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On the Front Line: Defending Evolution

On the Front Line: Defending Evolution
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.
Daniel Bolnick makes a statement during a press conference on September 30, 2008, supporting the 21st Century Science Coalition. Photo by Larry Kolvoord, Austin American-Statesman.
Daniel Bolnick makes a statement during a press conference on September 30, 2008, supporting the 21st Century Science Coalition. Photo by Larry Kolvoord, Austin America-Stateman.

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,” says 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,” says 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. Read more about his decision.
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Comments 3

 
Guest - Monet on Friday, 11 December 2009 16:23

Why would teaching the pros and cons of evolution be " opening the doors to religiously motivated and unscientific" viewpoint? Wouldn't it just be allowing students to find out that there are some flaws in evolution? If what you are implying is that evolution is entirely true, then tell me, how did the bacteria, which are fundemental for evolution, appear? How did the atmosphere appear? If evolution is a science, which it is, where are the "missing links" and the missing facts proving that evolution is a theory, NOT just a hypothysis? Also, I understand that scientists can be biased toward or againt different ideas. Notice that I used the word "ideas" not hypothesis or theories. It would be beneficial for evolution to not teach that there are some serious flaws in that science, but knowing the flaws is PART of any scientific endevor.

Thank you for your time.

Why would teaching the pros and cons of evolution be " opening the doors to religiously motivated and unscientific" viewpoint? Wouldn't it just be allowing students to find out that there are some flaws in evolution? If what you are implying is that evolution is entirely true, then tell me, how did the bacteria, which are fundemental for evolution, appear? How did the atmosphere appear? If evolution is a science, which it is, where are the "missing links" and the missing facts proving that evolution is a theory, NOT just a hypothysis? Also, I understand that scientists can be biased toward or againt different ideas. Notice that I used the word "ideas" not hypothesis or theories. It would be beneficial for evolution to not teach that there are some serious flaws in that science, but knowing the flaws is PART of any scientific endevor. Thank you for your time.
Guest - Jacob on Tuesday, 20 April 2010 16:16

The supposed alternatives to evolution are "unscientific" because they are not backed up, and are in fact often refuted by evidence and facts. These "religiously motivated" viewpoints are believed solely on the basis of religious texts, which contain many statements which are provably untrue. Religious freedom is important, but when "religiously motivated" viewpoints come into conflict with scientific facts, the scientific perspective should be presented.

As for "flaws" in evolution, there are none. There is missing information, and there are some questions that we don't know the answers to yet, but evolution itself is not flawed because none of the evidence refutes it. Evolution doesn't care how bacteria appeared; evolution simply claims that after they appeared, they reproduced in accordance with the principles of natural selection, and later gave rise to all other organisms. Evolution has nothing to say about how the atmosphere came about either (except that our current high oxygen concentrations were caused by photosynthesizing organisms); that question is more in the realm of earth scientists, and perhaps chemists. Evolution is completely consistent even without answers to these questions.

As for "missing links", the notion that such examples are actually missing from the fossil record is false. The fossil record is rich with transitional forms, examples of which can be seen in many prominent science museums. Besides, even if such fossils were missing, it would not indicate any "flaw" with evolution, since fossilization only occurs under very particular circumstances anyway. However, the fact that such fossils have been found, exactly as was predicted by evolution, shows exactly how powerful and practically useful evolution is for describing the current state of the natural world in which we live.

The supposed alternatives to evolution are "unscientific" because they are not backed up, and are in fact often refuted by evidence and facts. These "religiously motivated" viewpoints are believed solely on the basis of religious texts, which contain many statements which are provably untrue. Religious freedom is important, but when "religiously motivated" viewpoints come into conflict with scientific facts, the scientific perspective should be presented. As for "flaws" in evolution, there are none. There is missing information, and there are some questions that we don't know the answers to yet, but evolution itself is not flawed because none of the evidence refutes it. Evolution doesn't care how bacteria appeared; evolution simply claims that after they appeared, they reproduced in accordance with the principles of natural selection, and later gave rise to all other organisms. Evolution has nothing to say about how the atmosphere came about either (except that our current high oxygen concentrations were caused by photosynthesizing organisms); that question is more in the realm of earth scientists, and perhaps chemists. Evolution is completely consistent even without answers to these questions. As for "missing links", the notion that such examples are actually missing from the fossil record is false. The fossil record is rich with transitional forms, examples of which can be seen in many prominent science museums. Besides, even if such fossils were missing, it would not indicate any "flaw" with evolution, since fossilization only occurs under very particular circumstances anyway. However, the fact that such fossils have been found, exactly as was predicted by evolution, shows exactly how powerful and practically useful evolution is for describing the current state of the natural world in which we live.
Guest - Mr H on Friday, 13 August 2010 17:07

Monet shows he/she doesn't understand what a scientific theory is. People think theory is just an opinion with a lot of facts to support it, but if it has at least one flaw, cannot be true. Monet was probably educated in Texas. You see how good a job the state science curriculum did.

Monet shows he/she doesn't understand what a scientific theory is. People think theory is just an opinion with a lot of facts to support it, but if it has at least one flaw, cannot be true. Monet was probably educated in Texas. You see how good a job the state science curriculum did.
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