By STEPHANIE SIMON
The Texas Board of Education approved a science curriculum that opens the door for teachers and textbooks to raise doubts about evolution.
Critics of evolution said they were thrilled with Friday's move. "Texas has sent a clear message that evolution should be taught as a scientific theory open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned," said Dr. John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that argues an intelligent designer created life.
Kathy Miller, president of the pro-evolution Texas Freedom Network, said, "The board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks."
Science standards in Texas resonate across the U.S., since it approves one set of books for the entire state. That makes Texas the nation's single largest market for high-school textbooks.
In the past, publishers often have written texts to its curriculum and marketed them nationally rather than spend time and money reworking them for different states and districts.
That influence has diminished, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers' school division, as districts and statewide boards of education have become more likely to scrutinize texts approved in other states. Desktop publishing also has made it easier for companies to amend textbooks to suit different markets.
"It's not necessarily the case" that the Texas curriculum will pop up in other states, Mr. Diskey said. But within Texas, what the board says, goes. Several years ago, the board expressed concern that a description of the Ice Age occurring "millions of years ago" conflicted with biblical timelines. The publisher changed it to "in the distant past." Another publisher sought to satisfy the board by inserting a heading about "strengths and weaknesses of evolution" in a biology text, drawing condemnation from science organizations.
The board will use the new standards to choose new textbooks in 2011.
Friday's meeting started with a victory for backers of evolution. The board voted to remove a longstanding requirement that students analyze the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory. Mainstream scientists resoundingly reject that language, saying there are no weak links in the theory of evolution, which has been corroborated by discoveries in fields ranging from genetics to geology.
Through the afternoon, board members offered up a series of amendments and counter-amendments designed to shape presentations in biology classes across the state. The board voted down curriculum standards questioning the evolutionary principle that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry.
Yet the board approved standards that require students to analyze and evaluate the fossil record and the complexity of the cell. Social conservatives on the board, led by chairman Don McLeroy, have made clear they expect books to address those topics by raising questions about the validity of evolutionary theory.
For instance, they want textbooks to suggest the theory of evolution is undercut by fossils that show some organisms -- such as ferns -- haven't changed much over millions of years. They also want texts to discuss the explosion of life forms during the Cambrian Era as inconsistent with the incremental march of evolution.
Scientists respond that the fossil record clearly traces the roots of Cambrian Era creatures back as far as 100 million years.
It isn't just evolution at issue: The board also approved an earth-science curriculum that challenges the widely accepted Big Bang Theory. Students are expected to learn that there are "differing theories" on the "origin and history of the universe."
Board members also deleted a reference to the scientific consensus that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old. The board's chairman has said he believes God created the universe fewer than 10,000 years ago.