State Considers Banning ‘Evolution’

by Brian on January 30, 2004

Via CNN.

The state’s school superintendent has proposed striking the word evolution from Georgia’s science curriculum and replacing it with the phrase “biological changes over time.”

From the details it looks like this is repeating the Kansan tragedy as farce, and since the proposal has bipartisan opposition this farce probably won’t go far. But don’t you just love a country where scientific theories that are accepted universally within the relevant scientific community are the subject of partisan disagreements? If this were happening in a tiny unimportant country it would be the stuff of late-night comedy. Instead, well it probably is a little tragic.



Mr Spectator 01.30.04 at 4:11 pm

The correct expression is “descent with modification”. This has the dual advantage of a/ having been the preferred terminology of Charles Darwin, and b/ being unfamiliar to eedjits like the Georgia school supervisor.


nolo 01.30.04 at 4:17 pm

The scary thing is that I feel some sympathy for the state school superintendent’s position, and can kind of understand why she’d make the proposal. “Evolution,” while being a scientific term of art, is also a buzzword to certain christian evangelicals. The superintendent is absolutely correct about that. Without endorsing her proposal, I can see how the school superintendent might have come to the conclusion that using a euphemism or two might take some pressure off of teachers in certain school districts, and allow them to teach the concepts of evolution without having to fend off criticism.


Ophelia Benson 01.30.04 at 4:19 pm

More than a little tragic. The whole coercive god-bothering irrationalist mindset is highly tragic – it makes said country a laughing-stock, as Richard Dawkins said on B&W about mandatory religiosity in the presidential campaign a couple of weeks ago.


Jeffrey Kramer 01.30.04 at 4:19 pm

Would “evolution-related biological activities” be acceptable?


William 01.30.04 at 4:23 pm

The organization I work for, the Texas Freedom Network, just defeated these attempts down here in Texas.

Onward to teaching more than abstinence-only sex education!


Matt 01.30.04 at 4:39 pm

Actually, speaking as a scientist, I like the idea that the unwashed masses are actually thinking about these questions and constantly bringing them into the public realm. It’s a -good- thing.


Ophelia Benson 01.30.04 at 4:39 pm

Well done Texas Freedom Network! Floreat et percrebescat.


Ophelia Benson 01.30.04 at 4:42 pm

Eh? Why can’t the unwashed masses think about such things in a rational way instead of a loony tunes way? The unwashed masses aren’t automatically religious or fundamentalist.


Matt 01.30.04 at 4:47 pm

Right. And many do think in a rational way, and some don’t. And the point is…?


Brian Weatherson 01.30.04 at 4:57 pm

Matt, but wouldn’t it be infinitely better if the masses were thinking about things where there was at least some evidence on either side. At risk of starting a *serious* flame war, there’s at least something to be said for either side of the Gould vs Dawkins debate, and the issues are clear enough that the general public could understand them, and having that kind of debate in public really would be a good thing. (Although if that one broke down on partisan lines it would be really scary.) But evolution vs creation? It’s hard to see how the value of that debate makes up for the disvalue of lots of people having seriously misguided beliefs.


reuben 01.30.04 at 5:00 pm

I wanna agree with Matt, but I gotta go with Ophelia. I’m not sure how philosophers et al would define “rational”, but the impetuses behind efforts to ban the teaching of evolution seem little more rational than those behind the adding of the Stars & Bars to the Georgia state flag during the civil rights movement. Hugely different issues, of course, but in both cases it’s about some people thinking they’re right no matter what the evidence to the contrary, and then enforcing their will on everyone else.


dsquared 01.30.04 at 5:08 pm

Georgia is a tiny unimportant country, just to the south of Russia …. oh that Georgia!

I must say I also don’t care. The intelligent Georgian kids will see straight through it (and learn that teachers and state superintendents often tell stupid lies, which is an importan subject not usually on the curriculum), while the thick ones will be happy. WHat’s not to like?


Matt 01.30.04 at 5:08 pm

Well, I’m for rationality, but that means, implicitly, that there are people who aren’t. That’s the way of the world. Isn’t it better to have the argument over this out in public?


chuck 01.30.04 at 5:11 pm

I live in Georgia, and I’ve been following the story in the local papers. I do object to the coercive methods with which this new curriculum is being installed, essentially tying the curriculum to a new statewide test.

Apparently, opposition to this policy is pretty widespread, too (one poll shows 85% support of teaching evolution), leading me to believe the policy will be overturned. So it’s not really the unwashed masses so much as a small number of well-scrubbed folk who are imposing their religious beliefs on the public school system.


reuben 01.30.04 at 5:13 pm


I think it’s better to have leaders and a public who have progressed enough not to be positing creationism as a valid explanation for the universe’s existence. It really seems that in some ways the US is sliding back in time. A good lesson, I suppose, for those of us who grew up assuming that progress is inevitable.


fyreflye 01.30.04 at 5:27 pm

“Descent with modification” is technically a more accurate descriptive term and has the virtue of eliminating the notion of “progress” that’s attached itself to the word “evolution.” The problem is that *any* change in terminology will be seen as a victory for creationism both by biologists and by creationists themselves. We’re stuck with the inadequate label “evolution” as a term we have to defend in the same way that we’re stuck with “democracy” as a description of what really takes place when we choose state school superintendants.


delphis 01.30.04 at 5:34 pm

mr spectator says the “correct term is ‘descent with modification'”

i’m not quite sure what he means by “correct”. certainly “biological changes over time” describes evolution (although also development). so does “changes in allele frequencies over time” (dobzhansky’s phrase), although that perhaps is incomplete.

one sad thing about this whole objection to the word “evolution” is that the people who object to it probably couldn’t define it or describe it to save their lives (or those of their offspring ;) i suspect they wouldn’t know to have a problem with a teacher talking about the rise of antibiotic resistance like they have a problem with the fact that we’re primates.

as far as the issues being clear enough for a large-scale participatory gould v. dawkins debate as brian says – i seriously doubt most people know enough biology to make informed contributions or to seriously weigh the arguments, although he may be right in that lots of aspects of the debate can be analogized to slightly more familiar (and therefore also more susceptible to being misconstrued due to preconceptions) terrain.


PZ Myers 01.30.04 at 5:59 pm

There is a good reason to dislike this: Georgia is dead last in SAT scores in this country, and basically have an educational system that sucks big time. Now their education commissioner has decided one small step to correct this major problem is to pander to religious nutcases who dislike evolution? It’s a distraction from what she really ought to be doing, and is doing further damage to Georgia’s reputation, which can ill afford it.


PZ Myers 01.30.04 at 6:00 pm

There is a good reason to dislike this: Georgia is dead last in SAT scores in this country, and basically have an educational system that sucks big time. Now their education commissioner has decided one small step to correct this major problem is to pander to religious nutcases who dislike evolution? It’s a distraction from what she really ought to be doing, and is doing further damage to Georgia’s reputation, which can ill afford it.


Norbizness 01.30.04 at 6:14 pm

A quote from “Inherit the Wind”— something about not thinking about the things one doesn’t think about— springs to mind.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.30.04 at 6:18 pm

The story is: Silly Georgia school superintendent tries do something really dumb and gets the heck slapped out of him by just about everyone.

Or: Silly religious zealots end up not getting their way, again.


dsquared 01.30.04 at 6:20 pm

There are(were) no “issues” in the Dawkins versus Gould debate; just questions of the originality of Gould’s thesis, pus whether or not Dawkins was clear enough about his regular shifts of referent from “genes” in an abstract sense to DNA/RNA sequences.

The debate ended with Gould, Lewontin and Eldredge’s position unchanged, Dawkins and Dennett saying that properly interpreted they had never disagreed with G, L & E and, for some unaccountable reason, tons of people claiming that Dawkins won.


chuck 01.30.04 at 6:20 pm

A bit of context for Georgia’s low SAT scores: Georgia does have the highest perceentage of students taking the SAT in the country. Because all students with a B average take the test, a lot of students who are less prepared for college still take teh test.

That doesn’t mean that Georgia’s education system is that good, but SAT scores aren’t necessarily the best measure.


chun the unavoidable 01.30.04 at 6:25 pm

About this SAT score nonsense: the figures these are based upon rank all states’ average scores regardless of what percentage of high school students actually take the test.

I personally see no problem with the proposal. The banning of a word and concept tainted with capitalism bloodletting should cause all freedom-loving peoples to rejoice.


msg 01.30.04 at 6:33 pm

…the impetuses behind efforts to ban the teaching of evolution seem little more rational than those behind the adding of the Stars & Bars to the Georgia state flag…

No species as powerful and successful as this one does things this energy-consuming without its having a rational base.
What that base is may seem obscure, but it’s going to be there.
It could be something along the lines of:
“Evolution” means you don’t qualify for sustained existence merely by being born. Therefore you might be disqualified even if you’re already here.
Christianity’s tenets and dogma are complex, its intent and effects are often not consistently parallel, but it does have a fundamental characteristic: The non-Darwinian, non-evolutionary, full acceptance of ALL human descent with ALL modifications. This is in principle. In practice obviously the selection process continues.
So “evolution” is threatening, directly and not for irrational and easily dismissed reasons. Because it says there are going to be winners and losers in the gene contest.
People who owe their genetic success to not playing are going to react first, and more strongly, to the suggestion of a resumption of the game, than those whose interest lies in unbiased scientific truth.
This may be what’s at the heart of the rabid “pro-life” movement, abortion involving as it does the intentional weeding out of what adherents term human lives. That weeding-out being the easily recognized, by the most threatened, beginning of the re-acceptance of the selection process.
An argument could be made that civilization itself is a sabotage of evolutionary process, though my own opinion is it’s a redirection toward gain by a minority, which after a certain amount of success has become a majority, etc…


Barry 01.30.04 at 6:43 pm

A comment on SAT scores and percentages of students taking the test: years ago, I saw that data set assigned as an analysis problem in linear regression. The reason was that the correlation between those two variables was ~-0.99, leading to multicolinearity probems.


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 6:56 pm

dsquared wrote “There are(were) no “issues” in the Dawkins versus Gould debate; just questions of the originality of Gould’s thesis, pus whether or not Dawkins was clear enough about his regular shifts of referent from “genes” in an abstract sense to DNA/RNA sequences.”

I guess it depends on which “issue” Brian was referring to, but I would have thought there were several issues in the debate of Gould vs. Dawkins – many of which seem subtantial. Think about their disagreements over the units of selection, adapationism, the relationship between science and religion, etc…. Punc. Equil. was hardly the only “issue” between them… See Kim Sterelny’s book _Dawkins vs. Gould_ for a popularized overview of this debate…


Sigivald 01.30.04 at 7:19 pm

Seems to me that some people are making a critical mistake here.

Changing the phrase used to describe the process is not the same as not teaching the process.

Re-read the article. Nothing about not teaching evolution – in fact, an explicit note that evolutionary theory will continue to be taught. Simply changing the name because, exactly as nolo said, it’s a trigger for knee-jerk opposition from a minority (yes, a minority, loud and obnoxious as they might be) of religious types. The proposal doesn’t even prevent teachers from using the Dreaded E-Word.


david 01.30.04 at 7:29 pm

Despite D2’s good work, that flame war isn’t flaming. Come on! Dawkins is a silly little man! Gould was a sloppy pseudo scientific napoleon! Get on it.


Smokey 01.30.04 at 8:09 pm

I can’t really say that it makes me feel much better that all they are proposing is dropping the word “evolution”, rather than the concept itself. The truth is, simply dropping the word implies that there is some doubt about the concept which it embodies. “Evolution” is broadly understood by most people to mean “descent with modification by means of natural selection” whether or not they would put it quite that way. Is “evolution” the ideal shorthand for Darwin’s theory? Perhaps not, but it’s what we’re stuck with, taint of capitalist blood-letting (?) and all. The proposed new language, “biological changes over time,” is just meaningless. It’s not like they are talking about replacing “evolution” with a more or less equivalent term, such as “natural selection”. Even the creationists (mostly) don’t dispute that biological change has occured (they dispute the cause and timescale for that change). This would be akin to banning the words “bacteria” and “viruses” in medicine and replacing them with the phrase “things which can make you sick.” Sure, it’s technically correct, but it ignores the incredible progress medical science has made over the years in determining just WHY you get sick (hint: has something to do with bacteria and viruses), just as Georgia’s new terminology ignores the tremendous progress we have made in figuring out WHY biological change happens over time (hint:has something to do with evolution). Language matters.


PZ Myers 01.30.04 at 8:44 pm

Apropriately enough, Carl Zimmer just related viral evolution to the sorry situation in Georgia, too.


maurinsky 01.30.04 at 8:58 pm

Over at Calpundit, it looks like the new Georgia curriculum is also going to cull any evidence of The Civil War from American History.

Yes, that’s right. American History, but no mention of the Civil War.


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 9:07 pm

smokey wrote “It’s not like they are talking about replacing “evolution” with a more or less equivalent term, such as “natural selection”.

Since as you suggest “language matters” I have to say that this is the kind of thing that makes lots of foiks cringe. Natural selection is ONE possible cause of evolutionary change – random genetic drift is another (migration is usually considered another, etc..) This matters – esp. if e.g., one wants to understand debates about adapationism (about the “strength” of natural selection compared to drift, developmental contraints, etc…)

I realize that in popular lingo “evolution” = “evolution by natural selection” but the claim that all life on earth is related or that we all evolved from common ancestors is a separate claim from that claim that natural selection is the primary or most important mechanism of such change….

Why does this matter? In say, a debate between Gould and Dawkins, they would both agree that all (or almost all) life on earth is related but (depending on various exegetical issues) disagree about how powerful a force natural selection is compared to say, constraints, drift, etc…


atlantan 01.30.04 at 9:16 pm

It’s more – much more – than removing the word “evolution.” If you compare the current Georgia curriculum to the proposed curriculum, much of the scientific underpinnings that would explain evolution – Mendelian genetic principles, a comparison of micro and macro evolution, a discussion of similarities among classes, etc. – are removed as well.
And I wish I shared the optimism of previous posters that this will not be allowed to stand.


ophelia benson 01.30.04 at 9:32 pm

This part is quite interesting –

“”If teachers across this state, parents across this state say, ‘This is not what we want,’ then we’ll change it,” said Cox, a Republican elected in 2002.”

Oh. So if parents ‘don’t want’ 2 + 2=4, or gravity, or the structure of the atom – we’ll change it? As if it’s the menu at MacDonald’s? As if this is all about consumer choice? Why bother to get an education at all then? Why not just learn any old crap?


Peter 01.30.04 at 9:32 pm

Sometimes I get a kick out of watching the creationists wig out over evolution. Here is a simple parlor trick to demonstrate their wigging….

Take 2 glasses and put them on the table apart from each other. Each glass represents a species. The creationist will claim there is an unexplaned gap. So you (dig up another fossil) place a cup between the 2. OMG! wigs the creationist, there are 2 gaps that need to be explaned. So you place 2 more cups in the gaps between the first 2 cups and the 3rd cup. OMG! wigs the creationist, there are now 4 gaps that need to be explained. So you put cups between each pair of cups, and so on, until there are an infinite number of cups on the table and they are still wigging about the gaps between the cups.


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 9:57 pm

I just read (fairly quickly) over the draft of the new curriculum proposal (for biology) for the state of Georgia. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been (e.g., it didn’t strike me as bad as some of the changes Kansas tried to make a few years back), but I haven’t looked at the current curriculum proposal to know how it compares.

I was bothered by a lack of importance given to the idea of macro-evolution (and the evidence for thinking that all life on earth was related and descended from a common ancestor). I’d also be troubled if, as atlantan suggests above, the current proposal is better in this regard….


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 9:59 pm

Oh yeah, and what Ophelia B. said too…


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 10:07 pm

OK, Ok, I know this probably moot since I hope they’ll have enough sense not to follow through on this… but one more issue:

“Biological changes over time” seems like a really bad alternative for ‘evolution’. It would be one thing if they just wanted to use a synonym, as some commentators above suggested, like “change in gene frequencies over time”. But “biological changes” is horribly vague, and includes all kinds of stuff that we don’t normally think are evolutionary changes:

example: I’m getting fatter. Isn’t that a biological change? Indeed, whole populations of people can get fatter or taller because of changes in diet without there being changes in gene frequencies (computed per capita). Seems like it might be useful to keep these changes distinct from evolutionary ones, where there is actually change in gene frequency…


Smokey 01.30.04 at 10:38 pm

Chris Stephens,

I’m not sure I understand your objection. I didn’t say that I think that evolution and natural selection are one and the same, I meant that I think they are equivalent terms for the purposes of a school curriculum. This is as much a political as a scientific matter, and the meaning of evolution which is politically objectionable is clearly that meaning which is equivalent to “descent with modification by natural selection”. When we talk about teaching “evolution” in school, that is what we mean, no? I think it is less critical that students come out of high school cognizant of the relative importance of drift and founder effect, or the difference between allopatric and sympatric speciation, than that they understand the basic mechanism of selection, i.e. “evolution”. I’m sorry if my careless use of language has offended your sensibilities.


Chris Stephens 01.30.04 at 10:57 pm

Hi Smokey,

Oh, I didn’t mean to sound offended. I’m not. It is just common to confuse two different claims (claims that creationists, for instance, sometimes mix up), and I thought it was worth emphasizing why they’re different.

At any rate, let me try again. It is one thing to say that all (or almost all, we don’t have to quibble about that for the moment) life on earth is related – and that we all evolved from a common ancestor. Notice, right away, that is something that (many? most?) creationists will object to. They don’t think we have a common evolutionary ancestor with say, chimps or dogs. But the evidence indicates we do. Notice, I haven’t yet mentioned the primary mechanism of such change (natural selection).

I’m saying that it is important to understand the difference between natural selection and evolution. That seems to me something people should be able to get in high school biology.

Creationists often confuse disagreement amongst biologists (e.g., Gould v. Dawkins) about natural selection as evidence that there’s disagreement about the tree of life hypothesis – that all life on earth is related. That is why I think it is important in this context.

So again, if you had said that the primary mechanism of evolution (change in gene frequencies) is natural selection, that would be fine.

But you seem to be saying something else.. Once again, in your reply, you seem to be saying (near the end) that evolution is a mechanism of selection – but that gets things backwards, though maybe we’re just having a terminological dispute here…. If so, fine.


bob mcmanus 01.30.04 at 11:25 pm

For you evolutionists: (I am one)

“All the berries died, so the finches grew different beaks and survived by eating nuts.”


“If greenhouse gases get too strong, humans can evolve and change to breathing CO2.”

My complaint is the way evolution is described, or the examples it uses, underemphasizes how many times it fails. And the radical nature of the science.

The vast majority of species do not adapt, and become extinct. And that is the reality of evolution.


robin green 01.30.04 at 11:34 pm

The “Texas Freedom Network” – and anyone who believe in freedom – should be against curriculums imposed by the state, not for it.

There is certainly value in having a recommended curriculum drawn up by educational experts. But parents – and, when they are old enough, students – should together have the ultimate say in what is taught, and should be able to exercise this right by moving between schools and by voting on school curricula (the libertarian way and the democratic way, respectively). As neither myself nor my parents saw any point in me studying woodwork or metalwork at school, I should not have had to study it.

You might say that it is child abuse to restrain a child from knowing about certain topics, and thus a state-imposed curriculum is warranted to protect children from ignorance and the resulting likelihood of poverty. But this is misperceiving the issue. Refraining from imposing learning on a child does not equate to denying that child information. The child is still free to seek out that information themselves, and not-for-profit organisations and television companies, for example, are still free to put out educational materials if they feel children are lacking knowledge or understanding of certain subjects.

In this respect, I find myself far more libertarian than most people, even, I suspect, most so-called “libertarians”. (Hardline capitalist libertarians think that, like with everything else, those with the most money should have the most choice in education. I think that that freedom should be available equally to all families.)


Kevin 01.31.04 at 12:11 am

I’ve got to disagree with you, Robin. Parents and school board members are a valuable tool for keeping public education grounded and tailored to fit particular communities, but when it comes to science, the vast majority of parents and administrators just don’t know enough to make good decisions. Science isn’t like literature or History. It’s more analogous to math, and though there are pockets of debate within scientific disciplines (just like mathematics), they are utterly dwarfed by the huge areas of consensus. You just can’t delegate via committee of laypersons which particular tenets are worthy of teaching. Why? Because they haven’t had enough training to really understand how science works and what the best ways to teach it are. Just as we wouldn’t dictate what to teach medical or law students based on the suggestions of non-medically non-legally trained individuals… we can’t do that for science education in public schools.

If we can agree that the best science education for children is that which gives them the most effective methods and substantive courses, then we must advocate programs based on good science. How do we achieve that? We ask the experts.

You claim that if programs are lacking something, children can seek out the information elsewhere, but the same is true for the “alternatives” to evolution not recognized by mainstream science. As you say, it’s no abuse to ask that a child get their Creationist/ID information from their local church or bookstore. So why teach creationism/ID in the classroom just because some people have religious objections to it? If some non-heliocentrists or astrologists objected to the astronomy being taught, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell them “tough luck.” So, we say tough luck to the creationists, too.


Kevin 01.31.04 at 12:19 am

That’s odd. That is not my webpage in the link thingy up there. Hmm.


clew 01.31.04 at 12:37 am

I have a different difference with your argument, Robin. I agree that having to go to school, one way or another, limits the liberty of a child; but a decent curriculum completely justifies that, in my view, by increasing the liberty of the adult the child is going to become.

I have known a few people whose educations were so cramped by their parents’ beliefs that they had a terrible time catching up with their peers, necessary to get jobs and get away from those same parents. So I think there’s both a libertarian and a social interest in making sure that kids are taught enough to make informed and free choices when they grow up.

What that “enough” is will change all the time.


liberal 01.31.04 at 4:30 am

Chris Stephens wrote, I’m saying that it is important to understand the difference between natural selection and evolution. That seems to me something people should be able to get in high school biology.

Amen! The conflation of evolution with natural selection is extremely annoying.

And you’re absolutely right — a lot of the evangelical nutters think evolution per se is objectionable — “I’m not descended from an ape.”


msg 01.31.04 at 7:37 am

The ban on the teaching of “evolution” in Tennessee, scene of the original Scopes “Monkey” Trial, was lifted in 1967.
35 years later a large and diverse group of academically-trained intellectuals are snickering and patting themselves on the back at the antics of a bunch of silly “creationists” stripping the curricula of Georgian schools of that same teaching.
There is a tone on what is purportedly the side of the enlightened here that is woefully infantile, and an eagerness to dissect minutiae that borders on the escapist.
Creationists, or fundamentalists, or what have you, are not being silly, and they are not mistaken in an intellectual sense. They are fighting for their lives, using whatever means they have at hand.
These people not only have the ear of the President of the United States, it would appear they have his soul.
You laugh at them at your peril.


Mr Spectator 01.31.04 at 3:06 pm


Sorry, mild irony. I’ll get me coat.


tristero 01.31.04 at 3:47 pm

To argue the merits of biological facts about the origin of species with fundamentalist “Christians” is a waste of breath, for Darwin and evolution isn’t the issue and never was. Rather IDiocy and creationism are merely disguised attempts to foist a bleak and oppressive moralistic agenda on the rest of us.


Mercado 01.31.04 at 4:54 pm

The proposed guidelines don’t merely substitute a weasel word for “evolution”. The central concepts of evolution are omitted. See

“Georgia copied almost all the biology standards developed by the American Association for the Advancement for Science. These sections related to evolution were left out of the state’s proposed curriculum: …”


witheld 01.31.04 at 7:45 pm

Yet another anecdote that argues for allowing consumers of public education to vote with their feet. We wouldn’t put up with such nonsense in tertiary education; why do we put up with it in K-12? Progressives should wake up. School choice — combined with equitable per pupil funding and characterized by true portability — could be a slame dunk issue for the Left.


Alan K. Henderson 02.03.04 at 6:25 am

Robin is right. We have a First Amendment that bars the government from controlling the flow of information through the press to the public at large. Allowing said government to control the flow of information through the schools goes against the philosophy undergirding press freedoms. The State must not be allowed to arbitrate science.

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