Texas biologists stand up for evolution

December 11, 2007


Leading biologists at several of Texas’s leading universities sent a letter to the Texas State Board of Education trying to scold the agency back onto the path of good science, in the wake of the firing scandal at the agency late last month. Laura Heinauer wrote in Homeroom, an education blog of the Austin American-Statesman:

More than 100 biology faculty from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution.The letter is in response to the departure of former science curriculum director Chris Comer, who says she was forced to resign days after forwarding an e-mail her superiors said made the agency appear biased against the idea that life is a result of intelligent design.“I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole,” said University of Texas professor Daniel Bolnick, who has been collecting signatures since last week.

More biologists from more Texas universities would have signed, probably, with more time allowed to gather signatures. Word I have is that the author and organizers wanted to get the letter delivered quickly.The letter was forceful, and stern in emphasizing the strength of scientific support for evolution theory, a rebuke to Commissioner Robert Scott’s political assistant, Lizzette Gonzales Reynolds:

It is inappropriate to expect the TEA’s director of science curriculum to “remain neutral” on this subject, any more than astronomy teachers should “remain neutral” about whether the Earth goes around the sun. In the world of science, evolution is equally well-supported and accepted as heliocentrism. Far from remaining neutral, it is the clear duty of the science staff at TEA and all other Texas educators to speak out unequivocally: evolution is a central pillar in any modern science education, while “intelligent design” is a religious idea that deserves no place in the science classroom at all.

A massive body of scientific evidence supports evolution. All working scientists agree that publication in top peer-reviewed journals is the scoreboard of modern science. A quick database search of scientific publications since 1975 shows 29,639 peer-reviewed scientific papers on evolution in twelve leading journals alone2. To put this in perspective, if you read 5 papers a day, every day, it would take you 16 years to read this body of original research. These tens of thousands of research papers on evolution provide overwhelming support for the common ancestry of living organisms and for the mechanisms of evolution including natural selection. In contrast, a search of the same database for “Intelligent Design” finds a mere 24 articles, every one of which is critical of intelligent design3. Given that evolution currently has a score of 29,639– while “intelligent design” has a score of exactly zero– it is absurd to expect the TEA’s director of science curriculum to “remain neutral” on this subject. In recognition of the overwhelming scientific support for evolution, evolution is taught without qualification– and intelligent design is omitted– at every secular and most sectarian universities in this country, including Baylor (Baptist), Notre Dame (Catholic), Texas Christian (Disciples of Christ) and Brigham Young (Mormon).

This last sentence is weaker than it needs to be. Evolution is taught at every major sectarian university in the U.S., including Southern Methodist University, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, all the Jesuit colleges and all other Catholic institutions, in addition to those named. It is only the rare, odd Bible college that may not teach evolution. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which does not emphasize science, and the strictly fundamentalist, 19th century Bob Jones University are the only two I have been able to confirm who do not teach evolution in biology courses.

Be sure to check out the footnotes in the letter, too.

There is no serious college textbook available which uses a non-evolution model to explain biology.In 2003, when the Discovery Institute presented a letter to the Texas SBOE urging skepticism of evolution theory, and then misrepresented the letter as support for intelligent design, more than 100 professors at the University of Texas at Austin and more than 100 professors at Rice University wrote to support evolution. Texas’s four Nobel winners in Medicine or Physiology also called on TEA and the SBOE to emphasize evolution in textbooks. Physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg personally appeared at the citizen hearings on textbooks to stress the point.Texas’s top science scholars and researchers have been clear, consistently over the past decade.

It takes a particular form of political chutzpah and political hubris to ignore this unity of opinion among Texas’s leading researchers and teachers of biology. But Gov. Rick Perry’s recent appointment of arch-creationist Donald McLeroy to chair the SBOE, and the firing of science curriculum expert Chris Comer over her FYI e-mail alerting people to a speech by science philosopher Prof. Barbara Forrest, seem to have made most scientists nervous that the Texas SBOE is gearing up to get stupid again.

No comments from any State Board member, nor from the commissioner yet.

The story has been playing on Texas radio stations most of the day. It was picked up by major Texas newspapers, generally from the Associated Press wire:

See also:

One commenter at the American-Statesman site was happy to hear the news. “Big Fat Phil” wrote, “Hello, sanity. I missed you.”

The full text of the letter, and the full list of signers, is below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Michael A. Field

December 11, 2007

Students and faculty at Devry University in Irving, Texas, and a few hundred others who knew him, lost a great friend when Michael Field died the day after Thanksgiving.

His memorial service last Saturday at Arlington’s Unity Church was filled with warmth and laughter as a dozen people remembered Michael’s verve and the joy with which he pursued knowledge, beneficial change, and good social interaction.

In my experience, psychologists come in three varieties: Crazy, eccentric, and real solid people. Michael was a pillar for a lot of people, able to be so solid because he enjoyed the crazy and eccentric, but was not controlled by it. I think the man never met a book or problem he didn’t relish in some way. No fewer than five people testified that Michael was, as a member of some group they nominally led, the guy who sparked great action. That was my experience, too.

It’s been nearly a decade since he left the board of a charitable institution we both served. I was lamenting that we had no one else like him when I learned of his death. Literally dozens of students at Devry told me how Dr. Field pushed them to be better and happier, when I taught there as an adjunct.

Listening at his service Saturday I was inspired again to climb back into the fray. The band of brothers is reduced — several bands, actually — but there is so much to do.

What have you done today to make the entire world better? Michael’s gone. We all have to work harder.

Smile while you do it, and enjoy the work.

Brief obituary below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

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