sides of the Texas debate seem to be expecting a close vote, judging from this Wall Street Journal article. An apparent supporter of the common-ancestry language is board Chairman Don McElroy, who’s quote as saying that school textbooks “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution—because there is. ... We need to be honest with the kids.”

The article also says McElroy believes the earth is 10,000 years old, not 4 billion years old, as most scientists will tell you. The scientific community is out in force in opposition, as evidenced by this letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s leading scientific organizations.

UPDATE: The National Science Teachers Association makes its position known. The organization opposes any effort to return to the “strengths and weaknesses” language. Also note the organization ties the teaching of evolution, and cultivating students’ science skills, to their future success in college and the workforce, as well to the nation’s overall economic prosperity. Other scientific organizations have made similar arguments during recent debates.

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