Texas last week was the scene of a stirring illustration of democracy at work as the State Board of Education (SBOE) set itself the task of revising standards for science education, debating fundamental controversies in biology, paleontology and chemistry. The radioactive topic of evolution was the center of attention.
When the dust settled, the resulting vote left Texas with the most advanced science standards on evolution of any state in the country. As you can imagine, many “experts” and activists on the Darwinian side are outraged. The citizens had failed to listen obediently! They had dared to think for themselves.
Lobbyists for strict enforcement of Darwinian theory as sacred dogma fought hard. In testimony given before the vote, scientists in favor of strengthening the requirement of critical analysis kept their remarks focused on the relevant scientific issues.
Darwinian activists, however, sought to scare everyone with hysterical warnings about Biblical literalist “creationism” run amok—a grossly dishonest red herring, often waved about in the Darwin debate, and one that the SBOE saw through and dismissed. The new science standards are about science, not religion.
Students and educators won, and the ramifications of the victory are enormous.
For months beforehand, journalists, proponents of Darwinian evolution, and Darwin doubters alike all called for the SBOE to adopt language that either discouraged or encouraged teachers to familiarize students with the scientific debate about Darwinian theory. The SBOE, including parents and educators, conscientiously debated the matter and heard testimony on both sides.
The newly adopted standards call on students, “in all fields of science, [to] analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”
In addition, high school students are specifically required to “analyze and evaluate” evidence on evolution-related topics including the fossil record, natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism, the complexity of the cell, and the common ancestry of humans and animals.
Texas is now one of seven states with such educational requirements. Previously, state science standards there called on students to examine the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, including the theory of Darwinian evolution through natural selection.
The new standards improve on the old by their greater clarity and specificity, detailing, for the first time, the main headings under which Darwinian theory most urgently needs critical scientific attention.
It is not a revolution but a solid, sober, and welcome reworking of the standards. What’s even more important is the impact this development will have far beyond Texas and its broad borders.
It’s sometimes said by revelers and gamblers that what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas. That’s not true of Texas. As one of the country’s major consumers of textbooks, Texas powerfully influences the way educational texts for high school and other students are written. The same critical thinking on science that is being encouraged in that state will also influence students elsewhere in America.
Legislators outside the state are also taking careful note. On the very same day that the final vote was held by the SBOE, news came from Florida of legislation being considered there that would require “a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.”
Clearly, a fire has been lit, small for now, but one that as it spreads, the Darwin lobby will have difficulty smothering entirely.
Charles Garner is a professor of chemistry living in Waco, TX and is an expert reviewer on state science standards for the Texas State Board of Education. David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and a columnist for the Jewish Forward.