Battle Over Science Textbooks Roils Texas Education Board

Proponents of "intelligent design" the Religious Right's latest variant on creationism are pressuring the Texas Board of Education to include the controversial idea in new biology textbooks.

The board is currently considering adopting 12 new biology texts. But what should have been a routine approval process has become bogged down in a political fight pitting advocates of science education against fundamentalists determined to water down the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

Advocates of intelligent design are led by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that argues that life is too complex to have come about through natural processes. The Institute insists it is not a religious group, but critics point out that the only alternative to evolution it offers is the belief that humans must have been designed by God.

Institute critics also say the group is being disingenuous by claiming to merely want to instruct students about weaknesses in Darwinian theory. The underlying theory of evolution, they point out, is no longer considered controversial in the scientific community.

"They're trying to get in anti-evolution material by calling it a weakness," said Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, a group formed to defend science education in the state.

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a statewide Religious Right watchdog group, agreed.

"There is a clear, well-coordinated effort to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms," Smoot told the Associated Press. "Intelligent design is just creationism dressed up in a laboratory coat."

The 15-member board held a hearing July 9, taking testimony from dozens of proponents and opponents of intelligent design over four hours. (The board will meet again this month before making a final decision in November.)

During the meeting, board member David Bradley criticized the books for not mentioning creationism and accused opponents of intelligent design of engaging in censorship.

Opponents pointed out that intelligent design has no scientific support and that its promoters have yet to produce any research that has appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Schafersman, noting that the board is empowered to reject textbooks only if they contain factual errors, said he reviewed the texts and found them to be without error in their writings about evolution.

"All the biology texts are factually accurate and free of errors concerning evolution," Schafersman told the board. "The books do not misrepresent any details of the modern scientific understanding of evolution, nor do they omit scientific information critical of evolution, because there isn't any such information, contrary to what you have been led to believe."

The battle has national implications. Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation, and publishers often tailor books to meet the state's demands. Those books often end up being used in other states as well.