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A new chapter in evolution fight

Groups disagree on how Texas schoolbooks should treat subject

08:27 PM CDT on Tuesday, September 9, 2003

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN The bare-knuckle schoolhouse fight over how to teach Texas students about evolution and the origin of humans has itself evolved into a sophisticated, new class of warfare this year.

Longtime critics of evolution within Texas have been joined by a well-funded national think tank that has launched an attack on new biology textbooks slated to be read by millions of students over the next several years.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute is lobbying the State Board of Education to mandate language that pokes holes in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The institute has used DVDs, books, news conferences and editorial board meetings to argue that the biology books are too one-sided in their coverage of how humans evolved and how life on Earth in general evolved through natural selection.

BIOLOGY TEXTS FAULTED
These are among the criticisms that the Discovery Institute cites in objecting to the way proposed biology textbooks treat evolution:

Embryo drawings that have appeared in biology books for decades exaggerate the similarities between embryos of humans and other species of life. Well-known drawings by 19th-century scientist Ernst Haeckel show more similarities than exist in reality.

One classic example supporting evolution involves a British scientist who concluded in an experiment that a moth species had evolved through natural selection to a darker color, to blend in better on pollution-covered trees. But the scientist used photos of dead moths glued to the trees.

Evolutionists gloss over the so-called Cambrian explosion, when changes in some species occurred too rapidly to be explained by natural selection a key component of evolution according to fossil discoveries from that period about 500 million years ago.

Experiments often cited to support evolution were conducted at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s to show how life first formed in Earth's atmosphere. The chemicals used in the experiment were not present in that early atmosphere.

NOTE: The Discovery Institute's criticisms have been dismissed by the National Center for Science Education, which points to the vast body of fossil and other evidence supporting the theory that animal and plant species on Earth evolved over millions of years from common ancestors.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research

Their opponents leading scientists and educators from across the state accuse the group of trying to water down coverage of evolution in textbooks so its members can later pressure publishers to include religious-based explanations for the origins of life.

That assertion is flatly rejected by leaders of the policy and research group.

"All Discovery Institute has ever advocated is that textbooks should fix embarrassing factual errors and tell students about the scientific weaknesses of neo-Darwinism as well as its strengths," said John G. West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture.

"This is fully in accord with Texas law, which says students should know the scientific evidence that both supports and shows the weaknesses of existing scientific theories."

Alternate theory

Such explanations are merely a smokescreen, according to Steven Schafersman, a biology professor at the University of Texas-Permian Basin and president of Texas Citizens for Science.

"The Discovery Institute is just a creationist organization. Their goal is to present a watered-downed, dumbed-down presentation of evolution in textbooks" so they can open the door to future teaching of "intelligent design" and other "pseudoscientific" theories, he argued.

The theory of intelligent design promoted by the Discovery Institute holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an unknown "intelligent cause" rather than by undirected processes like natural selection and random mutation key components of the theory of evolution. Institute leaders insist they are not seeking to include their theory in new biology books, however.

Rhetoric from the two sides has heated up as they prepare to square off at a textbook hearing on Wednesday before the State Board of Education. Board members will select new biology and other books for public schools in November.

Big book buyer

Because of its status as one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, Texas exerts considerable influence on publishers and the content of their books, which are marketed across the nation. Only California buys more textbooks.

That status is what brought the Discovery Institute to Texas this year, seizing an opportunity to help decide what millions of students will read in science books for years to come. The group, founded in 1990, was successful in a similar effort in Ohio last year and is active in several other states.

Discovery Institute leaders bristle at the accusation that the organization is a Trojan horse for putting creationism into the science curriculum of public schools. Their opponents have warned that Texas could return to the days when publishers sidestepped the topic of evolution to avoid conflict with creationists those adhering to the biblical account of the origin of humans.

Publishers have been required to cover the theory of evolution but no competing theories in science books since 1991.

"We are not asking the board to insert intelligent design into biology textbooks," Dr. West said. "We are asking that the scientific criticisms of various aspects of neo-Darwinism that appear in the scientific literature be included.

"Far from seeking to water down the teaching of evolution, we want to see a lot more taught about evolution. It's the other side that wants to limit what information about evolution students learn."

Institute critics

Critics of the group, including the Texas Freedom Network, note that the institute has promoted its intelligent design theory in other states. The nonprofit freedom network has spearheaded opposition to the Discovery Institute.

They also point out that much of the funding for the institute comes from wealthy individuals connected with fundamentalist religious groups and the anti-evolution movement.

"In the scientific community, the Discovery Institute has no credibility whatsoever," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education.

She said the institute is using the same strategy as religious conservatives who are opposed to the theory of evolution. "They try to dumb down coverage of evolution by claiming that the textbooks are full of errors and missing information," she said, noting the group is only concerned with "errors" about evolution.

The presence of errors is an important concept in textbook selection in Texas because, under current state law, the grounds for rejection are limited. Board of Education members may reject a book only if it has factual errors, does not cover the curriculum or is manufactured poorly.

The Discovery Institute, which touts a large number of college professors, scientists and researchers as members, has compiled its criticisms of evolution in a book written by senior fellow Jonathan Wells, titled Icons of Evolution.

Among the key criticisms is that embryo drawings that have appeared in biology books for decades showing strong similarities between embryos of humans and of other species are incorrect. The drawings show more similarities than exist in reality.

All of the criticisms have been dismissed by the National Center for Science Education and leading science educator groups, which point to the vast body of fossil and other evidence supporting the theory that animal and plant species on Earth evolved over millions of years from common ancestors.

"Not a single section of the book [Icons of Evolution] accurately portrays the current research on evolution," said Amanda Walker, a biology teacher in Austin who has joined the groups defending the textbooks up for adoption this year.

"It would be disastrous if they are successful, because the flaws in evolution that they talk about are not really flaws at all. There is no argument in the scientific community about the validity of the theory of evolution. And reputable scientific circles do not even discuss intelligent design."

Teacher support

To counter that claim, Discovery Institute leaders have recruited two dozen professors from seven Texas universities who signed an open letter to the Board of Education urging it to require that textbooks include weaknesses as well as strengths of the theory of evolution. Several of the professors are in fields other than science.

"Darwinists claim there is no academic debate over Darwin's theory, and that the only objections are religious," said Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman. "But these professors show that claim is false."

The group also released results of a poll this week indicating that three-fourths of Texans want biology books to describe the flaws in evolution theory, along with supporting evidence. The survey was conducted by established pollster Zogby International and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network said the poll and letter from the professors are part of a strategy to give the institute more credibility in the eyes of Board of Education members.

"Old-fashioned creationism has emerged as a sophisticated new force," she said. "Intelligent design proponents clearly intend to be taken seriously in the political arena in a way they've failed to in the scientific arena."

E-mail tstutz@dallasnews.com

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