This fall, the Texas Board of Education will be deliberating the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution and whether the phrase belongs in the state science curriculum. The results of the board’s decision will have wide repurcussions. The review of the standards is to establish guidelines for textbook publishers, who are watching the process closely.
The board’s chairman Don McLeroy is an avid Young Earth Creationist and believes the world less than 10,000 years old. Appointed last summer by conservative Gov. Rick Perry, McLeroy insists he is only interested in seeing that the best science education standards are adopted. In no way, he has promised, will he push for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design. But wary educators believe the state board members may be eyeing an innocuous-sounding phrase buried in the curriculum’s general standards. Steve Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science said that the existing wording “strengths and weaknesses,” which were inserted into the standards during the late ‘80s to appease creationists, may be exploited in order to insert educational requirements that present evolution as a controversial subject.
Coincidentally, 160 miles north from the Austin conference room where the board will be debating how evolutionary theory should be taught in its public schools, creationists announced this summer that they have discovered proof of man and dinosaur co-existence.
Just outside of Glen Rose, Texas, in a place known as the Paluxy Flats, creationists say they have identified the three-toed footprint of an Acrocanthosaurus, who passed through millions of years ago, perhaps hunting, when this was once a much different landscape of tidal flats and marsh.
That in itself is not unusual. Such footprints cover this region. But creationists claim that inside the dinosaur footprint is the unmistakable mark of a human footprint. Carl Baugh, who runs the Creation Evidence Museum, just outside of Glen Rose, said he has analyzed the prints and can vouch for their validity.
It bears noting that Baugh’s past claims have all been thoroughly debunked. Scientists place the age of the Earth at 4.55 billion years and there is no credible scientific evidence backing up young earth creationism.
But one still has to wonder, with more than a little trepidition, if when McLeroy addresses the weaknesses of evolution, does he means the kind of “evidence” such as what was supposedly unearthed in Glen Rose?
And for those of us watching from Pennsylvania, it appears little has changed.
Four years ago this summer, an event that may sound familiar to those in Texas played out in a small rural community in south-central Pennsylvania. A member of the Dover Area School Board uttered a sentence at a public meeting that would touch off a firestorm of debate in his small community and across the nation.
During a discussion about why the board refused to buy a ninth grade biology textbook which included a section on evolutionary theory, Bill Buckingham set the stage for the first constitutional test of intelligent design—the concept that life’s complexity demands a guiding hand.
“Two thousand years ago, someone died on the cross. Won’t somebody stand up for him?” Buckingham told the head of his science department before a crowd of 100 people. Two local reporters, Joe Maldonado and Heidi Bernhard-Bubb, also in the audience that day, dutifully recorded his comment and the creationist remarks of Buckingham’s fellow board members in the next day’s newspapers.
That a little more than six months later, Buckingham and his fellow board members would deny under oath that he made the statement at the meeting, or that any of them even so much as uttered the word creationism, only sealed their fate for what would come to pass.
Their remarks, and their denial of them, led to a six-week trial in which intelligent design’s creationist roots were laid bare, the lead intelligent design expert admitted that for ID to qualify as science, he would have to redefine science to include astrology, the school board would be investigated for perjury and U.S. Judge John E. Jones III, a George Bush appointee, would issue his landmark ruling in Dec. 2005 that said not only was intelligent design not science, but that “The writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity.”
It became a beautiful victory for those standing up for scientific principles and religious freedom.
Now, the latest attempt to force religion into science class is taking place in Texas. But the Lone Star is not alone. Similar debates are being waged in other states around the country. Stinging over Judge Jones’ decision, members of the Discovery Institute, intelligent design’s chief proponents, had been relatively quiet for two years. But this spring, they returned.
It began with the marketing campaign of the doomed documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which argues that academic freedom is under attack.
The movie stars Ben Stein, the former Nixon speech-writer most famous for his role as the ineffectual teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In the movie, he says that educators who embrace intelligent design and question evolution are being persecuted for their beliefs.
At the same time, the Discovery and Expelled’s marketing team unveiled a web site touting suggested legislation to “protect academic freedom” by encouraging the teaching of alternative theories of controversial subjects, such as evolution.
In the scientific community, evolutionary theory is a considered to be the unifying principle of biology. But despite the fact that there is no scientific controversy, lawmakers from several states pushed this sample legislation. In Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Alabama, the bills failed.
But in June, following overwhelming support in the state House and Senate, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana became the first governor to sign the first “academic freedom” bill into law. Observers on both sides of the issue are now waiting for the first school district in the state to adopt a curriculum based on this new language.
Of course, these academic freedom bills, along with the “teach the strengths and weaknesses” wording in Texas are merely a watered-down version of intelligent design—what Judge John E. Jones III, in his ruling anticipated and addressed when he decreed Discovery’s fall back “teach the controversy” strategy was a fraud.
“ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class,” he wrote. “This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the intelligent design movement is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creation science in science classes in public schools was unconstitutional. Since then, creation science adapted and evolved into intelligent design, which was declared unconstitutional in Dover.
As with each constitutional defeat, the movement further dilutes its scientific assertions with vague terms and misleading language.
As a board member for nine years, McLeroy, along with three other board members, had been a persistent critic of the teaching of evolution in the state’s public school science classes. Despite his belief in Young Earth Creationism, McLeroy, a dentist from College Station told the Dallas Morning News last year, “Creationism and intelligent design don’t belong in our science classes. Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community—and intelligent design does not.”
But just as Buckingham’s arguments for intelligent design were intertwined with his religious views, McLeroy has been clear in his support for restoring God to science class. In a talk he gave to his church congregation in 2004, he recited traditional anti-evolution talking points, first espoused by Phillip Johnson, the father of the intelligent design movement. McLeroy told the group, “So what do we do about our Bible in the intelligent design movement? . . . Johnson states, ‘it’s vital . . . to keep the discussion strictly on the scientific evidence and the philosophical assumptions. This is not to say that the biblical issues aren’t important; the point is, the time to address them will be after we have separated materialistic prejudice from scientific fact.’”
Barbara Forrest, who, as an expert witness for Dover’s plaintiffs, so damningly exposed intelligent design’s creationist roots, says McLeroy’s position has evolved in keeping with creationists’ latest strategy. His is merely relying on what Forrest calls the “code words.” But their long-term goals remain the same: To get God into science class.
The full statement in the Texas standards reads: “The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.” (Italics added.)
McLeroy considers common descent, for example, to be a “weakness” of evolutionary theory, in particular the idea that humans evolved from apes. But while some of the mechanics of evolutionary theory may be debated in the scientific community, the existence of common descent is widely accepted.
Phrases such as “strengths and weaknesses,” “teach the controversy” and “academic freedom” are carefully crafted in order to make it over the hurdle of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
As Dover plaintiffs’ lead attorney Eric Rothschild acknowledged recently in New Science, “They are better camouflaged now.” But the phrases are also designed for another purpose—one that parents should find particularly disturbing. They want to close children’s minds to the wonders of science.
For creationists’ to achieve this goal, alternative theories like intelligent design aren’t necessary. All that is needed to sway children is to plant seeds of doubt about evolution.
As Discovery fellow Michael Medved told the Jerusalem Post in an Aug. 6 article: "The important thing about Intelligent Design is that it is not a theory—which is something I think they need to make more clear. Nor is Intelligent Design an explanation. Intelligent Design is a challenge. It’s a challenge to evolution. It does not replace evolution with something else."
By removing such vague concepts like intelligent design, they have nothing to assert beyond the argument that evolution doesn’t answer everything. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are not actively promoting the use of “supplemental materials” like pro-intelligent design textbooks such as Pandas and People, used in Dover, and its follow-up, The Design of Life.
Evangelicals may not realize it, but such an approach is a risky strategy. It’s not just bad science, it’s bad theology. Such dichotomy forces students to choose between faith and science.
After Dover’s trial was over and before Judge Jones’ decision, I took a cross-country road trip, visiting creationist museums. My journey took me to the Paluxy Flats. I sat alone at a swimming hole and gazed at the very real footprints where dinosaurs had walked 105 million years ago.
I’ve thought often of those little boys and girls who have played here over the years, who splashed eagerly and curiously into the water, placing their feet into these giant footprints. If the creationists are successful, if the curriculums in Louisiana and Texas and other states are changed to include the teaching of these supposed weaknesses of evolutionary theory, what will happen to these curious kids? Will they grow up hating science because they’ve been taught it means they must abandon their faith? Or, opting for science, might they turn their back on God?
While sitting beside the water, I thought of John Haught, a Georgetown University theology professor, who testified during the trial that he thought it was a mistake to assume that one can not believe in evolution and religion, that to argue otherwise presumes to know the mind of God.
“The God of intelligent design seems to be … a kind of tinkerer or meddler who makes ad hoc adjustments to the creation, whereas what I would want a child of mine to think when he or she thinks of God is something more generous, much more expansive, a God who can make a universe which is, from the start, resourceful enough to unfold from within itself in a natural way all the extravagant beauty and evolutionary diversity that, in fact, has happened.
“To put it very simply, a God who is able to make a universe that can somehow make itself is much more impressive religiously than a God who has to keep tinkering with the creation.”