Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Some Evolve And Some Don't

Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.
— Langdon Smith, Evolution

Pesky. There’s no other description for evolution. It just keeps evolving. The most recent flap comes from Texas, the state that demonstrated that evolution is not as far along as we’d like to think by sending us George W. Bush. Not that that is the only indication of the state’s hostility to the notion of evolution. Others have manifested themselves as well.

It may be recalled that “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea”, a movie the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University had a role in producing, was described as “blasphemous” by an audience that was given a preview in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Industry. The film suggested that life might have begun in the undersea vents in an undersea volcano. One viewer said: “I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact.” That viewer was not alone as Christine Castillo Comer will be the first to tell you. Christine has first hand experience with the perils posed by evolution.

Christine has worked in the Texas education system for 36 years. She spent 27 years in the classroom and 9 of them as the Texas Education Agency’s director of science. While working as the director of science she discovered that evolution doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Christine received an e-mail message from the National Center for Science Education announcing that Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University would be giving a talk in Austin. National Center for Science Education is known as a pro-evolution group that thinks evolution happened in the past and is continuing. She sent that notice to a group described as an “online community. That got her fired by Lizzette Reynolds.

Lizzette was a deputy legislative director for then Governor George W. Bush. Following her boss to Washington, Lizette joined the U.S. Department of Education. Tiring of the life in Washington she moved back to Texas and joined the Agency where Christine worked. When she learned of Christine’s e-mail she was upset. She said that notifying people about a speech pertaining to evolution “assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.” Coming from George Bush’s Washington one might at first conclude that having observed those with whom Mr. Bush consorts, she took it as proof that were it anything other than a misguided theory neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney could be where they are today. That is not what motivated her.

She knew that Barbara Forrest testified in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005 on behalf of the plaintiffs in a case dealing with intelligent design vs. evolution. In that case the court found that intelligent design was not to be included in curricula as part of scientific education. When Lizzette and others in the agency learned of the e-mail sent by Christine they instructed her to retract the e-mail even though retracting the e-mail did not make the lecture disappear. The lecture went on as scheduled. Lizzette wanted the retraction because, said she, notifying people of a lecture was taking a position on “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency elaborated saying that by sending the e-mail announcing the lecture Christine was injecting her personal opinions and beliefs into the evolution vs. intelligent design debate.

Texas is in the vanguard of those now debating how to deal with evolution. According to Christine when asked about the agency’s attitude towards teaching evolution in years gone by she had responded that the agency supported the teaching of evolution in the public schools, a statement even the least evolved could understand. Early in 2007, with new unevolved supervisors in place, she was instructed to respond to such inquiries by quoting the high school biology standards formulated for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test. As a result, today inquirers about evolution are sent the language of Section 112.43(7) of that document. That section says in two simple sentences that the student knows the theory of evolution and is expected to: “(A) identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities, and embryology; and (B) illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior, and extinction.” That is, of course, hugely helpful to the inquirer.

Notwithstanding Christine’s e-mailed retraction, an act that in the time of heretics frequently would save the heretic’s life, the retraction did not save Christine’s job. The offense, said Lizzette, is an offense “that calls for termination.”

Describing her firing, Christine was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I’m for good science.” When it comes to teaching evolution: “I don’t think it’s any stretch of the imagination where I stand.” Time will tell where future Texas textbooks will stand following upcoming reviews of evolution that the Texas Board of Education will conduct in its February meeting.