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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Evolution debate looms

Posted on Sun, Dec. 23, 2007
Education panel likely to address issue over biology textbooks
The debate over how to teach the origin of species in public high schools could resurface in January, when the S.C. Board of Education meets.

The divided state panel withheld its endorsement of two biology textbooks earlier this month, when board member Charles W. McKinney pointed to dozens of questions raised in critiques by Horace D. Skipper, a retired Clemson University professor.

“I have concerns about some of the things in those books,” McKinney said.
Two years ago, the 17-member state school board wrestled with updating instructional standards that high school biology teachers follow when teaching evolution.

State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, successfully lobbied for revisions to include the term “critically analyze,” linked to a movement to elevate instruction about creationism and “intelligent design” to the status of evolution.

That modification of the state’s widely acclaimed biology standards prompted criticism from national experts.
Fair’s campaign angered many high school educators, including those who consider themselves devoutly religious but objected to being told to mix lessons about beliefs with science.

College professors, including some of Skipper’s Clemson colleagues, supported their high school counterparts.
Among the state school board’s responsibilities is identifying relevant teaching material for South Carolina’s 1,100 public schools and updating a list of options from which they can choose textbooks.

Next month’s vote on the two biology books is whether they should be added to that list. Schools are not obligated to use them, however.

(A state Department of Education official said late Friday the publisher of one of the books, which would have been used by a limited number of Advanced Placement classes, requested it be removed from consideration.)

Skipper said he reviewed the books when they were placed in a local library as part of the state Department of Education’s policy of seeking public input.

He takes issue with passages about evolution in a biology textbook by Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine.
A weed science researcher, Skipper challenged the book’s characterizations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as being the foundation for all lessons about life, including survival of the fittest.

“Where (Miller) talks about the origins of life and evolution stuff I didn’t see where they had the scientific support that I think public schools need in a textbook,” Skipper said.

Textbook author Miller is a veteran of the creationism-intelligent design-evolution furor.
His testimony in a highly publicized federal trial dealt a blow to proponents of teaching biology lessons inspired by the Bible. Parents in Dover, Pa., successfully sued their school board to block it from using a book in science classes asserting a grand “designer” might be responsible for life on earth.

Miller received word about Skipper’s critique of his text a day prior to this month’s state school board meeting and compiled a lengthy response.

“Those are the typical sorts of questions and objections one gets from creationists,” Miller said of Skipper’s criticisms. He said “the concerns and objections to the treatment of evolution in our textbook ... are without scientific merit.”

Skipper was unfazed by Miller’s response.
“I critiqued it as a scientist,” he said. “If I raised issues that have ruffled feathers, that may be their problem, not mine.”

Miller plans to attend the Jan. 9 state board meeting.
“What I want to do is show up ... and let the board know I really care about their questions,” Miller said. “It’s important to me that they have that book available.

“I’m not asking the board to buy our book. What I’m asking them is ‘Let the marketplace work’ and let people be able to pick from all books available.”

Roughly 100 S.C. public high schools use the sixth edition of the Miller-Levine textbook, including every high school in Lexington County.

State Education Department officials say the Miller-Levine book is among the nation’s best-selling textbooks.
Rob Dillon, a College of Charleston biology professor who leads an organization known as South Carolinians for Science Education, called Skipper’s challenge of the Miller book “just terrible.”

“Those critiques cannot be the basis for public policy decisions of any sort,” Dillon said. “They are religiously motivated.”

Skipper rejects any suggestion he advocates teaching creationism in lieu of evolution, but adds “if you’re going to teach historical science, that would be an alternative.”

“If we’re going to have good, honest truth taught to our students, they need to be taught about weaknesses or gaps in these theories,” Skipper said.

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.

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