The University of Texas at Austin
  • Professors defend evolution in Texas classrooms

    By Daniel Oppenheimer
    Daniel Oppenheimer
    Published: Dec. 9, 2009
    Professors

    In the ongoing struggle over how to teach evolution in the Texas public schools, faculty in the College of Natural Sciences are playing an increasingly significant role as advocates of evolutionary science.

    They’ve written op-eds and letters to the editor in local papers, testified at public meetings, organized scientists from across the state into a unified front, and even, in one case, run for office.

    Ultimately, their goal is to influence the deliberations of the Texas State Board of Education, which is charged with determining the textbooks and the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS) requirements for K-12 public education. It has meant that they’ve waded into the messy politics of the board, which is split down the middle between members who believe evolution should be taught as settled theory and those who believe it should be presented with far less confidence.

    “The Board of Education was considering whether to keep language in the standards which said that students needed to learn about the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of evolutionary theory,” said Daniel Bolnick, an assistant professor of biology. “On the face of it, that’s an entirely reasonable thing to do. Once you start to understand the history of this debate, however, you realize that the point of that language isn’t to understand evolution better, but to open the door to introducing religiously motivated and unscientific viewpoints into the classroom.”

    The precise language of the TEKS, in fact, has most engaged the energies of Bolnick and his colleagues. At stake isn’t simply semantics, but which textbooks will be allowed into the classroom, whether teachers will be empowered to defend modern evolutionary theory or empowered to undermine it, and — in a broader sense — what role the methods of science will have in the education of the state’s students.

    Bolnick, along with his biology colleagues David Hillis and Sahotra Sarkar, are members of the advisory committee of the 21st Century Science Coalition, which was created to represent the interests of scientists in the ongoing fight. The group, along with allied organizations like the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education, were able to help convince the board to remove the “strengths and weaknesses” language from the latest curricular standards.

    They lost, however, in other, similarly semantic fights over the language in the science curriculum. Teachers are now instructed, for instance, to help their students “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”

    The next major battle in the fight over evolution comes in 2011, when the Board of Education determines which textbooks will be acceptable in science classes in the public schools. Not only might some textbooks be disallowed for not treating evolution with as much skepticism as opponents want, but textbooks may be rewritten, by publishers, in order to serve Texas politics rather than modern science. In fact, there may even be an opening for texts created by religious groups to slide into the curriculum.

    “At the most important level, this isn’t about whether we’re descended from apes or not,” said math professor Lorenzo Sadun, who’s running for a seat on the State Board of Education against one of its more anti-evolution members. “It’s about understanding what science is, and how it works. Evolution isn’t just a collection of facts. It’s one of the gigantic ideas that holds billions of biological facts together. It’s how we understand, for instance, how to deal with the flu epidemic.

    If students want to learn about evolution, and then decide that they don’t want to accept it, that’s fine with me. I just want them to understand what the science is, and it’s the science that’s being undermined.”

    * Update: Lorenzo Sadun has just announced that he will not be filing for candidacy for the District 10 seat on the State Board of Education.

    • Quote 2
      ev said on Jan. 22, 2010 at 12:10 p.m.
      It's really depressing to see/hear people argue religious mythology as literal truth. They can argue evolution all they want - for most of us the genesis of life is never going to have any practical importance. Trouble is, the only reason to get rid of evolution is because it conflicts with mythological accounts. This is clearly a bad thing for anyone who does, or might, want to make the genesis of life something relevant to their career.
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      kris maxwell said on Dec. 15, 2009 at 2:36 p.m.
      I am all for academic freedom of inquiry. Sure, let's treat evolutionary theory with a grain of salt. After all, science is not about dogma, but about a continuing quest to better our understanding of the ways things work. And let us also turn this critical eye toward the competing theories of the way the world works, and demand an equally high level of experimental evidence to support them. I am sure under those conditions, these competing models will stand up really well and not be a waste of students' attention, teachers' time and schools' budgets for textbooks.
    • Quote 2
      utbiograd said on Dec. 14, 2009 at 2:37 p.m.
      @CBA, I know what the definition for evolution is. I can see how it can account for microevolution, e.g. finches, but to me that is adaptation. The finch remains a finch even though its beak changes. Genetic information changing won't be so drastic that a finch would turn into something non-avian. We haven't observed it occur because we haven't been around long enough. Billions of years doesn't sell me, which is "what" it takes for evolution to work. Also, the Law of Gravity, Thermodynamics? Is that not supported by other laws and related hypotheses, yet it is law and not theory?
    • Quote 2
      CBA said on Dec. 14, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.
      @utbiograd, evolution is a change in the genetic information of a population. This change may or may not result in a speciation event; speciation is not a necessity for evolution to occur. You also refer to evolution as a "...theory not a Law." In science "theory" is above "law" in the hierarchy of terms in such that any "theory" is composed of and supported by many scientific laws and related hypothesis.
    • Quote 2
      utbiograd said on Dec. 14, 2009 at 8:50 a.m.
      @Seem, My argument using influenza is not flawed. Evolution can't be used to explain the "evolution" of influenza because it remains influenza. No speciation or macroevolution has occurred in influenza under our observations. In reference to the embryo, read this article. You can still be a man of science and a man of God. Even Albert Einstein believed in a higher power.
    • Quote 2
      Seem said on Dec. 11, 2009 at 1:31 p.m.
      Sorry that was not heliocentric, it was *geocentric* ;-)
    • Quote 2
      Seem said on Dec. 11, 2009 at 12:47 p.m.
      @utbiograd, Your argument is flawed. Evolution *does* explain speciation. Take the example of how a developing embryo undergoes all stages of evolution, i.e from having fish like gills, to a tail that slowly disappears. This is one of the biggest proofs of evolution. I do not understand why some people still follow religious books written over 2 thousand years ago rather than believe something which has been proven using genetics. IMHO religious books are to be interpreted in spirit, not in letter. Because we have to admit, 2000 years ago they did not have the knowledge or the means to deduce everything. And by the way, agreed that Evolution is a theory not a Law. So is relativity. And we have observational proofs for both of them. Evolution is a fact (including macroevolution *and* speciation). - A supporter of Evolution and the scientific method
    • Quote 2
      utbiograd said on Dec. 11, 2009 at 11:20 a.m.
      Even the example they gave of the flu here is not evolution. Influenza does not evolve into another virus, it remains influenza. That is adaptation and not evolution. The main problem I have with evolution theory is macroevolution and speciation. I am a Christian as well, and I am aware of the facts. The fact that evolution remains theory and not law is a fact because there ARE weaknesses in the argument, and all arguments to that should be considered.
    • Quote 2
      chris said on Dec. 11, 2009 at 10:58 a.m.
      This is an interesting topic. I just finished my bio for non-majors class, and I struggled with evolutionary topics. I don't blame the science though, it holds up. It actually reaffirmed my faith, and now I've been exposed to a new religious realm. Science and belief in a deity DON'T have to be mutually exclusive; just as religious texts have plot holes and continuity errors, so do aspects of evolutionary theory, but that's not to say the concept should be dismissed.
    • Quote 2
      utlg22 said on Dec. 10, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.
      It upsets me that people are still afraid to accept evolution because they feel it goes against their religious beliefs. I am a science major and a devout Christian, but I choose to be aware of the facts. Any person who's studied evolution will see how reasonable the theory is. It is important to study the past to discover things of our future. Kids should not be shielded about exploring different scientific theories. Whether they accept it or not is their personal choice but at least they are aware of it.
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