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