The "science versus creationism" debate has been using up much of the energy and time of legislators and educators, but in Texas at least the arguments have come to a close. A series of meetings to revise the curriculum have just concluded, and creationist thinking has largely been given the boot.
For the previous 20 years a tiny section in the teaching guidelines has allowed people to approach the teaching of creationism on the same level of "acceptability" as evolutionary theory. It asked teachers and students to tackle the "strengths and weaknesses" of the scientific theories of evolutionary biology. And bizarrely it was these few words that ended up being a major sticking point, in a sequence of meetings that were reportedly very tense.
The numbers were apparently evenly split, with six members supporting creationist ideals—that the universe and everything in it, including intelligent life, was "made"—and seven being "pro-science," along with a few undecideds.
Ultimately the controversial wording was removed, a move that Eugene Scott, a witness of the meetings and executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, called "a huge step forward."
But the creationists managed to squeeze through a few bizarre amendments that still perversely tackle the roots of scientific theory.
One amendment changed the words of a guideline into investigating the fossil record by adding the phrase "proposed transitional fossils" into the text, with the word "proposed" casting doubt on the validity of transitional fossils—fossils that show a transitional lifeform between two other evolved entities. The most famous of these is Archaeopteryx, regarded as a stage between dinosaurs and birds. According to geologist Steven Schafersman, president of the Texas Citizens For Science campaign group, transitional fossils aren't "proposed" but scientifically acknowledged—the education board is casting doubt on something that's not in question.
The second amendment, proposed by Barbara Cargill—a creationist board-member—changed the final wording in the fossil record guidelines to read that teachers and students should "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in the light of this fossil evidence." That's another move designed to question a body of scientific work that is widely accepted, and has been so for over a hundred years.
In fact according to recent independent research by Dr Matthew Wills from the University of Bath and the London Natural History Museum, our understanding of the dinosaur fossil record is remarkably complete, and compares to our theory of the "tree of evolution" even closer than scientists may have realized."We are excited that our data show an almost perfect agreement between the evolutionary tree and the ages of fossils in the rocks. This is because it confirms that the fossil record offers an extremely accurate account of how these amazing animals evolved over time and gives clues as to how mammals and birds evolved from them," he says.
The board has to finalize the text in late March, and the hope is apparently that these "unscientific" amendments can be removed then.
This debate is paralleled by another news article today about Britain's foremost TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who reports that his award-winning documentaries prompt hate mail from religious viewers who tell him to "burn in hell and good riddance," because he doesn't credit God in his broadcasts. Sir David referred to the "terrible, terrible" fact that intelligent design and creationism can be taught in some UK schools. "It's like saying that two and two equals four but, if you wish it, it could also be five," is how he refers to allowing unscientific creationism to be mentioned alongside a scientific theory.
Irrespective of either sides viewpoint, it's arguable that a huge amount of time, money and effort has been wasted by the Texas school board debating scientific theories (from non-expert standpoints) instead of tackling much more pressing educational issues.