Florida’s public school science standards for the first time will use the word “evolution,” although the biological concept already was being taught under code words such as “change over time.” But the standards will refer to evolution as a “scientific theory” as a compromise with evolution opponents, who were vocal in their criticism of proposed standards during a public comment period.

The new standards, part of a set of overall science changes adopted by the State Board of Education Feb. 19 on a 4-3 vote, require schools to spend more class time on evolution and teach it in more detail.

The standards state that evolution is “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence.”

That statement rankled opponents, some of whom had urged the board to add an academic freedom provision that would have allowed teachers to “engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence.”

Evolution supporters, including mainstream scientists and clergy, told the board the academic freedom proposal was a wedge designed to open the door for injecting religious arguments into science studies.

“We know what’s going on here,” said board member Roberto “Bobby” Martinez, a Miami lawyer. “What we have here is an effort by people to water down our standards.”

Opponents of evolution denied they had a religious motive, arguing that there are flaws in the scientific theory of evolution and that students should be allowed to explore them.

As a compromise, the standards refer to evolution as a “scientific theory,” explaining that a theory is a well-supported and accepted explanation of nature, not simply a claim.

The vote was the latest in a long line of public debates over evolution dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when a teacher was convicted of violating Tennessee’s evolution ban. That verdict was reversed on technicality, but courts later ruled evolution could be taught.

Courts subsequently barred teaching the biblical account of creation along with evolution. Most recently, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design, which holds the universe’s order and complexity is so great science alone cannot explain it, also was a religious theory and could not be taught in public schools.

John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, objected to calling evolution the only fundamental concept underlying biology. He wrote in an eMail to Education Commissioner Eric Smith that Baptists firmly believe there’s evidence of a “Creator-initiated origin of life” but did not object to teaching evolution. He argued, though, its scientific weaknesses should be taught as well as its strengths.

Religious conservatives oppose the teaching of evolution or want schools to also teach religious ideas of creationism, or intelligent design, which says the universe is so complex that science alone cannot explain the origins of life.

John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and president of the Florida Family Policy Counsel, told the Orlando Sentinel after the vote that social conservatives hope lawmakers will enact protections for teachers who offer alternatives to evolution in the classroom.

Stemberger deemed the final revision a “meaningless and impotent change.”

“It’s an attempt to placate the public, but it does nothing with the real problem,” he said, “which is school teachers don’t have a…line to know they’re protected, if they present scientific evidence that supports contradictory theories.”

“There was no need to tweak them,” Ray Bellamy, an orthopedic surgeon and part-time instructor at the Florida State University College of Medicine, told the Sentinel. “However, I’m 98 percent satisfied. I don’t think it weakens the standards very much.”

A Gallup poll released in June said America is about evenly split over whether evolution is true, despite decades of overwhelming scientific evidence that it is.

In a report from the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine, released Jan. 3, scientific advisers to the federal government highlighted the importance of teaching evolution in the public schools.

The report explicitly takes issue with creationism and other anti-evolution views: “Despite the lack of scientific evidence for creationist positions, some advocates continue to demand that various forms of creationism be taught together with or in place of evolution in science classes,” it says.

The new document follows up on similar past publications, the last of which came out in 1999. The new report includes recently discovered evidence supporting evolution, including an important fossil find.

Science education groups said the report is particularly timely, because the debate over how to teach evolution in the nation’s schools has two new battlegrounds in Florida and Texas. Each state exerts enormous influence over the multibillion-dollar textbook industry.

In Texas, biology professors have rallied in support of a state official who says she was forced to resign because she sent an eMail message promoting a lecture that was critical of intelligent design. The controversy comes as science standards in Texas are due for a 10-year review this year.

Links:

Florida Citizens for Science

Florida Department of Education

Florida Family Policy Council

Public Review and Comments on Proposed Revisions to Science Sunshine State Standards