Texas is in the process of streamlining its science standards, so you know what that means: It’s time yet again to frighten the public with dire warnings about “creationists” running amok. At the Huffington Post, Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, sounds the alarm about some of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) biology standards on evolution. He begins:
The creationists are back in Texas attacking high quality science education. Well, to be honest, they were never gone, but they’ve opened a new front designed to ensure that the next generation of Texas students are saddled with the same political baggage as the last.
As extreme as the four disputed standards are from a scientific perspective, the political motivation behind their original addition is even more striking. TEKS standard (7)(B) deals with the “sudden appearance” of life on Earth, an event that neither biologists nor geologists consider particularly sudden. Here’s what McLeroy had to say when he proposed that it be imposed on Texas students: the purpose of this standard is to argue against “…the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes.”
McLeroy’s argument in favor of TEKS standard (7)(G) about the “complexity of the cell” is virtually identical. This standard, he argued, “questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes.” In fact, (7)(G) is all about promoting the scientifically bankrupt concepts of intelligent design and irreducible complexity constantly pushed by creationists.
But what do the standards actually say, and do they line up with current science?
(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:
(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;
(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.
As reflected in (7), the standards specifically deal with “evolutionary theory” which “is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life.” No other theories are mentioned.
As for 7(B), Zimmerman is incorrect. Biologists (including the vast majority who affirm common descent) do consider the fossil record to contain sudden appearance events. On this point, Don McLeroy, who was chairman of the Texas State Board of Education during the 2008-09 review process, read from the work of Ernst Mayr (a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century) and Stephen Jay Gould (another leading evolutionary biologist and paleontologist) during a Board meeting. For a thorough exposition of mainstream evolutionary biology explaining abrupt appearance, see here.
Regarding 7(G), it is uncontroversial in science that the cell is complex. This standard mentions nothing about intelligent design and only requires students to examine “scientific explanations” for the cell’s complexity.
Moving on, Zimmerman says, “Similarly, standard (3)(A) embraces the creationist position that students should be exposed to all sides of evolution even though this standard has been used to bring creationism into public school science classrooms and laboratories.”
Zimmerman’s statement is confusing at best. This standard promotes neither creationism nor intelligent design. It simply promotes good science, and good science education, which means engaging in critical inquiry. Zimmerman offers no evidence that creationism is being taught Texas public school science classrooms and laboratories. Indeed, according to the Supreme Court (Edwards v. Aguillard), it’s unconstitutional to teach creationism. So “creationism” is simply a nonissue here.
Finally, Zimmerman claims that, “Standard (9)(D) promotes the creationist position that an intelligent designer must be responsible for encoding information in complex molecules such as DNA.” Here’s what the standard says:
(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:
(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.
This standard merely asks students to examine evidence about the origins of cells. Chemical evolution, a field with few firm conclusions, includes several major competing theories on how life began, as Priestley Medalist George Whitesides and other prominent scientists acknowledge.
Zimmerman is concerned about saddling Texas students with “political baggage.” I am too, but it’s politics, not science, that dictates withholding objective information from young people. The state’s standards on evolution are a paragon, based on current science and critical thinking. Let’s hope that the Board retains wording that promotes scientific inquiry rather than suppressing it.