Language matters. And we are lucky that some people will go to the mat over a few words. In Austin, Texas, this week, scientists and creationists battled over whether to include the words "strengths and weaknesses" in the state's official statement about evolution. The words would influence how evolution is taught in Texas classrooms and would be immortalized in Lone Star textbooks. As the largest textbook market in the country, the decision could pressure other high school textbook publishers to conform to Texas standards.
Dan McLeroy, the Texas State Board of Education chairman, a dentist and self-described creationist, led the charge to mandate teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. After three days of high-pitched argument on both sides, the 15-member board, by a vote of 8-7, rejected the language, relieving textbook authors and publishers of the pressure to insert what opponents called "junk science" into their pages. But in a compromise that alarms and dismays many science education advocates, the board did adopt language that attempts to cast a shadow of doubt over the validity of the central evolutionary concepts of natural selection and common ancestry.
Proponents of the theory of intelligent design, and other brands of neo-creationism, argue that evolution is inadequate to the job of explaining the diversity and history of life on earth. If they can cast doubts about evolution's validity, they have a chance to fill the authority vacuum with the tenets of creationism. But since late 2005, when a federal judge in Dover, Pa., ruled that intelligent design was a form of creationism, and that its introduction into public high school curricula was unconstitutional, advocates of teaching neo-creationism have been forced to seek other ways into public science classrooms. Enter the "strengths and weaknesses" strategy, crafted by the Seattle-based, pro-intelligent-design think thank, Discovery Institute.
Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of science education in the public schools, says that once McLeroy and his allies failed to pass the "strengths and weakness" language, "they had a fallback position, which was to continue amending the standards to achieve through the back door what they couldn't achieve upfront."
And they succeeded. Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute lawyer, and its guy on the Austin scene, was psyched by the outcome. "These are the strongest standards in the country now," he says. "The language adapted requires students to have critical thinking about all of science, including evolution, and it urges them to look at all sides of the issue."
One amendment calls for students to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record." The key words are "sudden appearance" and "stasis." McLeroy argues that "the sudden appearance" of forms in the Cambrian period, when there was a rapid multiplication and diversification of species, and the persistence of forms over long periods of time (stasis) are evidence against evolution. And thus for creationism.
In 2012, when the board next selects textbooks, anti-evolution members will be able to argue against books that don't sufficiently "evaluate scientific explanations" concerning stasis or so-called sudden appearance. Another amendment requires that teachers and textbooks include language to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanation concerning the complexity of the cell." Arguing for the "irreducible complexity" of cells is another key creationist theme.
Each of the amendments singles out an old creationist argument, strips it of its overtly ideological language, and requires teachers and textbook publishers to adopt it. In other words, says Joshua Rosenau of NCSE, if the books don't at least pay lip service to criticizing natural selection, they risk not being adopted.
However, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that neither periods of rapid evolution, nor the persistence of forms that have adapted successful ways of surviving for long periods of time, poses any threat to the theory of evolution. Yes, cells are complex, but so are the explanatory tools of modern evolutionary theory. Over the history of the debate, critics of evolution have invariably said something or other was too complex for Darwin's theory to explain. Yet scientists have consistently pointed out that two of the critics' favorite examples, the human eye and the bacterial flagellum, have been illuminated by and explained in terms of natural selection.
"The theory of evolution has no weaknesses," says Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University. There are many unanswered questions about how organisms evolve and diversify, and what drives them to do so, but Charles Darwin's 150-year-old insights that all life on earth descended from one or a few simple common ancestors, and that natural selection explains how they did, remain solid foundations of modern biology. As the late, great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky is famous for saying, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Not that science makes sense to a creationist like McLeroy. "Scientific consensus means nothing," he tells Salon. "All it takes is one fact to overthrow consensus. Evolution has a status that it simply doesn't deserve. People say it's vital to understanding biology. But it's genetics that's the foundation for biology. A biologist once said that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution. Well, that's not true. You go into the top biology labs, and it makes no difference if evolution is true or false to what they're doing and studying. It makes no difference."
It makes all the difference in the world, says Miller, who notes the irony of McLeroy quoting Dobzhansky, one of the fathers of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Adds Miller: McLeroy's "fundamental misunderstanding of the way genetics and evolution have produced a unified science of biology is nothing short of breathtaking."