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The Critic's Resource on AntiEvolution

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.


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:

For the San Antonio Express-News's story, visit:

For the Austin American-Statesman's story, visit:

For NCSE's, TFN's, and the Free Market Foundation's press releases, visit:

For the McLeroy revisions to the standards (PDF), visit:

For the oral argument in Edwards v. Aguillard, visit:

For the Cargill revisions to the standards (PDF), visit:

For the Houston Chronicle's story, visit:

For the story in The New York Times, visit:

For the editorials mentioned, visit:

For the various blog reports, visit:

For the Texas Education Agency's minutes and audio recordings pages, visit:

For the websites of organizations supporting science education in Texas,

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


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 [1]: 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:

For Mead's, Timmer's, and Matzke's discussions, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:


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:

For the January 2009 issue of Scientific American, visit:

For Branch and Scott's article in Scientific American, visit:

For the articles and resources from Science, visit:

For the special issue of The Lancet, visit:

For the articles and resources from National Geographic, visit:


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:

For information about Evolution Weekend, visit:

For Lebo's article at Religion Dispatches, visit:

For Branch's Darwin Day 2008 blog post, visit:


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:


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Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site:

where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and
threats to it.


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

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