A sound science curriculum

Samian Quazi

The State Board of Education unanimously voted on July 22 to approve supplemental school materials that upheld evolution in the middle school curriculum. To the dismay of creationists, the board rejected materials detailing so-called “alternatives to evolution” for public schools. Texas schoolchildren are now guaranteed a sound science curriculum for the rest of this decade.

The board, dominated by conservative Republicans and many evangelical Christians opposed to evolution, has been no stranger to controversy. It made national headlines early last year when it approved changes to the social studies, history and economics curricula that emphasized conservative political philosophies. Some of those changes included referring to the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic” in lieu of “democratic republic” and mandating the word “capitalism” in economics textbooks be changed to the more euphonious “free-enterprise system”.

Since Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks and curriculum materials nationwide, national publishers often base their books’ content on the state’s standards. This gives the board disproportionate influence on education systems outside our state’s borders. And since the board’s decisions remain in effect for 10 years, any curriculum revisions would have a long-lasting effect.

It was thus particularly disquieting when the board in 2009 called on schools to examine “all sides” of evolution, a subtle nod to the theory’s opponents. Unlike the partisan-driven changes to social science and economics last year, any changes implying doubt toward the validity of evolution would have undermined the field of natural sciences itself.

Evolution is the cornerstone of biology and its associated subfields in the natural sciences. It lends credence to botany’s remarkable developments in high-yield crops, spurring the Green Revolution and coloring modern debates on Monsanto’s bioengineered crops. It is interlaced with microbiology research, as our understanding on pathogenic evolution leads us to develop newer and stronger antibiotics. Barring evolution, no plausible scientific theory could account for the diversity of life forms.

This year, the board was asked to vote on a series of supplemental middle school materials casting doubt on evolution. Among the proposals was a set of materials submitted by International Databases, a New Mexico-based company, which claimed that life on earth came from “intelligent causes” and that evolution remained unproven. Additionally, the board’s new chairwoman is Barbara Cargill, an ultraconservative opponent of evolution and, ironically, a former biology teacher. Cargill has repeatedly emphasized that students should understand the “weaknesses” of evolution.

Public hearings on the issue were predictably contentious. Science teachers, professors and scientific advocacy groups urged the board to reject changes mandating they teach non-scientific theories alongside evolution. Creationists saw the vote as their best shot at introducing their critiques of evolution into a public school system. But a contentious knock-down drag-out fight between the board members failed to materialize, as they unanimously rejected materials criticizing evolution.

The board also approved mainstream science materials by publisher Holt McDougal that firmly upheld the validity of evolution. These materials will be given to students since the state could not afford to buy new textbooks this year due to budget cuts in education. Sadly, students will continue to use science textbooks that are several years old.

Certainly, many of the more religiously and politically conservative board members would not have hesitated to insert an anti-evolution line into our curriculum if given the opportunity. But because of a new majority of moderate Republicans on the board, who would likely have vetoed any changes and caused embarrassment to the hard-line members, the status quo on science education in Texas remains.

The creationist lobby has tried to portray evolution advocates as ideologically inflexible and unwilling to allow rational criticism whatsoever. But the alternative they bring to the table is simply not science. Creationism may be a compelling philosophy, but it utterly fails to provide an empirical framework in which theories of the natural world may be proven or disproven.

Creationists also claim to stake middle ground by stating that students should learn “both sides” in science classes. But this claim is astoundingly disingenuous since creationism is simply not science. Creationism (or its fraudulent euphemism, intelligent design) imparts no discoveries, no broader understanding of the natural world through tested means. It remains an untested and untestable attempt to demean evolution.

Woodrow Wilson once wrote, “Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.”

That date was in 1922. Nearly 89 years later, Texas risked substantial embarrassment for trying to undermine one of science’s finest theories without any rational basis. The board made the right decision in preserving the substantiality of science education in our state.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.