Faith

Is Texas About To Weaken Its Evolution Standards?

Image via Shutterstock, middle school students in a classroom.

Proposed changes to Texas public school science standards are making waves. The Daily Beast’s Zach Kopplin warned that “Creationism in Texas Could Go Extinct on Election Day.” But the old science standards did not teach creationism — they presented a full scientific view of evolution: its weaknesses along with its strengths. Perhaps ironically, these changes have faith and science groups demanding more teaching on evolution, not less.

“We think it’s good for students to learn more about evolution, not less,” Sarah Chaffee, program officer in education and public policy at the Discovery Institute, told PJ Media in an email statement. She corrected Kopplin’s article, which refers to Texas’ current science standards as “creationist.”

“Texas’ science standards do not authorize teaching creationism — which is a religious belief entailing a supernatural creator,” Chaffee explained. Furthermore, the standards “also do not authorize teaching about intelligent design — which ‘holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.’ Discovery Institute does not advocate pushing intelligent design into public schools.”

So what did the old standards say, and why do some see them as “creationist?” Chaffee argued that “these standards reference only current scientific debates over such issues as the fossil record [an in-depth review of abrupt appearance as explained in mainstream evolutionary biology is available here. Other information on scientific controversies is also available.] These are well-documented in the scientific literature.”

Certain events in the history of life on Earth (the Cambrian Explosion, for instance, where millions of new species “exploded” into existence in a relatively short time) raise questions about the explanatory power of unguided natural selection, the driving process of evolution. Advocates of creationism and intelligent design emphasize these scientific facts — because they support the case for these theories — but that does not mean teaching the scientific facts is tantamount to teaching creationism or intelligent design.

In fact, such education has been ruled unconstitutional in public schools. As Chaffee explained, “teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional,” according to the Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard. “If Texas science standards had authorized the teaching of creationism, they would have been struck down long ago.”

This distinction is important, because Kopplin’s article made some strong allegations about the Discovery Institute, arguing that the organization is “responsible for similar creationism laws in Louisiana and Tennessee.”

In response, Chaffee insisted that her organization’s model legislation to encourage inquiry in science, which has been adapted to state laws in Louisiana and Tennessee, is not a “creationism” law. Instead, the laws include language such as this:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

Kopplin also alleged that a “Discovery Institute whistleblower” told The Daily Beast that the organization is “religiously motivated in all they do.” In response to that claim, Chaffee wrote that “there is no way to verify if the quote is even real,” because the author is never identified.

While the current education standards in Texas do not establish a religion in public schools, they do support teaching those scientific facts which suggest weaknesses in natural selection. The Discovery Institute supports those standards, and opposes the proposed alterations to them.

Next Page: Why the current standards should not be changed.

There are two fundamental changes which the Discovery Institute opposes, Chaffee noted. The proposed changes would cut this requirement that students would be expected to

analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

The biology committee of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) suggested that this standard is “cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students,” and that there would not be “enough time for students to master [the] concept.”

Chaffee argued that “there is little evidence” for this claim. After all, the standard does not call for students to “master” the idea, just to analyze and evaluate explanations. The Discovery Institute spokeswoman argued for teaching more about evolution, not less: “Examining the details of the fossil record gives students a deeper understanding of biological diversity than a simple presentation about natural selection acting on random mutation.”

The other change? The SBOE committee suggested removing the standard that students would be expected to

analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

The committee suggested that this requirement is “redundant,” because students are already expected to “compare and contrast prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells;” “investigate and explain cellular processes,” and “describe the stages of the cell cycle.”

Explaining what the cell does is not the same thing as investigating scientific explanations for the emergence and complexity of the cell. Chaffee noted that “this standard only requires students to consider ‘scientific explanations’ for the cell’s complexity, encouraging teachers to examine the evidence for and against the ability of neo-Darwinism to build the cell.”

“These are questions about the primary mechanism of evolution — natural selection acting on random mutations,” the Discovery Institute spokeswoman explained. “And they are questions being raised by scientists and in the peer-reviewed literature.” Chaffee referenced a group of 16 distinguished biologists who met in Altenberg, Austria in 2008 in order to discuss holes in neo-Darwinism. This conference developed the book Evolution: The Extended Synthesis.

She also mentioned the scientists of The Third Way of Evolution, who “reject intelligent design, but question the ability of natural selection and random mutations to generate diverse biological species.” The complex problems facing the theory — not dogma — of natural selection emphatically belong in the classroom, because “presenting this information only enhances student learning about biology, and engages interest.”

Next Page: A Christian group in favor of the curriculum changes.
But not all Christians opposed the suggested changes. “At BioLogos we welcome the proposed changes to the Texas curricular standards,” Jim Stump, senior editor of BioLogos, told PJ Media in an email statement. “We hold to the position of evolutionary creation: we believe that God is the creator, and also believe that evolution is the best scientific description of how the diversity of life came about.”

“We want young people to know that the science of evolution does not entail atheism, as is often assumed,” Stump added. “Nor does the Bible require a rejection of evolution. These are worldview commitments that go beyond science.”

In opposition to Chaffee and the Discovery Institute, the BioLogos editor argued that “while today’s biologists continue to work out some of the details, evolution is not a theory in crisis. The big picture of evolutionary theory is established scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt.”

On the issue of competing scientific models, Reasons to Believe Founder and President Hugh Ross told PJ Media that “there are both God of the gaps and Nature of the gaps” arguments. “A way to resolve the theism/anti-theism debate in science is to determine which set of models offers the most comprehensive and detailed explanation of the record of nature and which set is most successful in predicting future scientific discoveries.”

“Unlike other creationist organizations we at Reasons to Believe have always presented our case for theism in the context of a scientific model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive,” Ross argued. He listed the areas of scientific research with “the greatest distinction between theistic and non-theistic explanations” as “the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the Avalon and Cambrian explosions of animal life and the origin of human beings.”

Besides the origin of the universe, these are scientific questions, and therefore open to debate. Ross concluded with a call to investigation: “May the best models win.”

It is important to remember that the changes to the curriculum in question are suggested, not completed, alterations. Debbie Ratcliffe, director of media relations at the Texas Education Agency (TEA), explained the reasons why in a statement to PJ Media: “The board is in the process of streamlining its curriculum standards called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) will discuss the proposed changes for science subjects on Wednesday, November 15. Eight of the 15 seats on the state board are up for election on November 8, and three of the incumbents are running unopposed. While the election might impact the discussion on November 15, the new board members will not be sworn in until January 31, 2017.