In the ongoing struggle over how to teach evolution in the Texas public schools, faculty in the College of Natural Sciences are playing an increasingly significant role as advocates of evolutionary science.
They've written op-eds and letters to the editor in local papers, testified at public meetings, organized scientists from across the state into a unified front, and even, in one case, run for office.
Ultimately, their goal is to influence the deliberations of the Texas State Board of Education, which is charged with determining the textbooks and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements for K-12 public education. It has meant that they've waded into the messy politics of the board, which is split down the middle between members who believe evolution should be taught as settled theory and those who believe it should be presented with far less confidence.
"The Board of Education was considering whether to keep language in the standards which said that students needed to learn about the 'strengths and weaknesses' of evolutionary theory," said Daniel Bolnick, an assistant professor of biology. "On the face of it, that's an entirely reasonable thing to do. Once you start to understand the history of this debate, however, you realize that the point of that language isn't to understand evolution better, but to open the door to introducing religiously motivated and unscientific viewpoints into the classroom."
The precise language of the TEKS, in fact, has most engaged the energies of Bolnick and his colleagues. At stake isn't simply semantics, but which textbooks will be allowed into the classroom, whether teachers will be empowered to defend modern evolutionary theory or empowered to undermine it, and -- in a broader sense -- what role the methods of science will have in the education of the state's students.
Bolnick, along with his biology colleagues David Hillis and Sahotra Sarkar, are members of the advisory committee of the 21st Century Science Coalition, which was created to represent the interests of scientists in the ongoing fight. The group, along with allied organizations like the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education, were able to help convince the board to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" language from the latest curricular standards.
They lost, however, in other, similarly semantic fights over the language in the science curriculum. Teachers are now instructed, for instance, to help their students "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell."
The next major battle in the fight over evolution comes in 2011, when the Board of Education determines which textbooks will be acceptable in science classes in the public schools. Not only might some textbooks be disallowed for not treating evolution with as much skepticism as opponents want, but textbooks may be rewritten, by publishers, in order to serve Texas politics rather than modern science. In fact, there may even be an opening for texts created by religious groups to slide into the curriculum.
"At the most important level, this isn't about whether we're descended from apes or not," said math professor Lorenzo Sadun, who's running for a seat on the State Board of Education against one of its more anti-evolution members. "It's about understanding what science is, and how it works. Evolution isn't just a collection of facts. It's one of the gigantic ideas that holds billions of biological facts together. It's how we understand, for instance, how to deal with the flu epidemic.
"If students want to learn about evolution, and then decide that they don't want to accept it, that's fine with me. I just want them to understand what the science is, and it's the science that's being undermined."
* Update: Lorenzo Sadun has just announced that he will not be filing for candidacy for the District 10 seat on the State Board of Education.