A New Standard in Florida: Evolution is Fundamental
February 26, 2008
by Glenn Branch
The recent battle over the place of evolution in Florida's state science standards wasn't quite ripped from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel—as far as I could tell from my office in California, at any rate, there were no greedy developers, lubricious politicos, or redneck gangsters involved, and no feral ex-governors emerging from the swamp to save the day. But zaniness was abundant among the creationist opponents of the standards, from the fellow who testified that, according to evolution, oranges are "the first cousin to somebody's pet cat," to the student who argued that evolution was unprovable because "no one was around 6,000 years ago." (Then who was it who left a bottle gourd at the Windover site outside Titusville, Florida, about 7,290 years ago?) Ultimately, however, on February 19, 2008, the state board of education voted to accept a new set of state science standards that recognize evolution as a fundamental concept underlying all of biology.
That's quite a change. The previous set of state science standards sedulously avoided even using the e-word, and when the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation conducted its review of state science standards in 2005, it commented, "The superficiality of the treatment of evolutionary biology alone justifies the grade 'F'." But hostility toward evolution education in the Sunshine State is nothing new: after William Jennings Bryan retired to Florida in 1920, he lobbied for legislation prohibiting "the teaching as true of Darwinism or any other evolutionary hypothesis that links man in blood relation with any form of animal life below man." Bryan was only partly successful; in 1923, the legislature passed a resolution that described such teaching as "improper and subversive," but stopped short of prohibiting it altogether. Two years later, the Tennessee legislature passed a law outright banning the teaching of evolution, and the Great Commoner eventually hauled himself from Florida to Dayton, Tennessee, for the trial of John Thomas Scopes.
Note, in Bryan's proposal, the phrase "as true." In a letter to a Florida state senator (quoted in Edward J. Larson's excellent Trial and Error), he explained, "A book which merely mentions [evolution] as a hypothesis can be considered as giving information as to views held, which is very different from teaching it as fact." Bryan died just after the Scopes trial, but his position—that it's okay to teach about evolution, but only as a theory, something conjectural or speculative, and not as a fact—continues to resonate. Creationists who weren't pressing for creationism (whether in the old-fashioned form of creation science or in the new-fangled form of intelligent design) to be added to the Florida state science standards were following Bryan in trying to stigmatize evolution as just a theory. A father in the Panhandle put a Möbian twist on the slogan, saying of his daughters, "I just don't want them to hear a one-sided fact."
As the biologist T. Ryan Gregory recently observed, "That evolution is a theory in the proper scientific sense means that there is both a fact of evolution to be explained and a well-supported mechanistic framework to account for it. To claim that evolution is 'just a theory' is to reveal both a profound ignorance of modern biological knowledge and a deep misunderstanding of the basic nature of science." Nevertheless, responding to the creationist pressure in Florida, someone—the details are still hazy—proposed a revision, just days before the state board of education was scheduled to vote on the new state science standards. The proposed changes involved inserting the phrase "the scientific theory of" before mentions of evolution. As the Orlando Sentinel reported, "By adding the word theory, which many opponents of the standards had argued for, the new version may appease those who do not view evolution as a scientific fact or those whose religious beliefs are in conflict with evolution."
Clumsy, unnecessary, and apparently opposed by a majority of the writing committee, the revisions were accepted anyway, despite a valiant effort on the part of board member Roberto Martinez, who described the revisions as "an effort by people to water down our standards." As the dust settled, though, it was increasingly clear that the revisions didn't, after all, succeed in materially compromising the scientific integrity of the standards. Evolution wasn't invidiously singled out for attention: plate tectonics, cell theory, atomic theory, electromagnetism, and the Big Bang all received the same treatment. Evolution is still described, correctly, as "the organizing principle of life science" and as "supported by multiple forms of evidence." And the standards distance themselves from the pejorative sense of "theory" that creationists from Bryan onward like to exploit: "a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer."
Small wonder, then, that Florida Citizens for Science rejoiced: "Florida won! Science education won! Teachers, students, Florida's future economy, etc. all won! No, it wasn't a clean victory, but it was a victory nonetheless." And small wonder, then, that Donna Callaway, the most strident voice against evolution on the board of education, lamented, "Evolution won." But the battle isn't over yet: a handful of state legislators have threatened to introduce legislation to amend the standards. In late January, the St. Petersburg Times's Ron Matus interviewed the chair of the House Schools and Learning Council, Joe Pickens (R–Palatka) about the prospect of such legislation. "Among scientists, there is virtually no debate about the fundamental soundness of Darwin's theory," Matus reported, before quoting Pickens as saying, "most of the people who are our constituents, and who vote for us, are not scientists." It's to be hoped, though, that even Floridians who aren't scientists still care about the integrity of science education enough to let their representatives know.
Update, March 3, 2008: It happened. On February 29, state senator Ronda Storms (R–Valrico) introduced a bill, SB 2692 [pdf], styled “The Academic Freedom Act.” Purporting to protect the right of teachers to “objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in connection with teaching any prescribed curriculum regarding chemical or biological origins” and the right of students not to be “penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution,” the bill would not affect the content of the standards, although it is clear that it was introduced at the behest at those who opposed their excellent treatment of evolution. A string of similar bills in Alabama—HB 391 and SB 336 in 2004; HB 352, SB 240, and HB 716 in 2005; HB 106 and SB 45 in 2006—failed. With only sixty days in the regular legislative session, perhaps the Florida legislature will be able to find something useful to do, instead of wasting its time mollifying creationists.
Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. With NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, he edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).