Monday, September 22, 2003
By ALFRED GILMAN
The state school board recently heard testimony from many people about whether 11 high school biology textbooks should be excluded from consideration for state adoption because they supposedly place undue emphasis on evolution. The issue has evoked passionate debate, but the board has until November to make its decision.
I write on behalf of 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences and/or the Institute of Medicine; four of us are Nobel laureates. We all live and work in North Texas. We are speaking as individual scientists and clinicians, not as employees of any institution.
We urge board members to use the next several weeks to review the science and, ultimately, to render a decision based solely on whether the texts are scientifically accurate. To do otherwise would undermine the integrity of expert panels that already have indicated the books pass scientific muster. The textbooks in question are used only in science courses, and science must be the basis of their information.
Some individuals and organizations have long opposed teaching only scientific bases for the appearance and evolution of life on earth. Those opponents claim that scientific texts systematically misinform readers. Why? Because, according to the critics, the books in question don't expound upon supposed weaknesses in the theory of evolution.
Those assertions have been refuted in great detail by scientists in testimony prepared for the state board and in analyses of the central arguments raised by opponents of the texts. (See www.txscience.org/files/icons-revealed/index.htm and www.ncseweb.org/icons/ on the Web.)
We note that those supposedly scientific challenges are directed selectively at the theory of evolution. There are no similar campaigns being waged against textbooks that don't discuss alleged weaknesses in other major scientific theories, such as gravitation or relativity. Clearly, the motivation for the current challenges lies not in science, and the scientific classroom is not the proper forum for such a debate.
Part of the confusion may stem from how scientists use the term "theory" in their work. Rather than being someone's hunch or guess, ideas become accepted scientific theories only after they have been tested repeatedly and confirmed experimentally &endash; and have been shown to account for and explain such a wealth of data that they enable scientists to make reasonable predictions about similar phenomena that have yet to undergo such scrutiny.
The modern theory of evolution has undergone 140 years of testing. It now is so well established that its veracity and robustness are accepted as fact by the overwhelming majority of scientists in this country and around the world. In the scientific community, the unanswered questions surrounding evolution concern not the fact of evolution but rather the mechanisms by which evolution operates.
We are very concerned that any action by the board to exclude science textbooks that have been determined to be scientifically accurate &endash; by independent review panels of scientists and science educators and by expert review committees appointed by the Texas Education Agency &endash; sets a very dangerous precedent.
If successful, such an action would prevent the state's students from being exposed to one of the most tested theories in science and would place them at a disadvantage in relation to their peers in most other states, where scientific approaches to evolution would continue to be taught. Without a basic knowledge of evolution, how could they begin to comprehend high school or college biology classes?
In addition, because Texas' textbook adoption policies have a large impact on the U.S. textbook market, we worry that prohibiting the purchase of science books that accurately discuss evolution could push publishers to eliminate the subject, compromising science education across the country. That would be tantamount to censorship.
The November decision must be scientifically informed. Like students heading back to school, the state school board must do its work to understand fully the issues at stake. We call upon our scientific, engineering and medical colleagues across the state to deliver a similar message to the board.
Alfred G. Gilman is a 1994 Nobel laureate and professor of pharmacology.
Colleagues who support his position include
Michael S. Brown, Nobel laureate and professor of biophysics and molecular genetics;
Johann Deisenhofer, Nobel laureate and professor of biochemistry;
Ronald Estabrook, professor of biochemistry;
Daniel W. Foster, professor of internal medicine;
David Garbers, professor of pharmacology;
Scott Grundy, professor of human nutrition;
Joseph L. Goldstein, Nobel laureate and professor of biophysics and molecular genetics;
Steven McKnight, professor of biochemistry;
Eric Nestler, professor of psychiatry;
Eric Olson, professor of molecular biology;
Thomas Sudhof, professor of basic neuroscience;
Carol A. Tamminga, professor of psychiatry;
Jonathan Uhr, professor of cancer immunobiology;
Roger Unger, professor of internal medicine;
Ellen S. Vitetta, professor of cancer immunobiology; and
Jean D. Wilson, professor of internal medicine.