The Times They Are A-Changin': Good Evolutionary News from Oklahoma

There is hope for science education when locales that have been bastions for creationism begin to recognize that creationism is not scientific and that evolution is not a threat to religious belief.
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A short while back, I wrote about very good news coming out of Texas on the evolution front. As you'll remember, Federal District Judge Sam Sparks demolished the Institute for Creation Research's request to offer a graduate degree in science education. Judge Sparks's most memorable line in a devastating rebuttal of creationism was:

[T]he Court will proceed to address each of ICRGS's causes of action in turn, to the extent that it is able to understand them. It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.

Given how unfriendly the Lone Star State has been to evolution, in particular, and education, in general, at least at the level of the Texas State Board of Education, this was very big news.

Amazingly, there is also some very good news, albeit on a far more local level, coming out of Oklahoma. Like Texas, historically, the Sooner State hasn't been particularly friendly towards evolution. Indeed, in 1923 Oklahoma was the first state in the nation to pass an anti-evolution bill - and the arguments back then for such terrible legislation weren't very different from what's being promoted now.

In his wonderful 1985 book, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, Edward J. Larson quotes the author of Oklahoma's 1923 law that banned the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools as saying, "I'm neither a lawyer or (sic) a preacher but a two-horsed layman and I'm against this theory called science!"

Since then, many of Oklahoma's legislators have gone on, year after year, introducing legislation to limit what students can learn about science. So, good news out of Oklahoma on the evolution front is not something to be taken lightly. And yet it has just occurred.

Here's the story.

This past semester, a student in an introductory biology class at Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC) complained in his blog that his biology instructor was promoting creationism rather than evolution. According to the student, the instructor argued for a "5000 year old earth" and the absence of evolution at any level. Supposedly the instructor noted that the college wanted him to teach that evolution was correct but, having closed the classroom door, he asserted the primacy of creationism.

When the story got picked up by the Bad Astronomy blog at Discover magazine, a faculty member wrote in to defend OCCC. "Our school is the fifth-largest college in the state and supplies qualified people to all of our 4-year Universities....We are in dire need in the US, especially in Oklahoma, of a high level of academic rigor in the sciences. Otherwise it seems we may plummet into a technological and political dark age. In defense of our college, Oklahoma City Community College is NOT a creationist stronghold, on the contrary. All of our full-time biology faculty understand the actual age of the Earth and that Creationism (AKA ID) is not science. My own area is paleontology, so this series of blog postings is especially embarrassing to me."

At the end of the semester, after grades were turned in, the student approached the administration to complain about the instruction he received.

I'm delighted to report that Max Simmons, the dean of the division of science and mathematics, undertook an investigation into the student's claims and he has assured me that the situation has been resolved in a manner that protects the integrity of science education. All sections of the course in question are supposed to follow a common syllabus and all are supposed to share common learning objectives. As with all modern biology courses, evolutionary theory is supposed to be central to this course.

Because neither the syllabus nor the learning objectives were followed as they should have been, the part-time instructor and OCCC agreed that he would not be returning to teach. Dean Simmons was pleased that the biologists had carefully delineated learning objectives for the course. The instructor wrote me that he didn't want to comment on the situation.

The bottom line is that an Oklahoma student raised a problem with the way young earth creationism found its way into his biology course, pushing aside evolutionary theory, and the situation was resolved in favor of mainstream science.

When, in such a short time span, creationism is beaten back in Oklahoma and Texas, one of the first things to come to mind is the well known song written by a Zimmerman far more famous than I am. Robert Zimmerman, probably better known to all of you as Bob Dylan, in 1963, wrote The Times They Are A-Changin'.

"Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'"

There is hope for science education when locales that have been bastions for creationism begin to recognize that creationism is not scientific and that evolution is not a threat to religious belief. The times they are a-changin'.

And that's something all of us should celebrate.

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