AUSTIN – Should "intelligent design" – the cousin of creationism – be taught in science classes in Texas alongside evolution?
A solid majority of the State Board of Education, which will rewrite the science curriculum for public schools next year, is against the idea, even though several members say they are creationists and have serious doubts about Charles Darwin's theory that humans evolved from lower life forms.
Interviews with 11 of the 15 members of the board – including seven Republicans and four Democrats – found little support for requiring that intelligent design be taught in biology and other science classes. Only one board member said she was open to the idea of placing the theory into the curriculum standards.
"Creationism and intelligent design don't belong in our science classes," said Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who described himself as a creationist. "Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community – and intelligent design does not."
Mr. McLeroy, R-College Station, noted that the current curriculum requires that evolution be taught in high school biology classes, and he has no desire to change that standard.
"When it comes to evolution, I am totally content with the current standard," he said, adding that his dissatisfaction with current biology textbooks is that they don't cover the weaknesses of the theory of evolution.
The theory of intelligent design 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.
Critics call intelligent design pseudoscience and a smokescreen for inserting creationism – the biblical account of the origin of humans – into science classes. But polls have shown that as many as two-thirds of Texans believe creationism should be taught in public schools along with evolution. Gov. Rick Perry and President Bush have endorsed the idea as well.
And while the board apparently won't take up intelligent design, several members expect a battle over how evolution is treated in science textbooks, although that won't be up for debate until 2011. Mr. McLeroy and others say they'll push for books to include a more thorough examination of weaknesses in the theory of evolution.
For example, they noted, there are large time gaps in fossil records of species that are believed by scientists to be part of the same evolutionary chain.
Mr. McLeroy is part of a bloc of seven socially conservative board members, whose views are generally aligned with key social conservative groups active in campaigns and policy disputes, such as the Eagle Forum. He was one of four members who voted against the current biology texts in 2003 over the evolution issue.
Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates strict separation of church and state, said she doubted board members had given up their advocacy of intelligent design.
"Don McLeroy and the other ideologues who now control the state board have said repeatedly in the past that they want public school science classes to teach creationism and other religion-based concepts," Ms. Miller said. "So we have no doubt that they'll find a way to try, either by playing politics with the curriculum standards or censoring new science textbooks later on."
Board Vice Chairman David Bradley, who also voted against the biology books in 2003, acknowledged that he doesn't believe in one of the main tenets of Darwin's theory – that humans evolved from lower life forms.
"If some of my associates want to believe their ancestors were monkeys, that is their right. I believe God is responsible for our creation," said Mr. Bradley, R-Beaumont. "Given that none of today's scientists were around when the first frog crawled out of the pond, there is no one who can say exactly what happened."
But just like the board chairman, Mr. Bradley said he is not interested in changing the current requirement for the teaching of evolution – nor would he support a move to include the theory of intelligent design in science classes.
"There's always room for improvement, but I haven't heard a loud drumbeat for massive change," he added. "I do want to make sure the next group of textbooks includes the strengths and weaknesses of evolution."
Republican Pat Hardy of Weatherford was the only board member interviewed who said she was open to the idea of putting intelligent design into the curriculum. She wants to see strong support from science teachers for doing so, though, she said.
"I am open to having intelligent design in there because there is a large body of evidence unanswered by the theory of evolution. We first need to hear from science educators and experts about whether this should be done," Ms. Hardy said, adding that she does not favor putting any religious teachings into science classes.
Both board members from the Dallas area – Republican Geraldine "Tincy" Miller and Democrat Mavis Knight – want to preserve the current requirement on the teaching of evolution. Neither is interested in giving intelligent design equal billing with evolution.
"There is nothing to stop a teacher from talking about other theories on how the world began, but those should not be the basis for a science class," Ms. Miller said.
Ms. Knight is expecting a push from intelligent design backers to include it in the curriculum next year, but she is firmly against such a move even though many Texans with creationist views may favor it.
"My position is if you're strong in your faith, then even if what is taught in a [science] class is contrary to your religious beliefs, it will not weaken your faith," she said.
Two other GOP board members who are considered social conservatives – Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands and Gail Lowe of Lampasas – also believe the current standards on evolution are in good shape and should not be changed to accommodate intelligent design.
"I don't think the standards need to be changed," said Ms. Cargill, a former high school science teacher. "I would prefer that intelligent design and creationism remain issues for families to discuss rather than having them in the curriculum."
Ms. Cargill, who also believes in the biblical version of creation, said she accepts many concepts of evolutionary theory such as continual changes in species. "Where people differ is on the origin of man," she noted, citing similar concerns with other board members about current biology books and their lack of information about the weaknesses of Darwin's theory.
Ms. Lowe, who called herself a creationist, said the study of evolution is important to the teaching of biology. At the same time, she added, "Kids ought to be able to hold religious beliefs and still study science without any conflict."
Other board members who like the current standards and don't want to require teaching of intelligent design are Republicans Bob Craig of Lubbock and Democrats Rick Agosto of San Antonio, Lawrence Allen of Houston and Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi.
Four board members – Democrat Rene Nunez of El Paso and Republicans Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond, Terri Leo of Spring and Ken Mercer of San Antonio – did not return phone calls.