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In textbook battle over evolution, ‘errors’ debated, corrected

AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–In a case that has both sides claiming victory, the Texas State Board of Education has adopted a series of high school biology textbooks that had been criticized for inaccuracies involving evolution.

The board voted 11-4 on Nov. 7 to adopt improved texts for the next seven years, which evolutionists claimed as a major victory.

Still, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute noted a number of board members indicated remaining factual errors must be fixed before the books will be placed in students’ hands.

“This is real progress in the cause of science education reform,” said Bruce Chapman, president of the institute which cooperated with a Texas citizen network in challenging the books. “We were already happy that a number of embarrassing errors that overstate the evidence for evolutionary theory were being fixed.

“We were also hoping that the board would require textbooks to include coverage of the peer-reviewed scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory,” Chapman added. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t a majority on the board willing to enforce that. However, finally fixing these errors is an important first step to improving the accuracy of science education about evolutionary theory.”

“The Discovery Institute lost,” contended Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science Education, which is affiliated with the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based group that calls evolution a normal part of science.

“This was a victory for science, science education and all the citizens of Texas,” Schafersman said after the vote. “The books haven’t been censored or dumbed down. The bogus weaknesses [about evolution] won’t be in the books.”

Because Texas trails only California in the number of textbooks ordered from publishers, the decision could conceivably impact school systems nationwide.

That led to a hotly-contested debate in recent months, including a hearing in September at which 160 activists signed up to testify, according to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

William Dembski, a Baylor University research professor who agrees with the Discovery Institute, noted that there is considerable debate in scientific circles about a mechanism for evolution — namely, how it occurred.

“All of the textbooks under consideration grossly exaggerate the evidence for neo-Darwinism evolution, pretending that its mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic change is a slam dunk,” Dembski told the Star-Telegram. “Not so.”

A week before the Nov. 7 vote, the Discovery Institute issued a “top 10” list of the 20 corrections it said had already been made by publishers as a result of hearings in July and September.

The most significant involved the removal of a set of drawings known as “Haeckel’s embryos” from two of three textbooks that included the diagrams. Named for German biologist Ernst Haeckel, the drawings purported to show early stage similarities in eight different species, such as humans, tortoises, frogs and chickens.

John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, said Haeckel faked the diagrams.

“People in the late 1800s and early 1900s were criticizing them, yet these diagrams had been in most textbooks until a few years ago,” West said.

He credited “Icons of Evolution,” a 2000 book by institute fellow Jonathan Wells, with spotlighting the problem and leading to their removal by some publishers.

“Wells had a whole chapter on [the drawings],” West said. “People overlooked the error because Haeckel was a Darwinist. They were so attracted by such a powerful depiction that we came from a common ancestor they overlooked the weakness in it. It was not only a logical error but a factual error.”

Another correction involved an experiment on the origin of building blocks of life known as the Milley-Urey experiment. Two textbooks now have inserted acknowledgements that it was based on ideas about the earth’s early atmosphere that are no longer accepted by scientists, West said.

Among other changes West listed:

— A textbook that repeatedly claimed animal embryos have gill slits — similar to the slits that enable fish to breathe — has dropped “this biologically bogus language.”

— One publisher inserted a minor clarification about peppered moths, noting that other studies had failed to duplicate the results reported by a scientist. The tests reportedly showed that moths gradually changed from light to dark because darker moths were able to hide from birds, evidence of natural selection at work.

West noted that other researchers found that peppered moths don’t rest on exposed places of tree trunks. Citing an article last year in The New York Times about those findings, he said some texts had deleted any reference to the moths, but several had retained them.

“This is an uphill battle by people who want to correct these errors,” said West, who said corrections were made begrudgingly. “To even correct these 20 errors was a [struggle]. But Texas law requires the errors be corrected and that scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory be taught.

“Any time you overstate the case for Darwinism, you’re misleading students. If these are the only changes made, there are still a lot of problems. We have a list of remaining errors we still want fixed; it is 14 pages long.”

West charged that dogmatic Darwinists didn’t want any changes made because of fears students will start thinking critically about evolution and question some of its validity.

The Seattle professor also said Darwinists try to paint all critics as uneducated laymen when in fact people like well-known biochemist Michael Behe and others have raised serious questions about Darwinism.

“Our idea is students need to learn more about Darwinism,” West said. “There are controversies and flaws about Darwinism that they need to know about. We should make sure that students know not only about Darwin’s theory, but about problems with it. That’s good science education.”

However, Schafersman disputed West’s comments, saying the Discovery Institute is creating imaginary weaknesses as a pretense to attack the validity of evolution.

“They’re straw men analogies, that’s all they are,” the Texas scientist declared. “They’re not scientifically valid and every scientist testified against these examples that the Discovery Institute presented.”

Commenting on the list of corrections issued by the institute, Schafersman scoffed at them as “inconsequential.”

He said scientists agreed with a number of the changes, such as Haeckel’s drawings being removed from the books, and modifications in the language about gill slits.

He also called West’s charges about the peppered moths false.

“The peppered-moth experiments are perfectly valid scientifically,” Schafersman said. “They’re in the books and they belong in there. There is still ongoing research; there are investigators working with peppered moths and other moths that exhibit industrial melanism.

“They wanted that example removed because it’s a very clear illustration of how natural selection works in nature, that students can readily understand.”

Some of the other changes involved minor clarifications, but none of them affected the presence of strong evolutionary theory in the textbooks, Schafersman said.

The institute’s real goal was to plant doubts in students’ minds about evolution and persuade them that — since not all scientists agree on it — they don’t have to believe it either, the activist said.

“They wanted weaknesses [stated] only for evolution, not other theories,” Schafersman said. “One school board member said if they included everything, the books would have to be lifted by a crane. But the books remain free of scientific inaccuracies and are very good biology textbooks that can be used by all of the students in Texas.”

While Schafersman downplayed the changes, the spokesman for the Texas citizen group that fought for them said the scientist has been inconsistent in his remarks during recent months.

Ide Trotter noted that earlier Schafersman had denied any of the weakness he now acknowledges.

“In his July 9 testimony before the state board of education he denied the existence of any errors,” Trotter said. “Yet those same errors he now concedes but deems ‘inconsequential.'”

This battle is likely to continue elsewhere in the future. Whether scientists or not, West said all taxpayers have a stake in how their tax dollars are spent to educate children.

“The question is do parents want their children to learn the truth about this theory or do they want one-sided indoctrination?” West said. “That is a big issue.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: REMOVED and JOHN WEST.

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  • Ken Walker