The cause of creationism -- a theory that supports a literal reading of the Bible's account of creation -- has been set back. Five textbook publishers have agreed to revise their junior high school textbooks to meet a California requirement for more emphasis on evolution. Late last week, California's state school board rejected every series of seventh- and eighth-grade science texts offered by publishers for approval. The key reason: skimpy treatment of the theory of evolution.
The move may set a national pattern. California public schools are the nation's largest textbook market, so national publishers are likely to gear their texts to the California standards. California school districts can only receive state money to purchase texts that the state board approves.
Bob Ritzheimer, West Coast representative of Scott, Foresman & Co., said minor revisions to win approval from California are routine, but that the changes sought in the evolution materials are precedent-setting.
``It's routinely done . . . to make sure you have balance of [sex roles], an ethnic balance, and that sort of thing,'' Mr. Ritzheimer said. ``When it comes to educational content, [revisions] in the past for the most part have been a picture here, a date there, something of that sort -- not rewriting of this extent.''
For California school superintendent Bill Honig, the move was a first step toward better textbooks in all subjects. ``This is part and parcel of education reform and higher standards,'' he says. ``You can't teach modern biology without evolution being pervasive throughout.''
``There's a tendency with the textbook publishers to pull back whenever there's a controversy,'' according to Mr. Honig. In his view, the interest groups -- of whatever philosophical stripe -- that make such demands on publishers will sway them unless educators demand higher standards of quality.
All this chagrins creationists, who are waging an increasingly active battle against the evolution theory being part of school curriculum. Both sides feel the evolutionists have gained ground in the past couple years.
Both Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws mandating that schools teach evolution and ``scientific creationism'' as alternative theories. The Arkansas law was struck down in federal court in 1981 as a violation of the separation of church and state. A similar Louisiana law was struck down only this summer, for much the same reason. The Louisiana case is undergoing its second appeal.
In Texas last year, the state school board reversed a decade-old rule requiring that evolution be taught as one theory among others.
In Virginia this spring, the state school board discussed its concern with publishers over bowdlerized versions of literary classics.
Creationists, says Wayne Moyer, a consultant on biology texts for People for the American Way, a group formed to counteract the religious right, ``have not done well at the national level, and even worse at the state level.'' But their pressure on local school districts around the country reached a high point at the end of school last spring, he notes.
``What we would recommend is not soft-pedaling evolution, but teaching both fairly,'' says Duane Gish, vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego.
Evolution implies that man is an animal, says Tim LaHaye, evangelical author and Christian fundamentalist activist. ``With evolution as the only model, there is no motivating force to communicate moral and character values.''
Proponents of creation science say it is based on scientific evidence, primarily the fossil record, and not on religious assumptions. But it has important religious implications for those who read the Biblical account of creation literally.
The scientific establishment widely rejects creationism as a sound or well-founded scientific theory. Thus the courts have often found it more a religious doctrine than a scientific theory.
Nonetheless, textbooks have been dealing with evolution ever more sparingly over the past decade, according to Joseph D. McInerney, director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. ``I hope we see that starting to reverse now,'' he says.