NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/01/30
(by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch)
Dear Friends of NCSE, A victory for science education in Texas, although the battle is not yet over. The latest antievolution textbook is royally panned in a top scientific journal. Three journals are joining in the celebrations of the Darwin anniversaries with special issues and features. And Darwin Day continues to approach.
VICTORY OVER "WEAKNESSES" IN TEXAS In a close vote on January 23, 2009, the Texas state board of education approved a revision of the state's science standards lacking the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language, which in 2003 was selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. The removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language represents a tremendous victory for science education in Texas, with the Dallas Morning News (January 23, 2009) describing the failure of a proposed amendment to reintroduce it as "a major defeat for social conservatives." But the struggle is not over, for a number of scientifically indefensible revisions to the biology and earth and space science standards were adopted at the last minute. Defenders of the integrity of science education in Texas plan to expose the flaws in these revisions and hope for a reversal when the board takes its final vote on the standards at its March 26-27, 2009, meeting. The crucial vote not to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language took place on January 22, 2009, the second day of the board's meeting. During the first day of the board's meeting, as NCSE previously reported, dozens of witnesses expressed their views about the proposed standards, including NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who urged the board to heed the advice of the scientific and educational experts who revised the standards and decided to omit the "strengths and weaknesses" language. Board members who opposed the amendment cited the need to respect the work of the experts, according to the Morning News, with Mary Helen Berlanga commenting, "We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do," and Geraldine Miller similarly commenting, "We need to respect what our teachers have recommended to us." Similarly, Rick Agosto was quoted in the San Antonio Express-News (January 23, 2009) as saying, "I have to consider the experts. Members of the board who favored the amendment seemed, however, to consider themselves to be experts. Ken Mercer -- who is on record as claiming that evolution is falsified by the absence of any transitional forms between cats and dogs -- was reported by the Express-News as saying that he was not going to rubber-stamp the recommendations of the experts who revised the standards. And he was also quoted by the Morning News as complaining, "The other side has a history of fraud. Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies." Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, who was blogging from the meeting, reported that Mercer cited "the bogus and misleading examples of Piltdown Man, Haeckel's vertebrate embryo drawings, the peppered moths that were glued to tree trunks, and the half-bird, half-dinosaur that were all 'evolutionary frauds'" -- all of which are familiar staples of creationist literature attempting to discredit evolution. Ultimately, as the Morning News reported, "The amendment failed to pass on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat -- who would have opposed the amendment -- was absent." The significance of the vote was apparent to the Texas media: for example, the headline of the story in the Morning News was "Texas Board of Education votes against teaching evolution weaknesses"; the San Antonio Express-News began its story with the sentence, "A 20-year-old Texas tradition allowing public schools to teach 'both the strengths and weaknesses' of evolution succumbed to science Thursday when the State Board of Education voted to abolish the wording from its curriculum standards"; and the headline of the story in the Austin American-Statesman (January 23, 2009) was "State board shuns disputed language on evolution." And the momentousness of the vote was not lost on NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who explained in a January 23, 2009, press release: "The misleading language [in the original science standards] has been a creationist loophole in the science TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] for decades. Its removal is a huge step forward." Similarly, the Texas Freedom Network's Kathy Miller commented in a January 23, 2009, statement, "This is a very important victory for sound science education. A board majority stood firmly behind 21st-century science and should be applauded." Even the Free Market Foundation -- the state affiliate of Focus on the Family -- in effect conceded the significance of the vote by issuing a press release on January 22, 2009, expressing outrage at the vote and pointedly identifying the members of the board who voted for and against the amendment to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language. The victory was not complete, however. A flurry of amendments introduced by creationist members of the board sought to compromise the treatment of evolution in the biology standards. Terri Leo successfully proposed a revision to the standards to replace verbs such as "identify," "recognize," and "describe" in section 7 of the high school biology standards with "analyze and evaluate" -- no other section of the standards was treated similarly. Worse, Don McLeroy successfully proposed a revision to section 7 to require that students "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." It is significant that "sudden appearance" is a creationist catchphrase, associated in particular with young-earth creationist Wendell Bird. During oral arguments in Edwards v. Aguillard, for example, Jay Topkis observed, "those buzzwords come right out of Mr. Bird's lexicon. ... They're his." Just as worrying were the amendments introduced by creationist members of the board that sought to compromise the treatment of evolution and related concepts in the earth and space science standards. Barbara Cargill successfully proposed revisions to the standards to add, in her words, "humility and tentativeness; in the view of Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, however, "All five of the changes ... are not needed and were proposed to weaken and damage the ESS TEKS." The worst change was to a requirement that students "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution," which now reads, "evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence." NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott, who was at the meeting and observed the board's confusion over these amendments, commented in NCSE's January 23, 2009, press release, "They didn't ... have time to talk to scientists about the creationist-inspired amendments made at the last minute. Once they do, I believe these inaccurate amendments will be removed." The Texas Freedom Network concurred, observing on its blog, "Board members -- none of whom are research scientists, much less biologists -- appeared confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to specific passages of the standards. That's why it's foolish to let dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they're scientists. The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall." With respect to McLeroy's revision, the TFN added, "What we saw is what happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than scientists do." All of the action -- the vote not to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language and the flurry of amendments from creationist members of the board apparently eager to salvage a small victory from the defeat -- occurred on the second day of the board's meeting. On the third day, January 23, 2009, there was virtually no discussion as the board voted unanimously to adopt the science standards as revised on the previous day, without hearing any further comments from those in attendance. The vote, again, is only a preliminary vote, with a final vote on the standards expected at the board's March 26-27, 2009, meeting. The Houston Chronicle (January 23, 2009) reported, "Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March"; since a survey demonstrated that the vast majority of biologists at universities in Texas rejected the idea of teaching the supposed weaknesses of evolution, there ought to be no shortage of scientifically competent advice for the board to heed. Reports in the press recognized that the overall result was a qualified victory for science, with the Houston Chronicle (January 23, 2009), for example, reporting, "Texas schools wont have to teach the weaknesses of evolution theories anymore, but the State Board of Education ushered in other proposed changes Friday that some scientists say still undermine evolution instruction and subject the state to ridicule," and reporting Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science as concerned that McLeroy's revision, if not reversed, would make the standards a laughingstock. David Hillis, a distinguished biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, added, "This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert. He also told The New York Times (January 24, 2009), "Its a clear indication that the chairman of the state school board doesnt understand the science." In the same vein, editorials in Texas and nationally have praised the omission of the "strengths and weaknesses" language but lamented the creationist revisions. The Austin American-Statesman (January 24, 2009) seemed pleased if not excited about what it termed "an incremental step away from dogma-driven curriculum decision-making," while the Waco Tribune (January 26, 2009) was happy about the omission of a phrase that "was meant to open the door to the undermining of evolution theory" but dismayed by McLeroy's revision, which it described as "a fall-back attempt by the right wing of the board to hang tough in its effort to undermine evolution theory." The New York Times (January 26, 2009), for its part, editorialized, "The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education." In addition to the newspaper reports cited above, a variety of on-line sources provided detailed, candid, and often uninhibited running commentary on the proceedings: Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman blogged, and posted photographs, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere blog, the Texas Freedom Network was blogging on its TFN Insider blog, NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was blogging on his personal blog Thoughts from Kansas (hosted by ScienceBlogs), and the Houston Press blogged the first day of the meeting. For those wanting to get their information from the horse's mouth, minutes and audio recordings of the board meeting will be available on the Texas Education Agency's website. NCSE's previous reports on events in Texas are available on-line, and of course NCSE will continue to monitor the situation as well as to assist those defending the teaching of evolution in the Lone Star State. For the Dallas Morning News's story, visit: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/DN-evoluti on_23tex.ART.State.Edition2.4e8893c.html For the San Antonio Express-News's story, visit: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/38199699.html For the Austin American-Statesman's story, visit: http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/01/23/0123sboe.html For NCSE's, TFN's, and the Free Market Foundation's press releases, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/01/news/2009/01/weaknesses-removed-from-texas-science-standards-004231 http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5675 http://www.freemarket.org/News_PressRoom_CurrentPressRelease.aspx For the McLeroy revisions to the standards (PDF), visit: http://www.texscience.org/pdf/mcleroy-biology-amendments.pdf For the oral argument in Edwards v. Aguillard, visit: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1986/1986_85_1513/argument/ For the Cargill revisions to the standards (PDF), visit: http://www.texscience.org/pdf/cargill-ess-amendments.pdf For the Houston Chronicle's story, visit: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/6227807.html For the story in The New York Times, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/24/education/24texas.html For the editorials mentioned, visit: http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/01/24/0124sboe_edit.html http://www.wacotrib.com/opin/content/news/opinion/stories/2009/01/26/01262009waceditorial.html http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/opinion/26mon3.html For the various blog reports, visit: http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/ http://www.scienceblogs.com/tfk/ http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/political_animals/ For the Texas Education Agency's minutes and audio recordings pages, visit: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/audio_archived.html http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/minutes_archived.html For the websites of organizations supporting science education in Texas, visit: http://www.texscience.org http://www.tfn.org http://www.texasscientists.org http://www.texasacademyofscience.org http://tamest.org http://www.tsela.org http://www.statweb.org http://www.teachthemscience.org And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/texas EXPLORE EVOLUTION AS CREATIONIST NOSTALGIA Even as the Discovery Institute's Stephen C. Meyer was trying to convince the Texas state board of education of his scientific bona fides, the antievolution textbook he coauthored was receiving a scathing review in a top scientific journal. Reviewing Explore Evolution for Evolution & Development (2009; 11 : 124-125), Brian D. Metscher of the University of Vienna described it as "159 glossy pages of color-illustrated creationist nostalgia," adding, "All the old favorites are here -- fossils saying no, all the Icons, flightless Ubx flies, irreducible flagella, even that irritating homology-is-circular thing. There are no new arguments, no improved understanding of evolution, just a remastered scrapbook of the old ideas patched together in a high-gloss package pre-adapted to survive the post-Dover legal environment. The whole effort would be merely pathetic if it did not actually represent a serious and insidious threat to education." Unimpressed by Explore Evolution's advertised "inquiry-based approach," Metscher remarked, "The point-counterpoint organization is used to give the appearance of a comprehensive treatment, but the substance is thin, fragmented, and demonstrably biased. ... All of the topics are treated in a manner much more appropriate to discussions of theological contentions or political positions rather than to scientific discourse." (Similarly, reporting on a Biola University event to train teachers to use the textbook, NCSE's Louise S. Mead concluded, "Explore Evolution fails on every front with respect to claims of being an 'inquiry-based' curriculum.") Metscher further observed that "the 'evidence' given in this book is almost all in the form of inappropriate examples, inept analogies, unattributed intimations, and credibility-enhancing quotes from mostly nonrelevant scientific works (carefully referenced, in case you want to look up the context they're being taken out of)." As a specialist in evolutionary developmental biology, Metscher took particular exception to Explore Evolution's misrepresentations of his field, writing, "More or less everything we call 'evo-devo' is meant to augment evolutionary theory to include factors other than the coding genome, and so these authors cite evo-devo works by real scientists as 'critiques' of 'neo-Darwinism.'" In one particularly egregious case he discussed, a claim in Explore Evolution about the evolution of the four-chambered heart "is supported by citing a single article ... which does not mention heart development, but does discuss developmental (non-neo-Darwinian) sources of evolutionary novelty. The next paragraph refers to it as a 'critique of neo-Darwinism.' And this after giving an explicit warning against the logical fallacy of equivocation." He also complained of the book's "outright abuse" when it comes to its citation of the scientific literature. Metscher's review thus confirms John Timmer's assessment of Explore Evolution: "anyone using this as a source of information about science in the classroom will leave their students with a picture of modern biology that is essentially unrelated to the way that science is actually practiced within the biological science community." Citing Nick Matzke's 2006 discussion in Reports of the NCSE of the impending debut of Explore Evolution, Metscher expressed concern that "Together with new state education bills allowing local groups to push this stuff into classrooms, it will help dilute and weaken the already thin preparation students receive for dealing with a world full of information they need to be able to think about." Louisiana, where the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently adopted a policy about what types of supplementary classroom materials will, and will not, be allowable under the Louisiana Science Education Act, is the most salient case in point. For Metscher's review, visit: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/121641680/HTMLSTART For Mead's, Timmer's, and Matzke's discussions, visit: http://ncseweb.org/rncse/28/1/explore-evolution-notes-from-field http://arstechnica.com/reviews/other/discovery-textbook-review.ars http://ncseweb.org/rncse/26/6/new-creationist-textbook-way-again And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/louisiana THREE JOURNALS CELEBRATING THE DARWIN ANNIVERSARIES Three journals -- Science, The Lancet, and National Geographic -- are celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species. They join Nature, which recently released "15 Evolutionary Gems," a new resource summarizing fifteen lines of evidence for evolution by natural selection, and Scientific American, which took "The Evolution of Evolution: How Darwin's Theory Survives, Thrives and Reshapes the World" as the theme of its January 2009 issue -- including NCSE's Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott's discussion of the newest mutations of the antievolutionist movement in "The Latest Face of Creationism." And NCSE looks forward to a host of further journals joining the celebration! Science is allocating a special section of its website to "celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of the author's birth with a variety of news features, scientific reviews and other special content, all collected here." Also Included are a new blog, Origins, and a monthly series of essays tackling major evolutionary questions, with January's essay, by Carl Zimmer, addressing the origin of life. Science editorially explains, "In marking his bicentenary, we reaffirm the values and practice of science, and the generous spirit of inquiry, observation, experiment, and discussion that Darwin himself exemplified. These values, and their fruits, need continued public promulgation. ... This year's bicentennial celebrations will only be a success if they meet this challenge." A special issue of The Lancet for December 2008, entitled Darwin's Gifts, was "dedicated to Darwin's life and work and the enduring legacy of his theory of evolution" and is now freely available in a special Flash-based format. Among the topics discussed are Darwinism's fantastic voyage, The Origin of Species, Art and evolution, Evolution: medicine's most basic science, The evolution of fruit-fly biology, Socioeconomic inequalities in ageing and health, Forebears and heirs: a sketch, Synthetic biology, Darwin's charm, Bold flights of a speculative mind, Race, genetics, and medicine at a crossroads, Epigenetics in evolution and disease, Antibiotic resistance: adaptive evolution, and 21st century eugenics? The foreword is by Steve Jones, who argues, "Darwinism is the grammar of biology and should have the same role in medicine." And Darwin is also the theme for the February 2009 issue of National Geographic. In "Darwin's First Clues," David Quammen explains, "Darwin's first real clue toward evolution came not in the Galapagos but three years before, on a blustery beach along the north coast of Argentina. And it didn't take the form of a bird's beak. It wasn't even a living creature. It was a trove of fossils. Never mind the notion of Darwin's finches. For a fresh view of the Beagle voyage, start with Darwin's armadillos and giant sloths." And in "Modern Darwins," Matt Ridley reviews how Darwin's insights have been refined, expanded, and deepened by scientists in the 150 years after the publication of the Origin. National Geographic's website also contains a video of Quammen discussing his article and even a Darwin trivia quiz. For Nature's "15 Evolutionary Gems" (PDF), visit: http://www.nature.com/nature/newspdf/evolutiongems.pdf For the January 2009 issue of Scientific American, visit: http://www.sciam.com/sciammag/ For Branch and Scott's article in Scientific American, visit: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-latest-face-of-creationism For the articles and resources from Science, visit: http://www.sciencemag.org/darwin/ http://blogs.sciencemag.org/origins/ http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5911/198 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5911/198 For the special issue of The Lancet, visit: http://mag.digitalpc.co.uk/fvx/lancet/darwinsgifts/ For the articles and resources from National Geographic, visit: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/02/darwin/quammen-text.html http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/02/darwin-legacy/ridley-text http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/video/player#/?titleID=7036436001 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/02/darwin-legacy/quiz-interactive DARWIN DAY APPROACHES Less than a month remains before Darwin Day! And since 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, it promises to be a particularly exciting celebration. Colleges and universities, schools, libraries, museums, churches, civic groups, and just plain folks across the country -- and the world -- are preparing to celebrate Darwin Day, on or around February 12, in honor of the life and work of Charles Darwin. These events provide a marvelous opportunity not only to celebrate Darwin's birthday but also to engage in public outreach about science, evolution, and the importance of evolution education. NCSE encourages its members and friends to attend, participate in, and even organize Darwin Day events in their own communities. To find a local event, check the websites of local universities and museums and the registry of Darwin Day events maintained by the Darwin Day Celebration website. (And don't forget to register your own event with the Darwin Day Celebration website!) And with Darwin Day comes the return of Evolution Weekend! Hundreds of congregations all over the country and around the world are taking part in Evolution Weekend, February 13-15, 2009, by presenting sermons and discussion groups on the compatibility of faith and science. Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, writes, "Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic -- to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy." At last count, 889 congregations in all fifty states (and fourteen foreign countries) were scheduled to hold Evolution Weekend events. In a January 27, 2009, story at Religion Dispatches, Lauri Lebo -- the author of The Devil in Dover (The New Press, 2008), the latest book about the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial -- discusses the genesis of Evolution Weekend and the Clergy Letter Project. Michael Zimmerman told her that after organizing a number of letters in Wisconsin to counteract a local attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution, it struck him: "All of a sudden, here it was ... I realized, OK, I have this letter signed by 200 people in one state. I did the calculations, and figured I could come up with 10,000 signatures nationwide. I thought if I could get the signatures, I could put an end to this silliness." He added, "It never crossed my mind how big 10,000 is." (There are presently 11,814 signatories.) Lebo continues, "Despite its success, Zimmerman is under no delusion that the Clergy Letter Project will end the attacks on evolutionary education by those of fundamentalist faiths. ... Instead, hes trying to reach out to people of more mainstream faiths, who are open-minded but scientifically illiterate." Writing on the Beacon Broadside blog in February 2008, NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch asked, "Why make such a point of celebrating Darwin Day, as opposed to, say, Einstein Day on March 14?" He answered, "A crucial reason, particularly in the United States, is to counteract the public climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution," citing a number of current attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The onslaught continues in 2009, with struggles in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. "So thats a fine reason," as Branch recommended in 2008, "for you to devote a day -- at the museum or in a pew, at a lecture hall or in a movie theater, out in the park or indoors on a badminton court -- to learn about, discuss, and celebrate Darwin and his contributions to science, and to demonstrate your support of teaching evolution in the public schools." For the Darwin Day Celebration website's registry of events, visit: http://www.darwinday.org/events/ For information about Evolution Weekend, visit: http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/rel_evolution_weekend_2009.htm For Lebo's article at Religion Dispatches, visit: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/scienceandreligion/963/ For Branch's Darwin Day 2008 blog post, visit: http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/02/dust-off-your-d.html CORRECTION The January 16, 2009, evolution education update's story on Louisiana used the wrong term to describe what was adopted (it was a policy, not a set of guidelines) and was unclear about the exact sequence of events. Thanks to Barbara Forrest for the corrections. For the corrected version of the story, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/01/mixed-result-louisiana-003733 REMINDER If you wish to unsubscribe to these evolution education updates, please send: unsubscribe ncse-news firstname.lastname@example.org in the body of an e-mail to email@example.com. If you wish to subscribe, please send: subscribe ncse-news firstname.lastname@example.org again in the body of an e-mail to email@example.com. Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it. Sincerely, Glenn Branch Deputy Director National Center for Science Education, Inc. 420 40th Street, Suite 2 Oakland, CA 94609-2509 510-601-7203 x305 fax: 510-601-7204 800-290-6006 firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.ncseweb.org Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc Eugenie C. 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