IN 2004, IN A RURAL ELEMENTARY-SCHOOL CAFETERIA decorated with murals of dancing milk cartons, members of Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School Board shocked local constituents and the national scientific community with a small but significant change in its biology curriculum, requiring students to be made aware of “intelligent design.”
At the time, I was a reporter working at the local newspaper. Seeking comment on the curriculum change, I faxed a copy of the Dover news article to the Oakland, California, offices of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization that defends the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. Eugenie Scott, the center’s unflappable executive director, read the story I’d faxed her and called me with her astounded response.
“You’re it, kiddo,” she said.
What Scott was saying was that this was the first time an American public school district had required the teaching, in science class, of so-called intelligent design—the unscientific concept that the creation of life required a guiding hand from the Almighty.
The details of what followed have been recounted many times. The board’s decision triggered a series of events that led to the first constitutional test of intelligent design. At the end of a six-week trial in 2005, Judge John E. Jones III handed down his decision. In a 139-page opinion, Jones concluded that not only was intelligent design not science, it was a religious proposition. Jones wrote that when its supporters spoke of “the designer,” they were speaking of a specific deity: “The writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity.” Intelligent design proponents derided Jones as “an activist judge” and insisted that they weren’t dead yet.
They’re not. Last month, Christine Castillo Comer, the science education director of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) was forced to resign. Normally the resignation of a state bureaucrat isn’t reported in the New York Times, which editorialized on the issue on December 4. Comer’s forced resignation appears to be part of something bigger that could affect the education of children across the country.
Defenders of sound science in public schools, such as Steve Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, believe the TEA forced Comer out of her job to prepare for an anticipated 2008 battle over revision of science-education standards in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
The review will influence the writing of science textbooks, and publishers are watching the process closely. With almost $30 million in the budget for textbooks, Texas is second only to California in the bulk purchase of such books. It’s also a single-adoption state, approving and buying books for all the state’s school districts. Publishers edit and revise textbooks in response to the specific demands of members of the Texas State Board of Education. And what’s adopted in Texas is adopted in many other states.
ATTACK OF THE TEXAS ED. DEPARTMENT—As seen from central Pennsylvania, the drama unfolding in Texas seems like the beginning of something familiar.
Comer is fifty-five years old and a tenth-generation Texan. She served as the Texas Education Agency’s director of science for nine years and had previously worked as a middle-school science teacher for twenty-seven years. She was forced to resign from her position because she used her agency e-mail account to forward a message from the NCSE, under the subject heading “FYI.”
The e-mail informed its recipients of a speech by Barbara Forrest, a philosopher of science who is one of the creationists’ most hated enemies. Forrest wrote, along with her co-author Paul R. Gross,Creationism’s Trojan Horse, a damning and carefully documented account of “intelligent design’s” creationist links. In the Dover trial, Forrest testified about the Wedge Document, an internal memo in which the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading proponent of intelligent design, outlined a public-relations strategy to destroy “scientific materialism” and affirm the idea that human beings are created in the image of God. The document reads: “Alongside a focus on influential opinion makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely Christians.”
It’s a telling point that forwarding an e-mail that publicized a talk by Barbara Forrest was cause for dismissal of an employee of a state institution.
Comer’s dismissal began with a demand from Lizzette Reynolds, a recent TEA hire who worked in the U.S. Department of Education after serving as an adviser to George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas. A follow-up letter from Comer’s superior recommending her dismissal explained that creationism and evolution are subjects “on which the agency must remain neutral.” The letter hinted at what many science educators say is the heart of the issue—politics. “It is essential that Ms. Comer support the integrity of the upcoming TEKS development and revision process and ensure that it does not appear in any way that she is advocating for any given position or stance,” it read.
“I realize my work is very unpopular with some influential people in Texas,” Forrest said. “But there was some reason they used this particular incident. They don’t want her there protecting the scientific integrity.”
“They wanted her out so they could sabotage the standards,” Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science said.
The teaching of evolution isn’t threatened only by a former Bush adviser. In July, Texas governor Rick Perry appointed Don McLeroy chair of the state’s elected Board of Education. Perry supports the teaching of intelligent design.
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. The dentist from College Station, a conservative university town, is a Young Earth Creationist, subscribing to the belief that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Yet he reassured the Dallas Morning News following his appointment as chairman that he has no intention of instituting intelligent design into the science teaching. The newspaper interviewed eleven of the fifteen members elected to the state board. With one exception, all said they did not support writing intelligent design into biology curriculums.
“Creationism and intelligent design don’t belong in our science classes,” McLeroy told the paper. “Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community—and intelligent design does not.”
Some educators breathed a sign of relief, thinking that Texas science classes might be spared religious controversy. Yet buried in the TEKS existing standards is the reason that Texas could be the center of evolution’s next big battle: Section 3a 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.)
As Witold “Vic” Walczak, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Dover’s plaintiffs, warned on a PBS documentary about the trial, “The issue is certainly not over. One of the things that we’ve learned is that the opponents of evolution are persistent and resilient. And they’re still out there.” Or as Eugenie Scott of the NCSE often says, “Creationists are proof of evolution.”
Scott said the board members may be eyeing the general standards’ “strengths and weaknesses” in order to insert wording into the section of the TEKS that outlines content. They could push to add a sentence such as, “The student will be expected to explain why the Cambrian explosion is a serious problem for evolution.”
AN EVOLVING CODE—In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creation science in science classes in public schools was unconstitutional and unacceptable. Creation science adapted and evolved into intelligent design, which was declared unconstitutional in Dover. The orchestrated attack on evolution has morphed again.
This time, intelligent design proponents intend to take advantage of the wording “strengths and weaknesses” in Section 3a of the Texas regulations. The phrase was inserted in the science standards during the late ’80s to appease creationists. The “strengths and weaknesses” strategy is sometimes referred to as a way to “teach the controversy.”
“They’ve adopted the code language,” Forrest said. And just as Dover’s board members denied ever speaking publicly of creationism—they dishonestly accused local newspaper reporters of making up their published remarks—Texas state board members deny advocating intelligent design.
Why shouldn’t kids learn about both the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory? For Americans raised on democratic principles, to “teach the strengths and weaknesses” of a subject seems reasonable and fair. “To me, that’s just good science education,” McLeroy said.
Eugenie Scott disagrees. “There is nothing fair about teaching kids about bad science. There is nothing fair about giving kids nineteenth-century science in a twenty-first-century classroom.”
Leaving the constitutional legal matter of such a maneuver aside, what aspects of evolution does McLeroy consider controversial? He cites the principle of common descent, in particular the idea that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor, as one debatable issue. Yet in the science community, there is no controversy over the idea that all living organisms are descended from a shared ancestor. The mapping of the genetic code in recent years has only confirmed anew scientific support for life’s universal connection.
Still, McLeroy says he isn’t interested in pushing creationism. “I resent the notion that I’m speaking in code,” he said. But in Texas, just as in Dover and in other earlier battles in Kansas and Ohio, the scientific arguments of evolution’s critics are intertwined with their religious views.
In a talk McLeroy gave to his church congregation in 2004, he recited the anti-evolution talking points that Forrest outlines in her book. McLeroy spoke of Phillip Johnson, the father of the intelligent design movement, and his Big Tent strategy in which all Christians, except those who embrace evolution, should unite to defeat material naturalism. As 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.'”
When I asked McLeroy about the talk he gave, he said the purpose of it was to teach Christians how to defend their faith—that it was not given as a way to help push those views on schoolchildren. He said he finds that many of the people who defend evolution are intolerant of other views.
McLeroy isn’t the only official who seems little able to separate the religious aspects of this fight from the scientific ones, even though they may speak of wanting to do so.
On December 9, TEA Commissioner Robert Scott told the Dallas Morning News about Comer’s forced resignation, “I don’t think the impression was that we were taking a position in favor of evolution. . . . It’s part of our curriculum. But you can be in favor of science without bashing people’s faith, too.”
Dan Quinn, the communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the work of the Christian right, complained that such talk shuts down the conversation. “How can you have a rational debate if every time you say ‘it’s not science,’ they say ‘you’re bashing religion’?” Quinn asked.
THE GOOD BOOK VS. GOOD SCIENCE—In the meantime, science educators say that publishers are paying close attention. Eugenie Scott notes that if science prevails in the standards revision process, a nasty battle could send a message to publishers to tread carefully on their treatment of evolution and perhaps water down the coverage.
“It’s always a worry that book publishers will be intimidated,” Scott said. For instance, despite what the standards say, board members in Texas argue that students should only be learning “abstinence until marriage” values in health classes. Publishers have taken heed, and contraception is now unmentioned in the students’ textbooks.
“Their goal is if they can damage evolution instruction, this makes students suspicious,” Schafersman said. “They’ll think ‘Maybe evolution isn’t as strong as I was told; maybe it isn’t as strong as the idea of Earth’s revolution around the sun,’ or as much as gravity.” Their arguments are based on what Schafersman describes as “bogus weaknesses.” Science, he says, has a better understanding of the processes of evolution than it does of gravity.
Justice William J. Brennan wrote in the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, that science’s secular purpose must be “sincere and not a sham.” Eighteen years later, Judge Jones echoed that language from the federal bench.
Looking forward in his decision, Judge Jones addressed intelligent design’s fallback—the “teach the controversy” strategy—and determined that it was, indeed, also a sham. “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. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the ID [movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”
As both sides wait to see how this will play out, Christine Comer is adjusting to caring for her disabled father and paying her bills on a pension that provides less than the salary she lost. “But I feel like this is my contribution,” she said. “This is my time to draw my line in the sand for science.”
She had watched what took place in Dover and remembers being outraged at the time. “But I guess I wasn’t outraged enough,” she said. Because she never did anything about it.
Now, teachers she knows in small towns across Texas have come to her to say they’ve been forced to teach creationism in science class for years. She asked them why they didn’t do anything about it. “Come on,” they told her. “What can I do? It’s Texas.”