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Icons of Evolution? Conclusion

Icons — should we keep them?

The role of primary and secondary education is to pass on a certain body of accepted knowledge and basic concepts to students in order to prepare them to learn more. The question is whether the criticisms leveled by the author of Icons would aid us in that goal; the resounding answer is no. The educational program that would result from implementing the suggestions contained in Icons would have just the opposite result: It would seriously hamper science education and leave students unprepared for the future in which science, and biology in particular, will play an increasing role.

Figure 17 shows the grades that Wells gives each textbook, the number of pages each textbook specifically devotes to evolutionary theory compared to the total number of pages that contain evolutionary content (such as phylogenetic relationships), and when evolution is first mentioned in the text. Although the amount of text devoted to evolution varies widely in textbooks, the coverage as a percentage of the total text that evolution is given is very small — usually less than 10% of the total book. Wells evaluates only four high school textbooks in the review, and those have a far smaller treatment of evolution than do the college texts.

It is clear from Wells's treatment of the "icons" and his grading scheme that his interest is not to improve the teaching of evolution, but rather to teach anti-evolutionism. Under Wells's scheme, teachers would be hostile to evolution as part of biology instruction. Wells and his allies hope that this would open the door to alternatives to evolution (such as "intelligent design") without actually having to support them with science.

In order to get a "good" grade from Wells, that is to portray a piece of evidence for evolution "accurately" (in Wells's opinion), one must mention it and then proceed to criticize it. This is not standard pedagogical practice; if an example is that bad, it should be removed from the biology curriculum, rather than introduced and then criticized. What we see is a pattern of grading to create bias rather than accuracy. Rewriting textbooks to criticize evolution serves no teaching purpose (teaching is a positive endeavor, not negative), yet it is clear from the grading that this is the goal of the author. What's worse is that the grading criteria are not even consistently applied. There is no pedagogical or factual basis for these grades, and they should not be taken seriously. To follow Wells's advice would not only result in mis-education about evolution, but about all of biology and other sciences as well. Good teaching may value critical thinking, but it does not value wanton criticism for the sake of criticism.

Finally, in his zeal to attack the textbooks' treatments of evolution, Wells misses a chance to provide a good listing of actual errors in textbooks. A study of the textbooks that Wells evaluated uncovered factual errors, inexact wordings, and garbled explanations of biological phenomena that Wells either did not notice or considers unimportant. This lack of documentation of real textbook errors is yet another failure of Wells's effort. Far from being tracts of "evolution propaganda," as Wells implies, many biology textbooks devote too little space to evolution, especially in early chapters. Most of evolution is reserved for the middle of textbooks; it is frequently given less coverage than ATP cycles or photosynthesis. The topics of which Wells is so critical amount to only a small fraction of any given textbook. In fact, evolutionary biologists consider the lack of coverage of evolution, and the failure to interweave it throughout the entire book, to be the greatest deficit of textbooks.

In conclusion, the scholarship of Icons is substandard and the conclusions of the book are unsupported. In fact, despite his touted scientific credentials, Wells doesn't produce a single piece of original research to support his position. Instead, Wells parasitizes on other scientists' legitimate work. He could not have written the "Haeckel's embryos" chapter without the work of Richardson et al. (1997, 1998), or the "peppered moths" chapter without Coyne (1998) and Majerus (1998), or the "Archaeopteryx" chapter without Shipman (1998). Even then, Wells's discussions are rife with inaccuracies and out-of-date information. Wells seems to think that scientific theories are supported by certain "keystone" pieces of evidence, removal of which causes the theory to collapse. Paradigms in science work when they provide solutions and further research; their health is not tied to single examples. The paradigm of evolution is not tied to a single piece of evidence.

If that is the case, why "defend" the "icons" at all? If evolution doesn't need them, why not just replace them? The answer is simple: There is no reason to throw out good teaching examples unless the criticisms leveled against them are valid. We should not just acquiesce to Wells's arguments unless they have merit. Just as no piece of evidence becomes a teaching example without extensive testing, no example should be removed on the basis of one poorly argued, inaccurate, and tendentious book. In each case, it is Wells's arguments that are wanting, not the "icon."

When Alfred Wegener first proposed his theory of continental drift, he was laughed at and ridiculed. What did he do? Did he form a non-profit advocacy group and lobby state school boards and lawmakers to force teaching of "evidence against" geosynclinal theory? Write a book called Icons of Uniformitarianism? Evaluate and grade earth science textbooks and demand that they be rewritten to remove examples of "borderlands"? No. He went back and did more research. He found like-minded colleagues and they produced research. He fought in the peer-reviewed literature. He produced original research, not polemical popular tracts or politics. Eventually his ideas were adopted by the whole of geology — not through politics but because of their overall explanatory power. If Wells and his colleagues want "intelligent design" to succeed, they need to produce that research. Until they do, evolution remains the reigning paradigm and the "icons" are perfectly acceptable teaching aids.