This time the Q&A for Barbara Cargill, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) chair, is administered by Texas Monthly. And just like her appearance before the Senate Nominations Committee last week (or before the Senate Education Committee the week before), I don’t think these answers are going to put to rest concern in the science community.
First off, Cargill has a hard time explaining what it was, exactly, she and the other creationists on the SBOE intended when they crammed buzzwords favored by “intelligent design” backers (terms such as “sudden appearance” and “stasis”) into the state’s public school science curriculum standards in 2009. And while Cargill is fond of touting her own credentials as a biology teacher, she’s a little fuzzy on how she would teach these concepts:
“Now remember, it’s been about 20 years since I’ve taught. I’m not sure some of these things had even been named yet. I’m pretty sure stasis is a little bit new. Oh, good heavenly days. Well, I can’t tell you exactly how I would teach them, but I would follow the curriculum standards. I would rely also on the textbook and on online sources. But I always like my students to have their textbook right there because of the activities in the book.”
The presence of “stasis” in the fossil record is not a new observation. However, the embrace of this term by the “intelligent design” movement IS a relatively new development (popularized in the two iconic ID books Of Pandas and People, published in 1989, and Icons of Evolution, published in 2002).
But a little later in the interview, Cargill remembers why stasis is so important:
“You know, look at the parts of the fossil record that have been filled in, look at the parts that scientists have filled in, look at the fossils that have been discovered from the Mesozoic era. Millions of years ago or whatever the time line is that they show. So let’s look at this fossil record and show what it says about evolution. Oh but look, right here, there may be a gap in time! Of course, seeing million of years is nothing in the geologic time frame, I’m sure. But what might be some scientific reasons why there were periods of time where there were no fossils, where fossils didn’t change, where they stayed mostly the same? So that’s what stasis is.”
Ah yes, the gaps. If Cargill intends these “gaps” to be an occasion for a balanced classroom discussion of evidence for and against the theory of punctuated equilibrium, then this might not be a cause for particular concern. But it seems much more likely she has the “little bit new” “intelligent design” argument in mind here, especially since she discusses it in the context of the old creationist sleight-of-hand involving micro- vs. macro-evolution:
“There are two parts to the theory of evolution. The first is microevolution, which is that all things change with time. I think we’re all in agreement with that. Macroevolution, I think, is where more of the debate comes in. That’s where the questions like ‘Where does life come from?’ and ‘What is the origin of life?’ crop up.”
(Ken Miller does a good job of dissecting this misleading and oft-repeated claim among evolution opponents.)
None of this is likely to matter in the short run. Cargill’s confirmation for another term as SBOE chair passed out of Senate Nominations Committee on Monday, and her confirmation is now pending before the full Senate. There does not seem to be a great swell of opposition in the Senate to her confirmation, perhaps because there are even more ominous possibilities for whom Gov. Rick Perry might choose to appoint in her place.
But with a once-a-decade adoption of new science textbooks looming at the SBOE this summer, the warning signs are there that Cargill is not inclined to allow evolution to go unchallenged on her watch.