Some politicians just don’t know when to let things die. That much was made clear Tuesday at a meeting of the State Board of Education. The meeting was called to discuss seven high school biology textbooks that will be voted on in November for possible use beginning next year. The textbooks have been criticized by socially conservative reviewers who believe they lack adequate coverage of alternative theories, including creationism and intelligent design. At the meeting, former Board of Education Chairman and well-known creationist Don McLeroy advocated the adoption of the textbooks on the assumption that the alleged flaws in the evidence would win students over to his evolution-doubting side.
McLeroy’s new approach is a pleasant departure from his old, paternalistic ways. In 2009, McLeroy, at that point still the chairman of the board, managed to insert into the state science curriculum language that required teachers to point out aspects of the fossil record that undermine the theory of evolution, despite the fact that these aspects of the fossil record are largely seen as immaterial objections to the theory.
While McLeroy may have changed his rhetoric, he remains steadfast in his misguided beliefs about evolution. And he’s not an isolated case. Although McLeroy was defeated in a 2010 primary and the social conservatives no longer hold a majority on the board, a recent poll by YouGov, an Internet-based market research firm, found that just 21 percent of Americans believe human beings evolved without divine intervention, up slightly from 14 percent in 2004. Americans are more evenly divided on the issue of what to teach in schools, but the creationists still come out ahead, with 40 percent of those surveyed supporting the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.
This raises an important question. Why is public opinion on this issue changing so slowly (a cynic might compare it to the rate of biological evolution) when other perennial debates have made much more dramatic progress in the same nine-year period? Take gay marriage, for instance. Today, according to Princeton Survey Research Associates, 55 percent of the American public is in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, while in 2004, 61 percent of respondents opposed gay marriage, with 38 percent identifying themselves as strongly opposed.
Because Americans don’t seem to be quite so flexible on the issue of evolution, we oddly find ourselves agreeing with McLeroy. While textbook publishers can edit their products before the November vote, we hope the board tosses aside any submissions that present the “alternative theories” as equally valid. We also hope — and are confident — that McLeroy’s reasoning will backfire.