Curriculum

Pending Textbook Adoption Fans Evolution Debate

November 30, 2010 5 min read
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Louisiana’s state school board is gearing up for a debate next week over a set of proposed life-science textbooks, amid complaints that they don’t provide information questioning the theory of evolution.

But defenders of the texts say the criticism of evolution’s treatment is misguided and appears to be part of a thinly veiled agenda to promote a religiously infused creationist or “intelligent design” perspective on the origins of life.

The state board of education in October adopted a variety of new science textbooks for public schools, but held off voting on high school biology and environmental-science books. Instead, it asked a rarely used state advisory council to review the books and weigh in.

That panel of educators and lawmakers voted 8-4 last month to recommend the books. Notably, the two state lawmakers on the panel, who both have leadership roles on education, cast “no” votes.

State board member Dale Bayard said he plans to vote against the texts—which the state textbook-adoption committee overwhelmingly approved—and will urge his colleagues to join him.

“The textbooks in the life sciences that were proposed ... did not include all science that is currently available on the subject [of evolution],” he said, asserting that some findings “refuting” the theory have been ignored.

“It has absolutely, positively nothing to do with creationism. ... The anti-Christian movement in this country wants you to think that.”

But Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University who co-wrote one of the books in question, said there’s no scientific basis to include the evolution critiques.

“The so-called evidence, once it’s put on the table, simply falls apart upon inspection,” he said.

The critical question is, said Mr. Miller: “Is there a single piece of scientific evidence that contradicts the broad outlines of the theory of evolution? And the answer is no.”

For her part, Penny Dastugue, who this month becomes the new president of the Louisiana school board, said she’s comfortable with the textbooks and thinks the 11-member board will adopt them.“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” she said, “but I believe, given what I have seen thus far of the debate, that the textbooks will ultimately be approved.”

‘Manufactured Controversy’

Louisiana has long been a flashpoint for debate over teaching evolution. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law that required public schools to balance the teaching of evolution with creationism, the biblical belief that God created the universe and all living things. (“Creationism Law in La. Is Rejected By Supreme Court,” June 24, 1987.) The court found that the law violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

In 2002, the state board voted 7-3 against a plan to put disclaimers in textbooks stating that evolution was only a theory that “still leaves many unanswered questions about the origin of life.”

Then in 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, signed the Louisiana Science Education Act. Its stated goal is to foster an environment in public schools that “promotes critical-thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The law says teachers may use supplemental materials to promote such inquiry.

Critics say the law is essentially a backdoor means of inserting religious views into science classrooms through the promotion of creationism or intelligent design, the idea that an unidentified force played a role in shaping the development of living things, including humans. The vast majority of scientists say both ideas are unscientific and thus should not be taught as science.

The theory of evolution says that humans and other living things have evolved over time through natural selection and random mutation from common ancestors.

Among those who testified last month before the state advisory panel reviewing the textbooks was Kevin R. Carman, the dean of the college of science at Louisiana State University.

In an interview, he said evolution’s critics have “manufactured what they call a controversy.”

“Within the scientific community, there is no controversy such as they have created,” he said. “There are mountains of scientific evidence in support of evolution. Certainly, there are aspects of evolution about which we have a great deal to learn, but the basic premise ... is simply not controversial in biology.”

But Jim Garvey, a state school board member, said last month that he had not made up his mind about the textbooks.

“I still need to learn more about what the complaints are,” he said.

The board has several options, he said, including rejecting the textbooks outright, attaching a disclaimer on evolution, or calling for supplemental materials.

The Louisiana Family Forum, an advocacy group whose stated mission is to promote “biblical principles in the centers of influence,” recently posed this question on its website: “Should the state adopt high school biology textbooks that don’t include disclaimers about the theory of evolution?”

The Rev. Gene Mills, the group’s president, said the Louisiana Science Education Act calls for a “free and open discussion as it relates to any number of controversial subjects,” and the textbooks appear to do a “poor job” of that.

But Mr. Mills said last month that his group, which championed the science education bill, had not decided whether it would urge the state school board to oppose the textbooks’ adoption. When the board meets, he said his organization will share its perspective on the books, including any perceived deficiencies.

“We’re compiling the list of the good, the bad, and the unacceptable,” he said.

Mr. Mills said his concerns are not simply with how evolution is handled in the textbooks, but also other issues such as global warming and “embryonic issues.” The goal, he said, is to “make sure publishers are on notice that scrutiny will be applied” to their textbooks and “sunshine to what they teach.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Pending Textbook Adoption in La. Fans Evolution Debate

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