It's time for science texts to evolve

SMU Anthropology Professor Ron Wetherington on the teaching of evolution in public school science classes.

This month, Texas has the chance, once and for all, to send a message that sound science education really is important in the Lone Star State.

The State Board of Education is set to vote Friday on which new science textbooks and online instructional materials to adopt for Texas public schools for the next decade. What those textbooks say about evolution is, as it has been for decades, at the center of the debate before the board.

For those of us who have devoted our careers to the study of evolution, it is profoundly frustrating to see dishonest ideologues repeat over and over claims about evolution that scientists have clearly debunked.

This summer in Texas, for example, a politically appointed reviewer serving on an official state panel criticized a proposed biology textbook for failing to tell students "that no transitional fossils have been discovered." That claim is absolutely not true. Researchers have discovered thousands of transitional fossils.

Anti-evolution activists also argue that cells and other organisms are too complex to have developed through evolutionary processes. They insist that the so-called "Cambrian explosion" somehow weakens the evidence for evolution. They allege "fabrications" in research.

Yet scientists have, painstakingly and repeatedly, shown that those arguments and so many others are just plain wrong. They're wrong not because of differing but honest interpretations of research data. They're wrong because critics simply distort the factual record or ignore it altogether.

These persistent and fraudulent attacks on the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution are designed to confuse people who aren't scientists and create the appearance of controversy where no controversy exists. And this behavior poses a great risk for education specifically and for society generally.

First, putting misleading arguments in science textbooks would undermine the education of millions of our schoolchildren. Schools that teach junk science handicap all students and their chances for success after high school.

Moreover, not teaching sound science in our public schools would threaten the ability of Texas to attract the researchers, business and industry needed to remain competitive in the 21st century. Consider how important science - such as medical and biotech research - is to the state's economy today. Indeed, business leaders in any industry will view with suspicion a state that gains a reputation for being a backwater when it comes to science education.

Yet here we are, nearly a century after the Scopes monkey trial, still debating whether the science textbooks used in Texas classrooms should teach students that evolution is established, mainstream science.

Unfortunately, politicians on the State Board of Education have done much to contribute to this problem. A few years ago, one astonishingly insisted that he was simply "standing up to experts" by claiming that the evidence supporting evolution is weak. The current chair has said she wants textbooks to teach "another side" to evolution. That's like calling for textbooks to include "another side" to the fact that Earth revolves around the sun.

Evolution has been decisively confirmed. The evidence supporting it is conclusive. We have observed it in the laboratory and in nature. Because the proposed new science textbooks make this clear, anti-evolution activists want publishers to change them.

Sadly, the dishonest attacks against evolution promote fear and anxiety among people of faith. Yet many people of faith - including authors of science textbooks currently up for adoption in Texas - see no such conflict. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is an evangelical Christian as well as an ardent defender of evolutionary science. "I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith," Collins has said.

Nevertheless, we recognize that some religious beliefs reject evolution entirely, and we must respect the right of parents and congregations to teach their religiously based beliefs to their children. But the mission of public school science classrooms is to teach sound science.

So we call on members of the State Board of Education not to pressure publishers into watering down or distorting instruction on evolution in their new textbooks.

Instead, adopt these proposed textbooks and ensure that Texas students get a 21st-century education in their 21st-century classrooms.

Wetherington is an evolutionary anthropologist at Southern Methodist University. Egan is the Huxley Faculty Fellow in Ecology and Evolution at Rice University.