Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Textbook Authors Join NCSE in Defending Evolution Education

On March 26, 1999, NCSE released a statement by 23 authors of science textbooks at a press conference held at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). These authors were responding to numerous incidents over the years, in which state or local school districts have censored or disclaimed evolution in textbooks or have decided not to adopt textbooks that included "too much" evolution (see for example, NCSE Reports 15[4]:10-11, 16[2]:1, 9, 16[3]:9, 16[3]:16, RNCSE 17[1]:5, 17[3]:8).

Below are NCSE Executive Director Eugenie C Scott's remarks at the conference, outlining the recent history of censorship of evolution in textbooks and describing the circumstances leading to issuance of the statement. The complete text of the statement and a list of its signers are on page 11.

Evolution has been under attack for several decades now. Neither the Scopes trial nor the Supreme Court anti-"equal time" law decision of 1987 has ended the assault on evolution in the classroom. Just as the Scopes Trial was precipitated by John Scopes' using a textbook to teach evolution, so today are textbooks still under attack for including an idea considered basic to modern science.

The attack upon evolution in textbooks has waxed and waned over time. After the Scopes trial, textbooks that included evolution tended not to be adopted and the subject was quietly excised from textbooks until, by 1930, it had virtually disappeared. It was brought back into textbooks during the mid-to-late 1960s as commercial publishers, inspired by the National Science Foundation-sponsored Biological Sciences Curriculum Study textbooks, began to include evolution again. By the mid-to-late 1970s commercial publishers found themselves again under pressure to drop or downplay evolution in textbooks, and many of them, once again, bowed to market pressure. Over 24 states had legislation introduced to require "equal time" for "creation science", and two states passed such legislation in the late 1970s.

Another anti-evolutionary pressure came from the state of Texas, which required that any book mentioning evolution contain a disclaimer to the effect that evolution was "theory only" — though cell theory, germ theory, and other theories were not so disclaimed. Evolution again began to become scarce in textbooks, or publishers would disclaim evolution as they did no other scientific theory with phrases like, "some scientists believe...". The age of the earth was downplayed in many books, with "long ago" and such euphemisms replacing previous, more specific statements about "millions of years ago".

Scientists and teachers protested this development, and in fact, in the late 1980s the state of California rejected all junior high life science books — because they didn't contain evolution. Simultaneously, Texas revised its directive to publishers and required that evolution be included in both geology and biology books. Publishers responded to these market forces by bringing evolution back into textbooks, and by 1995, when Texas next adopted textbooks, NCSE could honestly proclaim that "evolution is back in textbooks".

Those of us familiar with this controversy realize, however, that one cannot ever assume that the victory for sound education has been won. It is the case today that, even though the advisory National Science Education Standards and all state standards require that evolution be taught, there still exists considerable pressure on textbook publishers to downplay or disclaim evolution.

NCSE's records over the past couple of years show that textbooks are being rejected at the local level because they have "too much evolution". In another example, a school district asked the publishers of an elementary school book to remove a chapter discussing the evolution of the solar system. The superintendent of one district even glued together the pages of a textbook because it covered only the Big Bang, and didn't give equal time to Genesis; and in 1996, the state of Alabama required a disclaimer be pasted into the front of all biology books. This disclaimer presented erroneous information about evolution and also made the ubiquitous statement about evolution being "only a theory". This disclaimer in one form or another has metastasized into textbooks in several school districts, and was introduced (fortunately, unsuccessfully) as legislation in the state of Washington.

Last summer, a religious right organization sent to all school districts in Texas an analysis ranking biology textbooks according to how much or how little evolution they contained — and recommending the books with the least evolution be adopted.

Scientists dislike this trend; teachers dislike this trend; and textbook authors — who are teachers and scientists — dislike this trend. To publicize recent attacks on evolution in textbooks, NCSE coordinated an effort to have the authors of all the best-selling biology textbooks join in a statement condemning disclaimers and other efforts to downplay or diminish the coverage of evolution in textbooks. These authors are university scientists and master teachers. They have all made a point of emphasizing the importance of evolution in their books, and you can bet none of them wanted their books on a "soft on evolution" list!

The books these authors have written have been published by the largest textbook publishers in the country, including

Benjamin Cummings
DC Heath
Holt, Rinehart
Prentice Hall

The textbook publication business is highly competitive. These authors and their publishers compete vigorously to write the most up-to-date and interesting books, and they compete for the highest sales, but when it comes to the importance of evolution in science education, they agree; and when it comes to defending good science from sectarian attacks, they cooperate.

This afternoon, we have several of these scholars and teachers here. I want to introduce some of these authors to you, and then we'll take questions.

[Note: Besides introducing several textbook authors, Scott distributed an information packet containing position statements by the National Science Teachers Association and the National Association of Biology Teachers. These have been reprinted in NCSE's book Voices for Evolution.
NCSE wishes to thank Richard Goldin for his extensive help with the Textbook Authors' Project.
By Eugenie C Scott
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.