Theory of intelligent design making its way into Broward textbooks
By Chris Kahn
December 9, 2005
Broward County on Thursday narrowed its choices for high school Biology I textbooks to two finalists, both of which have been under scrutiny by Christian conservatives who want to change the way students learn about the origin of life.
Both have edited passages about evolution theory during the past few years after receiving complaints from the Discovery Institute. The think tank sponsors research on intelligent design, which argues life is so complicated, it must have been fashioned by a higher being. One of the books also has added a short section on creationism.
In the end, Broward teachers will have to decide which book works best based on their individual review of the whole textbooks, which include hundreds of pages of lessons, support materials and suggested activities.
District spokesman Keith Bromery said that regardless of the revisions, Biology: The Dynamics of Life by Glencoe and Holt Biology by Holt, Rinehart and Winston “shined through as better books.”
“We have an extensive review process,” he said Wednesday.
After spending months evaluating the books, a committee of science teachers on Thursday eliminated a third candidate, Prentice Hall Biology, which was chosen last week by Palm Beach County.
Broward’s high school biology teachers will vote in February on their book. The winning publisher will get a contract for 20,000 books worth an estimated $1.2 million.
A South Florida Sun-Sentinel review shows how Glencoe and Holt revised their texts as educators around the country fought about inserting religious concepts into science texts.
Many of the edits came after a tense four-month battle in 2003, when Texas educators chose their new science books.
During that debate, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute arrived in Austin with a 41-page report criticizing the two books and nine others that also were under review.
“This is a perennial problem,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit group that fights to keep evolution in schools.
Though he doesn’t find anything alarming in what was changed — the books still devote numerous pages to Darwin and evolution theory — Branch said they’re classic examples of how special interests creep into public education.
“Contents will be changed to suit the concerns of people” in other states, Branch said.
For publishers, it only makes good business sense to do so, said Steve Driesler, executive director of the American Association of Publishers school division.
The $7 billion textbook industry is extremely competitive, Driesler said, and publishers have to think about how parents will react to the book.
“You’ve got to get sensitive to things like intelligent design,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure the books are socially and politically acceptable to the community that’s buying.”
John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said he considered the revisions a victory for his group. The revisions in Glencoe and Holt books are tantamount to an admission by “Darwinists” that evolution theory is flawed, he said. “This vindicates us.”
In general, Glencoe and Holt edited their origins of life explanations after written criticisms from the Discovery Institute. Glencoe also added references to a supreme being without any prodding from the group, according to West.
Since at least 1995, Biology: The Dynamics of Life, has told students about the origin of life.
In its 1998 national edition, Glencoe decided to add a few sentences about “divine origins.” However, authors warned students that “divine creation is a belief rather than a scientific theory, because it is accepted on faith.”
By 2004, the “origin of life” section on page 388 was changed again. The new wording added “some people believe that the complex structures and processes of life could not have formed without some guiding intelligence.”
It also removed the sentence that said creationism is not considered a scientific theory.
Glencoe spokesman Tom Stanton said in an e-mailed statement the publisher included references to intelligent design “because alternative ideas on the origins of life including RNA and meteorites are discussed in societyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.
“These references are found nowhere else in the 1,100-page text, and Glencoe offers no evidence in support of any of these opinions or beliefs.”
The 2006 Florida edition has this same wording about a divine origin. However, after the Sun-Sentinel wrote about the page, Glencoe called Broward and offered to cut the page out of the book.
Superintendent Frank Till said Thursday if teachers pick the book in February, he’d agree to cut the page and get rid of the controversy.
“I don’t think we should focus the adoption on one page.”
Some of the changes in Holt Biology began with the Discovery Institute critique, according to meeting notes on the Texas Education Agency’s Web site.
In Texas, Holt agreed to change a “student activity” and asked students to study “alternatives” to hypotheses about the origin of life using the Internet or library.
That revision was challenged by the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal watchdog group that said it would open the door to a discussion about intelligent design. Holt eventually changed the wording to “scientific hypotheses,” a phrase it still uses for the same activity on page 270 of the Florida text.
Texas records also show that Holt agreed to alter its explanation of the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, which scientists have used to describe how life may have formed billions of years ago in the Earth’s early oceans. The experiment is a favorite target of creationists, who claim that flaws in the experiment make it useless.
After criticism from the Discovery Institute, Holt revised page 254 to say “scientists incorrectly hypothesized” the atmospheric conditions that existed on early Earth. That phrase was kept for the Florida edition.
On page 9, the Discovery Institute said, it also got Holt to tone down a phrase that credited Darwin’s theory for being “the essence of biology.” It was changed to say that it “provides a consistent explanation for life’s diversity.”
Holt spokesman Rick Blake said the publisher is always improving the text. When the Discovery Institute criticized the book in Texas, Holt’s editors took the complaints seriously.
“It doesn’t matter who made the comment,” Blake said, “if it’s legitimate.”
J.P. Keener, Broward’s science curriculum specialist, agreed. “It would bother me if changes were being made that weren’t supposed to be there. But all the changes here are scientific. It’s fine.”
The Discovery Institute didn’t pursue textbook changes in Florida this year as it did two years ago in Texas because it didn’t have enough money and local religious groups didn’t publicly oppose the books, West said.
In the future, West said, his group would lobby for changes in other states.
Students “should study Darwin theory not as dogma, but look at it as a theory,” he said. “And they should also understand criticisms against it.”
Chris Kahn can be reached at 954-356-4550 or firstname.lastname@example.org