RNCSE 19 (1)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Articles available online are listed below.

This issue also included the Statement on Evolution in Textbooks by authors of biology textbooks.

Stephen Meyer and Creation Week

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Stephen Meyer and Creation Week
Author(s): 
Dean Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Biology, Whitworth College
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
4–6
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Setting the Stage

Soon after coming to religiously-affiliated Whitworth College to teach microbiology and join an evolution-friendly biology department, I learned that we had a highly vocal creationist among us - a philosophy professor named Stephen Meyer. I had not previously encountered a creationist colleague, and since I do not delight nor excel in verbal skirmishes, I did not relish the prospect of dealing with this Meyer.

During my first 5 years at Whitworth I had only one meeting with Meyer - a chance encounter in the Science building stairwell that stretched to 45 frustrating minutes. I remember his describing Archaeopteryx as a "mere mosaic", definitely not a transitional form, and making the "no new phyla after the Cambrian explosion" argument. I was surprised that he was unfamiliar with the term neoteny and most of the molecular points I made. I was later re-united with his arguments by reading the creationist high school text Of Pandas and People. Meyer and I have since remained cordial, if distant, until "our" (or more accurately "his") recent Creation Week.

Creation Week: The Proposal

Creation Week grew out of a proposal by Meyer to schedule one or two fora (all-campus student assemblies) involving two off-campus speakers, one on Monday and the other on Friday; Meyer would select one speaker and the Biology Department the other. Meyer chose University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, author of several anti-evolution books. The Biology Department chose Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who had successfully debated Johnson on William F Buckley's Firing Line program. Months later, the week before Creation Week, we had the unpleasant surprise of learning that, in addition to Johnson, Meyer had scheduled (without our knowledge) 4 other "intelligent design" (ID) speakers resulting in 8 events featuring creationists, and only 2 with evolutionists. Further, the brochure titled the event "Detecting Design in Creation". Consequently, members of the Biology Department were furious both because we had not been consulted about these four additional creationist presenters and because we were concerned that students and others would conclude that this bias reflected an official institutional position.

On to Creation Week!

Johnson's lecture began Creation Week on November 16, 1998. Johnson apparently predicted the nature of his audience well; most students seemed to respond enthusiastically to his energetic, engaging delivery and swallowed his bogus strawmen without hesitation (a student told me later that he still resented the way evolution had been taught in high school, a complaint that must have some validity). Some, my students among them, resented Johnson's distortions and oversimplifications.

Johnson preached a view of science as a struggle between two opposing sides - one having the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads, the other being blinded by a naturalistic world view which excludes the possibility of God. He characterized all Christian Darwinists as hopelessly indoctrinated into an extreme version of materialism. He says they are enslaved by a Darwinian power structure which smites dissidents with loss of funding and reputation, and they are thus unable to think objectively!

Although feeling a bit nauseated at this point, I continued to take notes. Johnson built a strawman version of neodarwinism, characterizing it as merely a deduction based on materialistic assumptions with no need of evidence beyond what is necessary to persuade (naive) students. To underline his contention that there exists no middle ground between a (his) proper Christian rejection of evolution and an atheistic acceptance of it, he compared the mindless forces of natural selection to John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word", not, "In the beginning were the particles, and then you get human beings" (this got a big laugh).

After stating that "anyone can learn enough to make up their minds about evolution in a few days", Johnson nonetheless demurred "I can't run through too much evidence, there is not enough time, and I don't want to bore you". His one example without which evolution utterly collapses was the "peppered moth story". Big deal, he said, no new structures or increased diversity is involved. Further, Johnson charged that the data were fraudulent, the whole thing is a hoax, based on a report in a recent (uncited) issue of Nature: "The moths don't even sit on tree trunks; they were put there by scientists!"

By this time, I was thinking that if this was the best Meyer could come up with, the ID movement was in real trouble. Perhaps I was witnessing a Darwinian principle: Johnson did not have to be "perfect", he just had to be "good enough" (to fool his naive audiences). Johnson ended his talk with two opinions: "Scientists know deep down they can't win" and "It ain't the things you don't know that will hurt you; it's the things you do know that ain't so." In a presentation later in the week, he urged his audience "not to be deceived" by what Miller would tell them. Afterwards, an emeritus Whitworth biology professor told me that he was appalled by such unabashed ideological merchandizing, feeling it was a singular disservice to our students.

During the week Meyer and Johnson breakfasted with the Deans of Whitworth College and neighboring Gonzaga University (where Johnson also spoke) and made a pitch for the hiring of ID faculty in biology departments. These colonizers would in effect be "wedges", in a good position to influence subsequent recruitment of like-minded biologists. While I can imagine the frustration experienced by these IDers at their failure to be taken seriously by the scientific community, they seem to be overlooking the way science works: the theory with the greatest explanatory power and which provides the most fruitful research strategy is (provisionally) accepted. The shortcomings of ID theory are substantial, and it hasn't yet earned a place in academia. To "wedge" ID into the universities before it has earned a place is not only premature, it's cocky.

The next day Scott Minnick from the University of Idaho in Moscow gave a science seminar (with 5-10 times the normal audience size, dominated by first-timer, off-campus folk). In a polished, well-illustrated presentation, Minnick described the structure, assembly and genetic control of the bacterial flagellum. Minnick's presentation was as detailed and comprehensive as seminars I have attended at MIT. However, he stressed trivial details, such as the high rotation rate of the flagellum, failing to mention that such high rates are not so extraordinary given the small scale of the structure, and was rewarded by ooh and ahs; one person even asked him, awestruck, to repeat the 30 000 rpm figure. (I suspect the fact that a bacterium stops in the space of an angstrom would have seemed equally impressive to this audience.) He concluded his straightforward lecture by saying simply "this is too complex and intricate to have resulted from natural processes".

When I asked Minnick why he failed to mention the similar spinning mechanism of the enzyme Aptness, he had no answer. He also failed to see the relevance of the structural similarity and apparent homology of a bacterial cell division protein (FtsZ, which links up into rings) and a eukaryotic cell division protein (tubulin, which also links up into rings, sheets and tubules). However, earlier I had been able to force Meyer to concede that this example offers an instance of a protein developing a novel function, since tubulin is involved in many other activities besides cell division.

Immediately after this seminar, the two sides (Johnson, Meyer and Minnick vs the Biology Department 4 plus Dean Howard Stein) sat down to chat over coffee and brownies. After 2 hours of talking past each other, the only point of agreement we reached concerned the details of how a design-oriented science "freed from the chains of naturalistic blinders" would improve its productivity. After repeatedly being asked the question, Minnick finally admitted that his own scientific strategy would be the same regardless of his taking a Darwinian or anti-Darwinian perspective. Johnson and Meyer also made a guest appearance in an evening science and society "Core" course (a required non-major course), an event that again brought in twice as many off-campus visitors as students.

Finally, Friday brought evolutionist Kenneth Miller to the podium; he presented a whirlwind slide-illustrated talk that touched on 4 basic questions: "Has life remained constant? If not, how has life changed? How long have humans been on earth?" And, "Can you approach such questions by science?"

Miller described 2 ways that creationists attack evolution: First, some say that it's all wrong (the ICR approach). In dealing with the concepts of "young earth" and "flood geology" Miller used some clever tactics, 3 of which I will describe. First, the complete list of radioactive nuclides was examined, revealing that only those elements with a half life of less than 80 million years are present on earth, implying an age much older than 6000 years. Second, given that a young earth explanation for earth's huge sedimentary rock deposits is a global flood that sorted dead animals according to their sinking rates (that is, according to Morris of the ICR, spherical, streamlined objects such as sea urchins sink to the deeper strata), how does one explain the fact that sea urchin fossils are most abundant in the most shallow strata? (After all, sea urchins are not known for their ability to run to higher ground.) Finally, Miller proposed that large Jurassic coprolites (fossilized dinosaur dung) provide a potentially useful test of young earth assumptions, since these assumptions would imply that the remains of "modern" looking mammals such as rabbits might be embedded within the coprolites.

Miller then suggested that the second creationist approach is to turn the tables and describe Darwinian evolution itself as a creation myth and pronounce it to be scientifically invalid, having a flawed methodology and a materialistic bias. This is Phillip Johnson's strategy. Miller challenged the notion that all "types" of creatures were independently created by documenting some striking transitional forms, including some freshwater Mekong River snails, the horse tree (noting that, lacking the context of the tree, the small browser that was once called Eohippus would not be recognized as a horse at all), and the famous rhipidistian lobe-fin fish/amphibian transition. Johnson had written that Darwin himself would have been disappointed if the soft body parts of an ancient amphibian could be examined. In fact, such a fossil has been found, revealing internal fish-like gills unlike those found in modern amphibians. Finally, Miller displayed a set of data showing the gradual, seamless increase in an unidentified organismal trait over time, then revealed the trait: cranial capacity from Australopithecines to species within the genus Homo.

In conclusion, after alluding to recent, cited studies that indicate the actual rate of beneficial mutations in bacteria is sometimes 107 times greater than would be needed to account for the general time course of fossil change, Miller stated his take on Richard Dawkins, the arch-enemy of creationists. Miller (like myself) greatly respects and enjoys Dawkins's thinking on evolution, but criticizes him for his second agenda, actually an extra-scientific conclusion: that the cosmos is necessarily a place of "blind pitiless indifference", devoid of God. According to Miller, Dawkins and the creationists both make the same mistake: they limit God (or the concept of a deity) to a being who must, to use the pool table allusion, hit each ball into the pocket, rather than one that can clear the table with one shot. In other words, to use Miller's phrase, "they think too little of God". Then Miller surprised many in the audience by revealing his Christian, Catholic faith, and his belief that God had enabled a process of evolution that ultimately resulted in an organism, endowed with free will and free choice, that could know and serve God.

The final event was "Homology in Biology: Common Descent or Uncommonly Designed?", a talk on molecular development by Jonathan Wells, who has PhDs in molecular biology and religion. He explored the expression of apparently homologous homeobox genes (master control genes that trigger the expression of many other genes during embryonic development), concluding that since the targets of such genes differ (a mouse gene controls brain formation while the equivalent fly gene influences the head) they cannot be used as evidence for common descent. As a parting shot, I asked him how he interpreted the interchangeable nature of two homeobox genes that control eye development: eyeless in fruit flies and pax-6 in mice. Wells, predictably, gave no ground; he saw no evidence of common descent in this admittedly remarkable experiment.

Despite my fear that students would be misled and confused by Johnson and the lopsided schedule of the week, it appeared that at least some students were offended by the skewed approach. The high point of the week was an informal Q and A session between Miller and an overflow classroom on Friday afternoon. The questions were respectful but bold and sincere; the answers were presented both eloquently and compassionately. Fortunately, Miller was able to describe the recent whale transitional discoveries (assisted, ironically, by an overhead transparency provided by a creationist speaker, since the room was too bright for Miller's whale slides) and elaborate on how he personally manages the perilous balance of faith and science. I could not have imagined a better, more effective person than Miller to represent evolution on the Whitworth campus; students responded with great appreciation of him, and at least he got the last word.

Still, Creation Week may have done more harm then good, in that it suggested to the local news media that Whitworth is a refuge for anti-evolutionary ideologues. Such a reputation, in my opinion, is not in consonance with the college motto: "An education of the heart and mind" and may ultimately cost the Biology Department its best recruitment prospects, be they students or staff.

Meyer has undoubtedly benefited personally from being perceived in the eyes of certain creationist patrons (including a benefactor of Whitworth College) as a leader who courageously spearheaded a confrontation with his Darwinian opponents. As a result the forum increased the visibility and credibility of the ID movement in the minds of some undecided students. This is in keeping with Meyer's directorship of the "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture". CRSC is a part of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a right-wing think tank, and seeks the "overthrow of materialism" - that philosophy of "Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud" that "undermined personal responsibility", portrayed humans as "animals or machines", and "spawned a virulent strain of utopianism" and "coercive government programs" (). Clearly, Meyer's intelligent design agenda appears to be just a tip of a much larger iceberg.

About the Author(s): 
Dean M Jacobson
Assistant Professor of Biology
Whitworth College
Spokane WA 99251
djacobson@whitworth.edu

NCSE Members Receive 'Friend of Darwin' Awards

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
NCSE Members Receive 'Friend of Darwin' Awards
Author(s): 
Molleen Matsumura
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
8–9
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

In 1994, NCSE established two special awards: the "Huxley Award" for contributions to evolution education was named after Thomas H. Huxley, who advocated public education as ardently as he supported the theory of evolution; the "Friend of Darwin" award honors NCSE members for outstanding effort to support NCSE and its goals. NCSE's Board of Directors recognized four "Friends of Darwin" in 1998: Barbara Forrest (see RNCSE 17:6[31]), Jere Lipps, Betty McCollister, and Richard Trott.

Jere Lipps, Professor of Integrative Biology and past Director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, is always on the alert for ways to improve the public understanding of science. Under his direction the Museum he directs grew not only as a leading research institution, but as a leader in outreach to science teachers and the public. For example, in 1991, when the Blackhawk Quarry site was donated to the Museum, Lipps helped create a "community project" in which people from the San Francisco Bay Area could participate in the excavation of specimens. The Museum regularly conducts teacher workshops and lecture series for the surrounding community, and has created a World Wide Web site that is a fine resource for teaching about evolution.

Lipps also works hard to assure that the media accurately present science, especially evolution. Among his many activities in this area, he works with the Council for Media Integrity to encourage accountability among both news and entertainment broadcasters, and serves on the Paleontological Society's panel of consultants who make themselves available to provide reporters with background information on paleontology.

Betty McCollister was actively defending evolution education even before the founding of NCSE. Long-time members will recall that NCSE was founded as an umbrella organization by autonomous "Committees of Correspondence" working to oppose antievolution legislation in a number of states. McCollister was a member of the Iowa Committee of Correspondence, serving as President in 1988. At that time she was in the midst of a 3 year effort to collect and edit position statements by educational, scientific, and religious organizations supporting evolution education; thanks to her, a major accomplishment of NCSE's first year was the publication of the first edition of Voices for Evolution.

No task has been too grand or too tedious for Betty, who has participated in countless panel discussions of evolution and evolution-creation controversies, and written on the topic for a variety of publications including USA Weekend and her regular column in the Des Moines Register. In her years as a contributing editor of NCSE Reports, Creation/Evolution, and Reports of NCSE, she has spent hundreds of hours of painstaking proof-reading, and offered countless thoughtful suggestions, conscientiously representing the viewpoint of non-technical readers.

Richard Trott is one of those VIPs who works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure the show goes on. While he has contributed articles to NCSE publications and the Talk.Origins FAQ (http://www.talkorigins.org), he has never hesitated to share informally information he has gained from his research in creationist literature and his attendance at creationist lectures. Like Betty McCollister, Trott has devoted countless hours to proofreading NCSE Reports and Creation/Evolution, the predecessors of Reports of NCSE. (When you heard him exclaim, "Bring on the intravenous coffee!" you knew another issue would appear soon.) A computer scientist, Rich has also helped bring the defense of evolution to cyberspace, taking an active role in organizing the information collected at the Talk.Origins FAQ.

Still an undergraduate at Rutgers University when he joined NCSE, Trott recently moved to California and had hardly arrived when he visited NCSE's office looking for ways to help. He has donated hardware, software, and programming expertise so that we could add Macintosh computers to our office equipment, adding to our flexibility and improving our ability to work with graphic designers and printers on producing Reports of NCSE and other printed materials.

As NCSE Executive Director Eugenie C Scott has said, "NCSE depends heavily on its members for so much of the important work we do that the hard work and imagination contributed by Friends of Darwin are indispensable. This award is just a small part of our thanks."

Textbook Authors Join NCSE in Defending Evolution Education

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Textbook Authors Join NCSE in Defending Evolution Education
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
9–10
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On March 26, 1999, NCSE released a statement by 23 authors of science textbooks at a press conference held at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). These authors were responding to numerous incidents over the years, in which state or local school districts have censored or disclaimed evolution in textbooks or have decided not to adopt textbooks that included "too much" evolution (see for example, NCSE Reports 15[4]:10-11, 16[2]:1, 9, 16[3]:9, 16[3]:16, RNCSE 17[1]:5, 17[3]:8).

Below are NCSE Executive Director Eugenie C Scott's remarks at the conference, outlining the recent history of censorship of evolution in textbooks and describing the circumstances leading to issuance of the statement. The complete text of the statement and a list of its signers are on page 11.

Evolution has been under attack for several decades now. Neither the Scopes trial nor the Supreme Court anti-"equal time" law decision of 1987 has ended the assault on evolution in the classroom. Just as the Scopes Trial was precipitated by John Scopes' using a textbook to teach evolution, so today are textbooks still under attack for including an idea considered basic to modern science.

The attack upon evolution in textbooks has waxed and waned over time. After the Scopes trial, textbooks that included evolution tended not to be adopted and the subject was quietly excised from textbooks until, by 1930, it had virtually disappeared. It was brought back into textbooks during the mid-to-late 1960s as commercial publishers, inspired by the National Science Foundation-sponsored Biological Sciences Curriculum Study textbooks, began to include evolution again. By the mid-to-late 1970s commercial publishers found themselves again under pressure to drop or downplay evolution in textbooks, and many of them, once again, bowed to market pressure. Over 24 states had legislation introduced to require "equal time" for "creation science", and two states passed such legislation in the late 1970s.

Another anti-evolutionary pressure came from the state of Texas, which required that any book mentioning evolution contain a disclaimer to the effect that evolution was "theory only" — though cell theory, germ theory, and other theories were not so disclaimed. Evolution again began to become scarce in textbooks, or publishers would disclaim evolution as they did no other scientific theory with phrases like, "some scientists believe...". The age of the earth was downplayed in many books, with "long ago" and such euphemisms replacing previous, more specific statements about "millions of years ago".

Scientists and teachers protested this development, and in fact, in the late 1980s the state of California rejected all junior high life science books — because they didn't contain evolution. Simultaneously, Texas revised its directive to publishers and required that evolution be included in both geology and biology books. Publishers responded to these market forces by bringing evolution back into textbooks, and by 1995, when Texas next adopted textbooks, NCSE could honestly proclaim that "evolution is back in textbooks".

Those of us familiar with this controversy realize, however, that one cannot ever assume that the victory for sound education has been won. It is the case today that, even though the advisory National Science Education Standards and all state standards require that evolution be taught, there still exists considerable pressure on textbook publishers to downplay or disclaim evolution.

NCSE's records over the past couple of years show that textbooks are being rejected at the local level because they have "too much evolution". In another example, a school district asked the publishers of an elementary school book to remove a chapter discussing the evolution of the solar system. The superintendent of one district even glued together the pages of a textbook because it covered only the Big Bang, and didn't give equal time to Genesis; and in 1996, the state of Alabama required a disclaimer be pasted into the front of all biology books. This disclaimer presented erroneous information about evolution and also made the ubiquitous statement about evolution being "only a theory". This disclaimer in one form or another has metastasized into textbooks in several school districts, and was introduced (fortunately, unsuccessfully) as legislation in the state of Washington.

Last summer, a religious right organization sent to all school districts in Texas an analysis ranking biology textbooks according to how much or how little evolution they contained — and recommending the books with the least evolution be adopted.

Scientists dislike this trend; teachers dislike this trend; and textbook authors — who are teachers and scientists — dislike this trend. To publicize recent attacks on evolution in textbooks, NCSE coordinated an effort to have the authors of all the best-selling biology textbooks join in a statement condemning disclaimers and other efforts to downplay or diminish the coverage of evolution in textbooks. These authors are university scientists and master teachers. They have all made a point of emphasizing the importance of evolution in their books, and you can bet none of them wanted their books on a "soft on evolution" list!

The books these authors have written have been published by the largest textbook publishers in the country, including

Addison-Wesley
Benjamin Cummings
DC Heath
Garland
Glencoe
Holt, Rinehart
Kendall/Hunt
Prentice Hall
Southwestern
Worth

The textbook publication business is highly competitive. These authors and their publishers compete vigorously to write the most up-to-date and interesting books, and they compete for the highest sales, but when it comes to the importance of evolution in science education, they agree; and when it comes to defending good science from sectarian attacks, they cooperate.

This afternoon, we have several of these scholars and teachers here. I want to introduce some of these authors to you, and then we'll take questions.

[Note: Besides introducing several textbook authors, Scott distributed an information packet containing position statements by the National Science Teachers Association and the National Association of Biology Teachers. These have been reprinted in NCSE's book Voices for Evolution.
NCSE wishes to thank Richard Goldin for his extensive help with the Textbook Authors' Project.
]

Creationism in Schoolbooks

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Creationism in Schoolbooks: Where Do We Stand Now?
Author(s): 
William J Bennetta
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
16, 21–22
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
[Editor's note: A colleague recently asked Bill Bennetta for an update on the influence of creationism on schoolbooks. He sent a copy of his reply to us at NCSE, and we invited him to revise it for our readers. Bill is the editor and publisher of The Textbook Letter, and can be reached at textbook@earthlink.net.]

Let's start by reviewing some history. During the 1970s and 1980s, most of the high-school biology texts and middle-school life-science texts printed in this country offered a mangled form of "biology" that reflected decades of pressure from certain religious fundamentalist groups. Some publishers - for example, Addison-Wesley, DC Heath and Company, the Macmillan Publishing Company, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston - issued books that concealed the fact that modern biology is a coherent science unified by the central concept of organic evolution. The books said nothing of evolution or the history of life on Earth, or they buried those topics under mounds of details. If one looked for certain terms or concepts in evolution, they could often be found in glossaries, or "mentioned" in the text; so the publishers could claim that the topics were "covered". However, they gave no sense of the importance of evolution, and the entire topic could be easily avoided. This was convenient for school districts that preferred not to treat evolution, and for publishers that preferred not to publish alternate editions of the same coursebook.

In many cases, the schoolbook-writers went out of their way to teach students that scientific statements about the history of life were nothing more than speculations. For example, Heath Life Science (1984) depicted the ancient dinosaurs as mere figments in which "some scientists believe", and Scott, Foresman Life Science (1987) taught that no one knew whether ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs had really existed.

Some writers made vague allusions to evolution while replacing the word evolution with false synonyms, such as "development" (a completely different biological discipline) or "natural selection" (a mechanism of evolution) or even "environmental change" (which one normally associates with weather and climate). Others mentioned evolution by name, but they presented it as an eccentric "theory" left over from the 19th century which had no modern significance. They also taught that the word theory merely meant a belief, and they urged students to learn about "other theories" pertaining to the origins of organisms. The phrase "other theories" was, of course, a code-word for Bible stories. This led directly to the "two-model" approach of creation and evolution advanced in school districts by many creationists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Other school-book authors - such as certain contributors to Laidlaw's Experiences in Biology (1981) or Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Holt Science series (1986) - went even further. They rejected evolution entirely. They didn't mention the word, they didn't refer to the concept, and so they effectively excluded the biology of the 20th century.

In the late 1980s, however, the major schoolbook-publishers sensed a demand for biology textbooks and life-science textbooks that would present some real science. Since then, they have undertaken - with greater or lesser success - to produce lots of new books that include conspicuous passages about evolution and the evolutionary histories of important lineages. Some of today's biology books even tell students explicitly that evolution is biology's central organizing concept.

Against that background let us consider the situation that prevails today. It has three major aspects:

1. evolutionary content
2. contemporary evolutionary concepts
3. resistance to evolutionary ideas.

Evolutionary Content

If we look at the content of current books, we see that creationist influence has almost disappeared. Exceptions occur in Addison-Wesley Biology and the two Science Probe books issued by South-Western Educational Publishing. I described the case of Addison-Wesley Biology in The Textbook Letter, January-February 1997:
There are scientific theories, and there are "other theories". Scientific theories are explanatory principles that have been tested and confirmed. Each scientific theory is a structure of ideas, confirmed by preponderant evidence.... [It] explains a body of observations and thus explains some aspect of nature.

The "other theories" are Bible stories. The expression "other theories" is one of the [euphemisms] that creationists employ when they try to promote the teaching of biblical myths in science classes. They use it in lines like these: "If students learn about the evolution theory, they have to learn about other theories too," or "If schools don't teach other theories about the universe, they shouldn't teach any theories at all."

...Addison-Wesley Biology [is] a book that Addison-Wesley sells for use in high schools. In both the original version (1994) and the later version (1996), evolutionary biology is introduced in chapter 13. And in both versions, the material at the end of chapter 13 includes this "portfolio" exercise:
There are opponents to the scientific theory of evolution. Conduct library research on the various beliefs and on the evidence for other theories about the origin of life.
For sheer frugality, that's hard to beat. In a single short item, doubtless based on some creationist handout, the Addison-Wesley writers have done 3 of the creationists' favorite routines. They have conflated theories with mere "beliefs", as if those were equivalent. They have promoted one of the creationists' baffle-phrases - "other theories". And in keeping with the creationists' established practice, they have falsely equated "evolution" with "the origin of life".
In the Science Probe books: the writers do not acknowledge any modern interpretation of the fossil record or any genealogical connections among the organisms of different periods. One could easily gain the impression that each period's "characteristic collection of life forms" originated de novo. You may find interesting the reviews on The Textbook League's Web site.

At this point, the Addison-Wesley Biology and the Science Probe books are exceptions. The rule nowadays is that high-school biology books and middle-school life-science books are full of references to evolution, often accompanied by phylogenetic diagrams and other illustrations that purport to reflect information about evolution.

Contemporary Evolutionary Concepts

These books contain information about evolution - so far, so good. But the evolutionary "information" that the books provide is often bogus. It has been hurriedly cobbled together by writers who don't understand what they are trying to write about, and it is often erroneous, incomprehensible, and self-contradictory.

Some of the books are utterly bizarre: They are full of alleged "information" about evolution, yet they resolutely cling to the old practice of viewing the living world in terms of the pre-Darwinian, metaphysical notion of "nature's ladder". The writers are confused about basic concepts such as homology, convergence, and common ancestry. They know little about the physiology and metabolism of living organisms or about their evolution, so they often guess, and guess incorrectly. They think that all scientific methods are experimental, and that the history of life is a ladder toward increasing perfection.

Resistance to Evolutionary Ideas

Regardless of whether the information is right or wrong, books loaded with information about evolution pose a real problem for state agencies or local school boards that are controlled by creationists. So the creationists have counterattacked with ... stickers! That's right - stickers that are pasted into schoolbooks to tell the students that evolution is just a flimsy "theory" and that it shouldn't be taken seriously. An example is Alabama's disclaimer:
"This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans.

"No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact.

"The word "evolution" may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species. (White moths, for example, may "evolve" into gray moths.) This process is microevolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing to another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macroevolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things."

Mixed Success

So it appears that there are some gains to celebrate. Nearly all textbooks now attempt a straightforward treatment of evolution, and few attempt to avoid or hide it completely. On the other hand, because most of the textbook writers have not been adequately trained in evolutionary biology (and frequently not in other aspects of biology either), they misunderstand both the basic principles of evolution and the relationship of evolution to other fields of life and earth science. It will probably require another generation of textbooks - assuming that the industry actively solicits the contributions of scientists who are strongly trained in the field - to bring the treatment of this discipline up to some approximation of our present understanding of evolution. However, if educators (and citizens) demand such improvements, they will probably be made sooner.

Just What Do They Say, Dr Morris?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Just What Do They Say, Dr Morris?
Author(s): 
Troy Britain
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
22–23
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The March 1999 edition of Back to Genesis, written as usual by the President Emeritus of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Henry Morris, was titled "What They Say". As we have come to expect from such a title, it was yet another example of a creationist bashing evolutionists with their own words. Knowing that quotes of mainstream scientists given by creationists are not always exactly what they appear to be, I read the article with a wary eye. My skepticism was vindicated when I happened upon the following:
There are no evolutionary transitions fossilized anywhere, although billions of fossils are there still preserved in the rocks.

"One of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution has been the origin of major taxa, such as the tetrapods, birds, and whales, that had appeared too suddenly, without any obvious answers, over a comparatively short period of time."

Professor Carroll, an eminent Canadian paleontologist, is well aware of such highly publicized fossils as Archaeopteryx (the alleged half-reptile, half-bird) and the so-called walking whale, but he still has to acknowledge that birds and whales arose suddenly without obvious ancestors(Morris 1999: b).
What first made me suspicious about this was the past tense of the sentence ("had appeared") which Morris quoted. Second, I knew that the implication Morris was gleaning from the quote simply wasn't true, and given my understanding that Robert Carroll is a competent paleontologist, I suspected something might be wrong. So I went to look up the context. The text selected by Morris for quotation is indicated in italics.
Is macroevolution conceptually different than microevolution? The main driving forces are the same as at the species level: population growth, genetic variation, and behavioral plasticity. At both time scales, external factors of the biological and physical environment control the rate, scope, and direction of change.

One of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution has been the origin of major taxa, such as the tetrapods, birds, and whales, that had appeared to rise suddenly, without any obvious answers, over a comparatively short period of time. Increased knowledge of the fossil record has greatly increased our understanding of these and other transitions, and show that they do not necessarily require processes that differ from those known to occur at much lower taxonomic levels. To Simpson and others of his generation, higher categories were recognized by a combination of factors: morphological and adaptive distinction, a significant number of included taxa, and appreciable longevity. From examples considered in this text, it can be seen that adaptive change, morphological change, and radiation can be decoupled in that each may occur at a different time. We now see that the overall rate of evolution is not greatly faster during the origin of a group than it is within the ancestral or the descendant lineages, and with the discovery of intermediate forms, we see that they are not necessarily any more poorly represented in the fossil record than single lineages might be at other stages of evolution (Carroll 19997: 391).
So not only does the very next sentence in the paragraph contradict Morris's implication but a few sentences later Carroll specifically refers to the existence of intermediate forms and explicitly states that the evolution of higher taxa did not occur at a different rate than that of groups at lower taxonomic levels. Even if one were to disagree with Carroll about the facts of the matter it is clear from the context that Carroll is saying the very opposite of what Morris implied he was saying.

But what about being more specific? For example Morris refers specifically to Archaeopteryx and the evolution of birds. What does Carroll say about avian origins in the very book that Morris is quoting from above?
Despite the enormous gap in anatomy, physiology, and way of life between modern birds and the other long-recognized vertebrate classes, the fossil record provided singularly informative evidence of the origin of birds long before we understood the ancestry of tetrapods, amniotes, or mammals. Historically, the question of the origin of birds has concentrated on a single genus, Archaeopteryx from the Upper Jurassic, which appears as an almost ideal intermediate between "reptiles" (specifically dinosaurs) and birds....until recently little was known of either the ancestry of Archaeopteryx or of animals intermediate between this genus and essentially modern birds of the later Mesozoic. Within the past twenty years, a host of new discoveries have begun to fill both these gaps, outlining the accumulative evolution of avian characters over a period that spans approximately 40 million years, from the obligatory terrestrial dinosaurs to an essentially modern avian anatomy(Carroll 1997: 306-7)
And what about whales, which Morris also takes great pains to emphasize as a problem Carroll must admit to?
The transition between mesonychids and primitive but obligatorily aquatic whales is represented by a sequence of intermediate animals from the upper portion of the lower Eocene and the lower half of the middle Eocene of Pakistan, continuing into the later middle and upper Eocene of Egypt and southeastern United States (Fig. 12.20). This sequence extends over a period of 10-12 million years, beginning with riverine sediments, including primarily fossils of terrestrial mammals, through shallow coastal marine, to deep neritic deposits at the edge of the continental shelf. Several genera are recognized, showing the progressive reduction in the size of the appendicular skeleton, freeing the tail for aquatic locomotion, and a succession of modifications in the structure of the middle ear (Carroll 1997: 330).
Morris concludes his article saying, "most everything they [evolutionists] say...seems potentially something that can be used against them" (Morris 1999:c). Well, I suppose if one is willing to rip a scientist's words completely out of context and twist them to imply the exact opposite of their original intent, then Morris might be correct.

There is a further irony in that Morris includes a footnote to the above statement, which refers his readers to his recent book That Their Words May Be Used Against Them (1997). There, he says, one may find further quotes of the same nature almost (3000 of them) as those found in this article (Morris 1997: c). Considering the way in which the quoted sections misrepresent the intent of the works Morris cites, we would have to ask of what use such a tome would be to the serious seeker of knowledge.

References

Carroll RL, Pattern and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution. New York: Cambridge U Press; 1997.

Morris HM, Back To Genesis 1999; 3:b-c.

About the Author(s): 
Troy Britain
TroyBritain@compuserve.com