The creationists didn't win Friday when the State Board of Education took up new biology textbooks in an ideologically fraught, historically contentious adoption process. Most of the materials sailed through.
But they didn't exactly lose, either.
Biology, one of the top two or three most widely used textbooks in the country, authored by Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist, and Joseph Levine, a science journalist, was flagged by the board because a panel of reviewers recommended rejection. The criticisms leveled largely belong to Ide Trotter of Duncanville, a chemical engineer by training and avowed denier of evolution. They revolve around whether evolution can explain the proliferation of novel species on the planet. The subtext in his critique is that it can't and, though he would never say it openly, that an intelligent designer who conjured their sudden appearance can.
A second panel of three expert reviewers appointed by the board will now examine his objections and decided whether changes should be made to a book that, according to SBOE vice chair Thomas Ratliff, is already in use in half the classrooms in the state.
Ratliff, who perhaps optimistically predicted that Biology would be adopted without incident, was reportedly incredulous as the SBOE debated the arcana of science far beyond their expertise. "To ask me -- a business degree major from Texas Tech University -- to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable," he said.
Dan Quinn, spokesman for Texas Freedom Network and a former textbook editor, tells Unfair Park that this is the strategy to seed evolution doubt for a board that no longer has a dominating social-conservative bloc. "Rather than try and win on straight-up votes or ram things through based on voting power, now what they're trying to do is corrupt the entire review process," he said. "They appoint ideologues to the review team, and get ideologues to come in at the last minute to bring up all kinds of objections and use it as a strategy to hijack the process and target specific textbooks.
"They figured that if they can get the review team seeded with ideologues, raising all kinds of objections on the night before the final vote, the [Texas Education Agency] would come up and say that the review team found errors, the publisher said they are not errors, and now y'all need to decide what to do. On the [Pearson Education Biology text, the SBOE] was saying, 'How would we know if they're errors or not? That's what the process is supposed to determine.' But you can't do that if don't have real experts."
With the gears successfully grinding to a halt, a second battery of expert review will begin within a month. And because the new expert reviewers can't have participated in the last panel, Quinn's bet is that SBOE chair Barbara Cargill will appoint Dr. Ray Bohlin, a molecular biology PhD and fellow at the Discovery Institute, a religious think tank whose goal is to beat back secularism in contemporary American society (I interviewed Bohlin for a recent cover story).
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That Biology would be targeted by creationists on the SBOE and in the review panel isn't shocking. Its author, Ken Miller, is a Roman Catholic who has been outspoken in his belief that evolution need not contradict his faith in God.
"The social conservative bloc finds that to be a very dangerous notion," TFN's Quinn said. "They've spent years now trying to convince people that evolution is an atheist lie and that if you accept the science of evolution you can't be a good Christian."
A new expert review panel could finish its work by Christmas. Depending on who's appointed to it, what happens after that is anyone's guess. Pearson Education, however, has given every indication that it won't bend. And as I concluded in my recent feature story, getting excluded from the SBOE's approved list is no longer the fatal blow to a textbook that it once was. School districts can still purchase the book, and many of them have been using Pearson's Biology for years.