At its March 10, 2016, meeting, the Alabama state board of education voted to retain a disclaimer about evolution mandated for the state's textbooks, even though the new Alabama science standards describe evolution as "substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence." The vote accompanied the board's approval of the state textbook committee's recommendations for the adoption of science textbooks. Video of the vote is available on-line (starting about 15:25).
The first Alabama disclaimer, which described evolution as "a controversial theory some scientists present," was mandated by the Alabama state board of education in 1996. It was replaced in 2001 by a second disclaimer, which described "[t]he theory of evolution by natural selection" as controversial. A third disclaimer appeared in the state science standards in 2005, but the board voted then to retain the second disclaimer. It is thus the second disclaimer (below) that presumably will remain in Alabama's science textbooks.
At the meeting, Stephanie Bell, a board member who helped to write the first disclaimer, praised the disclaimer as "a very positive addition" that "fits in perfectly with the Course of Study." NCSE's executive director Ann Reid was anything but enthusiastic, however, commenting, "By voting to retain the disclaimer, the Alabama board of education is continuing to send a scientifically unwarranted and pedagogically irresponsible message to Alabama's teachers and students — who deserve better."
A MESSAGE FROM THE ALABAMA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION
The word “theory” has many meanings. Theories are defined as systematically organized knowledge, abstract reasoning, a speculative idea or plan, or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
Many scientific theories have been developed over time. The value of scientific work is not only the development of theories but also what is learned from the development process. The Alabama Course of Study: Science includes many theories and studies of scientists’ work. The work of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few, has provided a basis of our knowledge of the world today.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory that is included in this textbook. It is controversial because it states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things. Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed. Because of its importance and implication, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories. They should learn to make distinctions between the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.
There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life. With the explosion of new scientific knowledge in biochemical and molecular biology and exciting new fossil discoveries, Alabama students may be among those who use their understanding and skills to contribute to knowledge and to answer many unanswered questions. Instructional materials associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.