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Religion, Science May Turn a Page Over Textbook in Texas

Conservatives want the state to reject a biology book or require editing of parts on evolution. Some say it may open the door to creationism.

November 06, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

RIESEL, Texas — William Dembski pulled a book from a pile in the basement of his country home and flipped to a page containing drawings of embryos. A gilded painting of the crucifixion hung on the wall behind him. He was in a bind, or so it would seem.

He is a scientist by trade, a Baylor University research professor, and knows that the theory of evolution is considered a cornerstone of modern science. But he is an evangelical Christian at heart, convinced that some biological mechanisms are too complex to have been created without divine guidance. The two schools -- science and religion -- have long been difficult to reconcile. But those days, he believes, are over.

This morning in Austin, the Texas Board of Education will begin two days of deliberation about whether to adopt 11 new high school biology textbooks for the 2004-2005 school year -- a transaction that, by some estimates, could cost the state $30 million.

A coalition of religious conservatives -- buoyed by the work of Dembski and a few others -- has launched a campaign to point out what it calls inaccuracies and inadequacies in the books' presentation of evolution. Their goal: Persuade the board to reject the books or require publishers to edit passages about evolution, raising enough questions that some believe the door would be opened to teaching creationism in public schools.

"On some level, we are defining who we are," said Dembski, 43, who holds degrees in science and divinity. "Might this reopen ideas about purpose, about nature, about God? It makes for a fairly explosive situation."

The board's decision will have a broad effect on the $4-billion textbook industry. Trailing California, Texas is the second-largest textbook buyer in the nation. Because of that clout, publishers often edit their books to earn consideration here. Other states as far away as New England buy books based on Texas' vetting process.

In Texas, both sides of the debate see the dispute as a test for the emerging presence of evangelism in science, politics and government. The vote, state officials say, will be close. Several of the 15 elected members of the board of education have spoken openly about conflicted feelings.

"I can think of no word that crystallizes the debate of religion and science better than 'evolution,' " said Mavis Knight, a board member, Sunday school teacher and activist in Dallas-area civic causes. Knight spoke at a Dallas conference organized this week by educators and religious leaders who say religious messages are vital but should be kept out of science classes.

"Is there compatibility between one's faith and what we are taught about science?" she asked. "And if there is, where is the appropriate forum for that?"

The books, according to those lobbying the board to reject them, portray an unbalanced picture of evolution, one that is too clear-cut. The text is evidence, the group says, of a "naturalistic filibuster" that glosses over lingering questions. For example, they say, the books fail to delve into the "Cambrian explosion," a period 500 million years ago when changes in some species appear to have occurred too quickly to have been produced by natural selection alone.

Although some educators and scientists call the campaign junk science and thinly veiled ideology, it has already won some victories.

In one book, a passage saying that fossils "explain" evolution has been changed to say that fossils "may explain" evolution. A reference to the Ice Age was changed recently from "millions of years ago" to "in the distant past" in a nod to people who read Scripture literally and believe the Earth is just thousands of years old.

The effort to rewrite textbooks here is led largely by a group called Texans for Better Science Education.

It recently circulated a message from a Colorado man whose daughter was killed in the 1999 Columbine High shootings. The father said that the teaching of evolution played a role in the shootings because one gunman wore a shirt bearing the words "Natural Selection" -- a contention that has outraged many educators.

The campaign is also allied with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which backs a theory known as "Intelligent Design." The theory does not discard evolution, but believes it is insufficient to explain the complexity of some biological mechanisms -- leaving the possibility, the group says, for some sort of plan or design by an intelligent force. John G. West, a senior fellow at the Institute, said the group's work is focused purely on science and has "nothing to do" with trying to allow religion into science classes.

Several donors who say they strive to discredit Darwinism have given millions of dollars to the Institute, where Dembski used to work. The donors include the wealthy Ahmanson family of Orange County, Calif., which has been tied in the past to a movement that sought to replace democracy with Christian theocracy. Philanthropist Howard Ahmanson has since said that he repudiates those ideas.

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