Texas: Ken Mercer Confirms “Weaknesses” are Old-School Religious Antievolution Arguments

Texas State Board of Education Member Ken Mercer has an op-ed piece in the San Antonio Express-News. You may recall Mercer from his advocacy of various “weaknesses” taken from the religious antievolution ensemble of arguments at a hearing on November 19th. The opinion piece by Mercer simply confirms that Mercer doesn’t have a grasp of the topic and relies on the religious antievolution literature as his source for commentary on the field of evolutionary science.

By Ken Mercer –

Former state Rep. Ken Mercer is an elected member of the State Board of Education.

I want to present the other side of the State Board of Education’s debate on teaching scientific strengths and “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory in future textbooks.

The Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an ultra-liberal advocacy group, funded and published the research study quoted by the Express-News.

Using political “red herrings,” TFN testifiers incorrectly implied teaching scientific weaknesses is a new requirement. They argued that allowing discussion of weaknesses would lead to teaching religion and subsequent litigation.

The fact is Texas has allowed teaching scientific weaknesses in science textbooks for the last 20 years. In that period of time, not one lawsuit was filed; and for the record, the teaching of creationism and intelligent design is not found in any current textbook adopted by the State of Texas.

Thanks in large part to the activism of TFN, and no thanks due to Mercer, who in 2005 was a fully committed advocate of explicit “intelligent design” creationism. Mercer’s commitment to religious antievolution has not wavered, he has simply gotten more nuanced at obfuscating that basic fact.

The argument against the “strengths and weaknesses” language is not dependent on how it originated nor how long it may have been on the Texas books, thus the “red herring” being served is from fisherman Ken Mercer.

TFN’s real agenda may be illustrated in this consistent, three-fold testimony to the State Board of Education: (1) Evolution is a fact; (2) there are no weaknesses to that theory; and (3) students are “unqualified” to ask questions.

Is evolution a fact? Most people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as “micro” evolution,” small changes that are clearly visible. We see this in new vaccines and new strains of flu. You can witness evidence of microevolution downtown in any city via the thousands of varieties of stray dogs and cats.

Why “people of faith”? That’s odd phrasing for making the case that the only thing on the table is differing scientific conclusions.

Also, you’ll see a pattern of talk commonly, that a religious antievolutionist has no problem with accepting “microevolution” … right up until the time when a well-documented example of within-species change is explicated in a textbook. Then they seem to have issues anyway.

The controversial “macro” evolution was commonly understood as those major changes that could occur if one species jumped to another. For example, have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat? The most famous example of macroevolution is the Darwinian “man from an ancestral primate.”

Species “jumping” to another? That’s saltationism. That’s not what biologists consider the most common mode of speciation. However, it should be noted that even saltational speciation has been observed to happen, and in fact can be induced in a variety of ways. Many lineages of plants can be induced to produce autopolyploid daughter species by application of colchicine. Blast overpressure can do the same for some fish lineages. Hybridization also provides new species in saltational fashion. Polyploidy separates Hyla chrysoscelis from the daughter species Hyla versicolor.

As for the famous example, human evolution is likely the core bugbear of religious antievolution. Various antievolutionists have insisted that what evolutionary science sees as a lineage of primates and hominids leading to Homo sapiens are instead a group of fossils that are “clearly human” on the one hand and “clearly non-human” on the other. Amusingly, the antievolutionists don’t agree on which group the various fossils “clearly” belong. The only thing that antievolutionist confusion on the matter demonstrates is that trying to dichotomize a fossil transition inevitably leads to such a situation.

Hopefully Mercer was not trying to deny that humans are primates, something even Linneaus recognized.

Realizing the weakness in macroevolution, Darwinists changed the meaning. Whatever their new definition, where is the evidence for one species changing to another?

Mercer is ignorant of the history of the term, apparently. It isn’t the biologists who have tried to alter the usage.

And there is evidence of observed speciation, plus a copious literature detailing inferred recent and incipient speciation events. Not that Ken Mercer wants kids to hear about that, apparently.

This elevation of “macroevolution” as a “problem” for evolutionary science is old school creationism. It goes way back in the movement.

Are there weaknesses to the theory of evolution? I asked the testifiers at the SBOE meeting about Dr. Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, which appeared in science textbooks for almost 100 years. His drawings implied that a fish, salamander, turtle, pig, etc. — each had almost the identical embryology of a human.

When I redirected the question, the testifiers admitted that Darwinist Haeckel was a fraud and that his “research” should never have appeared in textbooks. But it did.

Mercer goes a bit overboard here. People acknowledge that some illustrations that Haeckel drew were inaccurate. That doesn’t support the broad statement that “Haeckel was a fraud”. It does mean that textbooks should use the illustrations in a cautionary fashion, as several publishers do, or replace them with accurate illustrations or photos, as other publishers have done. The basic argument that embryology supports evolutionary descent is solid, despite Mercer’s crusade against Haeckel.

Fulminating against Haeckel is also old school creationism.

The famous “missing link,” the Piltdown man, survived scientific method and peer review for almost 40 years. Finally someone was allowed to ask a question and found a weakness. This missing link was really the jawbone of an orangutan fused to a human skull. British Broadcasting called this the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century.

There was a mention of Piltdown Man at the Scopes trial, where an expert described it and considered it anomalous, placing no special weight on it. Other than a local group of supporters, it was considered marginal or suspect from the outset. The discovery of the fraud was not due to religious antievolutionists denying things left and right, it was instead due to scientists reviewing the evidence of the entire field. From the FAQ:

In July 1953 an international congress of paleontologists, under the auspices of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was held in London. The world’s fossil men were put up, admired and set down again. But, according to Dr. J.S. Weiner, Piltdown man got barely a mention. He did not fit in. He was a piece of the jig-saw puzzle; the right colour but the wrong shape. It was at the congress that the possibility of fraud dawned on Weiner. Once the possibility had raised it was easy to establish that the finds were a fraud.

Piltdown Man was not a shining moment for science, to be sure. Neither is it a reason to indoctrinate students in the notion that science cannot figure things out, which is the clear import of the religious antievolution use of the incident.

The third part of the liberal agenda is most troubling. How can anyone state that students are “unqualified” to ask questions?

I think that what should be noted is that there is a difference between the notion that students can and should interrogate an instructor to better learn the material at hand and the notion that students will be able to handily overturn a scientific theory with a few questions. It is the latter canard that should be the target of criticism. A teacher should be prepared, for example, to briefly tell a student why “the Piltdown Man fraud” does not impeach evolutionary science. A teacher should not give the impression that such a question forms a legitimate “weakness” of science.

I consistently argued for freedom of speech and academic freedom. The opposition publicly argued against these freedoms.

No, Ken, you didn’t argue for either of those. You argued for allowing the inclusion of religious antievolution arguments in the science classroom and acting as though the phrases “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” would obscure that fact. You were confused about who obtains the privilege of academic freedom; where academic freedom is discussed, it is about the teachers and not the students.

In the 19th century, William Wilberforce, the focus of the recent biographical movie “Amazing Grace,” argued against the intellectual elite of Great Britain. He is credited with ending the racist English nightmare known as the “Black Slave Trade.”

So? Charles Darwin was also a noted abolitionist.

History is not kind to Darwinian evolutionists who push their theory as truth, no weaknesses and no questions allowed. In this 21st Century, scientific research that opposes academic freedom will never pass any “smell test.”

As many people testifying before the Texas SBOE stated, there’s no problem with telling students about current open research questions and other things that are descriptive of the state of the field. But there is a difference between those and old bogus religious antievolution arguments that folks like Ken Mercer simply cannot bring themselves to see.

I stand for students who will always ask questions and search for truth.

Really? Does that apply to students in health education who ask critical questions about the failures of “abstinence only” sex education? Somehow, I doubt it.

An agenda that opposes both freedom of speech and academic freedom is unpatriotic, un-American, and unscientific.

As others have noted, “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” aren’t going to protect teachers who insist on bringing in the religious antievolution ensemble of arguments into the classroom. Telling lies to students serves no secular purpose, nor any patriotic, American, or scientific purpose. Opposing people like Ken Mercer, who wish to propagate their scientific ignorance to another generation of students and impugn scientific integrity, is quite patriotic.

Update: Be sure to check out John “Catshark” Pieret’s takedown of Mercer’s op-ed.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

7 thoughts on “Texas: Ken Mercer Confirms “Weaknesses” are Old-School Religious Antievolution Arguments

  • 2008/12/16 at 11:58 am

    The argument against the “strengths and weaknesses” language is not dependent on how it originated nor how long it may have been on the Texas books, thus the “red herring” being served is from fisherman Ken Mercer.

    Don’t forget, as Don McLeroy, the creationist Chairman of the SBOE, himself discussed, the fact that the “strengths and weaknesses” language hasn’t resulted in creationism and intelligent design being found in any current textbook adopted by the State of Texas wasn’t for lack of trying:

    Back in November 2003, we finished about four or five months of adoption process for the high school biology textbooks in Texas. …

    But I want to tell you all the arguments made by all the intelligent design group, all the creationist intelligent design people, I can guarantee the other side heard exactly nothing. They did not hear one single fact, they were not swayed by one argument. It was just amazing. I mean all the, my fellow board members who were really not even the scientists in the group, they were not impressed by any of this. They said, “Oh well, it’s just two opinions. And there were only the four really conservative, orthodox Christians on the board were the only ones who were willing to stand up to the textbooks and say that they don’t present the weaknesses of evolution.

  • 2008/12/16 at 2:12 pm

    Isn’t it funny how proponants of “strengths and weaknessess” only ever want to talk about the “weaknessess”. It’s always fun to annoy them by asking them what the “strengths” are. No Ken Mercer, I don’t want to read the evolutionists, I want YOU to tell me. :)

    And how is Piltdown Man a weakness when it’s not part of the theory and hasn’t been for many decades? Same for Haeckel’s recapitulation ideas. These were explicitly rejected by the scientists themselves.

  • 2008/12/16 at 4:49 pm

    The only purpose of various of the religious antievolution “weaknesses” is to communicate to students that “scientists have been wrong in the past, maybe/definitely they are wrong now”.

    It is anti-science at its most basic.

  • 2008/12/19 at 9:52 pm

    Dave S. said…

    “Isn’t it funny how proponants of “strengths and weaknessess” only ever want to talk about the “weaknessess”.

    Isn’t it also funny proponents of evolution only ever want to teach students is the “strengths of evolution?”

    Now if you put both interests together, you get a balance of both strengths and weakness…

    Austringer said “The only purpose of various of the religious antievolution “weaknesses” is to communicate to students that “scientists have been wrong in the past, maybe/definitely they are wrong now”.

    “It is anti-science at its most basic.”

    So what you suggesting Austringer? Do you believe scientists are always right till proven wrong? Students do need critical thinking skills and students who do not believe in evolution shouldn’t be forced feed it either. That’s not to say, they can’t learn about it.

    “Strengths and weakness of evolution” undermines the dogma of the concept know as the majority of the scientific community which attacks or refutes a claim, then it’s not science. Rather, your putting the scientific community under the microscope.

  • 2008/12/20 at 1:30 am


    So what you suggesting Austringer? Do you believe scientists are always right till proven wrong? Students do need critical thinking skills and students who do not believe in evolution shouldn’t be forced feed it either. That’s not to say, they can’t learn about it.

    I’m suggesting that science taught as science is appropriate, and that teaching falsehoods to students, such as the religious antievolution literature is replete with, is well beyond inappropriate. There are open research questions in evolutionary science, but students whose time is wasted hearing the bogus “weaknesses” such as Mercer spouts above will never get a chance to learn about them. Students taught science responsibly will know that science delivers knowledge without certainty and that expecting “right or wrong” is the wrong outlook when evaluating science.

    There should be no affirmation of belief on the part of students; it is sufficient that students learn that evolutionary science is well-supported by the evidence. Students thinking critically should be able to spot bogosity like that espoused by Mercer a long ways off. They should not be told that such bogosity represents a legitimate alternative scientific viewpoint.

    I couldn’t parse the last paragraph. The only thing “strengths and weaknesses” does is undermine student appreciation of science and scientists, as the insistence on bringing up Piltdown Man fifty-five years after the last time anyone might have possibly used it as evidence against Darwin’s out-of-Africa hypothesis of human origins shows.

  • 2008/12/20 at 7:13 am


    I’m not the one using the “strengths and weaknessess” language. I believe you should teach the best science we know in science class. Or it should at the very least actually BE science. I was wondering why the people using that language never mention what the strengths are. In fact, they also avoid wherever possible mentioning the weaknessess too, since as we see, those amount to nothing more than the same tired untrue religiously motivated arguments we’ve seen for decades. It’s just another label. They only mention the word “strength” at all to sound ‘fair’.

    You can’t “balance” science with nonsense.

  • 2009/01/05 at 1:29 pm

    A recent experience has shown me that there is another attack upon evolution (and science in general) going on in Texas public schools.
    I recently visited a relative in rural Texas, east of Huntsville. While there, I went for a walk down a dirt road that passed a neat farm house, barn and horse paddock. A foal saw me and came to the fence, expecting a treat, no doubt. His owner, a 16-year old lad, followed thereafter and we commenced to talk about horses.
    I pointed to a scablike structure on the posterior side of the front legs (“chestnuts”) and asked what they were. The boy told me, and then added that he had been told (by his biology teacher, no less) that evolutionists claimed that the chestnuts were vestigial remains of what had been an extra pair of front legs!
    I tried gently to let him know that no scientists I had ever read had ever said anything so obviously silly.
    The young man angrily lectured me on several other silly things that evolutionists claimed, including the gem that bovine horns were vestigial wings.
    He was quite clear about these “facts” as they were given him by his 9th grade Biology teacher at the local public high school, a gentleman who also served as preacher in a local church.
    You may not be able to “balance” science with nonsense, but you can use nonsense to undermine any hope that science will take root in the mind of a child.

    Nelson Thompson
    Senior Aerospace Software Engineer

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