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A Review of Of Pandas and People as a Textbook Supplement

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
A Review of Of Pandas and People as a Textbook Supplement
Author(s): 
Gary L Bennett
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
1–2
Year: 
2008
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
31–34, 39
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Throughout the country, school boards are receiving offers of free or low-cost copies of the supplementary textbook, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins, by Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis. NCSE member Gary Bennett completed a comprehensive review of Pandas last fall to assist the Idaho Department of Education in its decision on whether to adopt the book as a recognized classroom resource. We present to RNCSE readers this abbreviated version of his review to accompany the annual bibliography by Frank Sonleitner listing recent scientific research that addresses the issues raised by Pandas.]

Consistency with Department of Education Position Statement on Science

The book Of Pandas and People (hereafter, Pandas) is inconsistent with the Idaho position statement on science, which bases its acceptance decisions on the publications of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Both the AAAS and the NSTA have consistently supported the teaching of the scientifically accepted theory of evolution. In contrast, under the guise of an alternative approach known as "intelligent design", Pandas does little more than attack the theory of evolution. I was unable to find any peer-reviewed scientific literature on the "theory of intelligent design" either cited in the text or in professional scientific research journals. Furthermore, published work dealing with "intelligent design" by the authors of Pandas has not been found in respected science journals. Since legitimate scientists are not working on so-called "intelligent design", this book should not be used in any science class.

Consistency with State Exiting Standards

By attacking the theory of evolution, Pandas fails to support Idaho's draft high school exiting standards:
  • Unifying Concepts of Science, Section I.D of the Science Standards, states that "[t]he student will demonstrate an understanding of the process of evolution as it relates to the gradual changes in the universe and of equilibrium as a physical state".
  • Section V (Interdependence of Organisms and Biological Change) states that "[t]he student will understand the theory of biological evolution" and that "[t]he student should explain the interdependence of organisms".

Science is based on finding natural explanations for why the universe works as it does. Pandas invokes a supernatural belief called "intelligent design" (which looks like nothing more than the latest manifestation of the discredited belief system known as "creationism") to explain the origins of life and the creation of the different species of life. Since science does not deal with the supernatural, because it is beyond measurement, Pandas does not qualify as a science textbook.

Scientific Contents

Does the book provide accurate, reliable, scientific information?

No. Instead of utilizing peer-reviewed scientific information from the accepted science journals (for example, Science and Nature) and a wealth of literature on the best and most current scientific thinking, Pandas engages in sophistry to advance its agenda. In Suggested Reading/Resources, it tends to cite discredited creationist books. The book uses quasireligious arguments and special pleading to try to discredit the theory of evolution. Many of these arguments attack historical science (for example, Oparin's hypothesis, the Miller-Urey experiment, and so on) and are therefore outdated. The authors of Pandas seem unaware of the tremendous strides that have been made in biology.

Does the book present scientific theory?

No. The authors provide no scientific documentation for the claim that "intelligent design" is an alternative to the accepted theory of evolution. The National Academy of Sciences, America's premier scientific body, has defined "theory" as "[i]n science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses". Since "intelligent design" is not well-substantiated in the accepted scientific literature, it does not qualify as a scientific theory.

Is the scientific method emphasized?

No. Although there is no rigid definition of the scientific method, one can say in general that it is a way of thinking in which hypotheses are tested against systematic observations of the natural universe. Classically, the scientific method is often defined as a process or method in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated on the basis of these data, and the hypothesis is then empirically tested. This can be done by conducting laboratory experiments and/or gathering information (such as collecting fossils or observing stars). Critics or skeptics of the hypothesis should be able to conduct their own experiments or make their own scientific observations to test the hypothesis. Pandas fails to use the scientific method; instead, it appeals to an unidentified supernatural agent.

Instead of using the scientific method, what Pandas has done is to produce what philosophers call a "closed system". As the thinker and writer Arthur Koestler wrote:

A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself ... In fine, the mentality of a person who lives inside a closed system of thought ... can be summed up in a single formula: He can prove everything he believes, and he believes everything he can prove. The closed system sharpens the faculties of the mind, like an over-efficient grindstone, to a brittle edge; it produces a scholastic, Talmudic, hair-splitting brand of cleverness which affords no protection against committing the crudest imbecilities.


The theory of evolution would be overturned tomorrow if scientifically verifiable information were uncovered showing that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The notion of "intelligent design" cannot be falsified, however, because, if confronted with evidence against their belief, the advocates will simply shrug and say, "Well, that is how the intelligent designer did it".

Is the learning experiential? How does it relate to real life issues?

The learning is not experiential. Pandas provides no scientifically conclusive experiments that could be performed to prove that an intelligent designer exists. Worse, putting a religiously inspired textbook into a good science class where students are taught to question orthodoxy would expose the narrow religious views in Pandas to the kind of sharp questioning that could undermine the religious beliefs of some students.

Pandas does not relate well to real life issues such as biomedical concerns. For example, many in the scientific and medical communities are worried about the ever-evolving bacteria around us. Scientists find that bacteria are evolving immunity to the antibacterial medications that have been developed to control them. If we are going to survive, we need to understand evolution, because it describes how bacteria and other organisms change and it describes how our genetic makeup came to be. To teach "intelligent design" is little different from teaching shamanism as a way to eliminate diseases, since it does not engage the scientific method and prior scientific knowledge to understand and solve problems in human society.

Should the book be adopted?

Absolutely not! This book does not teach science; it misrepresents science. Students and teachers without a good grounding in biology and the methods of science could be seduced by this book into rejecting well-established science. It is nothing more than a cleverly-worded tract espousing an unscientific belief system. Rather than teaching students how to think objectively, this book teaches students how to twist words and quotations to advance unsupported suppositions. On a more practical level, most biology courses spend very little time on the origins of life so there is no need for a separate book on that subject. And if a separate book on origins is desired, it should be a real science book.

Additional Overall Comments

This book suffers from an inordinate focus on the origins of life, which is usually a small part of any introductory biology course. Since most biology courses focus on cells, plants, animals, and their constituent parts, it is not clear that this book would be a useful supplement. In the areas of known science, it adds nothing new, and in the area of the origin of life, despite its protestations otherwise, it advances a particular religious belief under the rubric "intelligent design". There is no peer-reviewed scientific work in the standard scientific literature that supports the assertions of this book. In short, this book follows the cliché-ridden creationist approach of attacking evolution while providing no scientific work to support its position. Saying that an intelligent designer did something that cannot be explained says nothing. People once said that an intelligent designer caused thunder and lightning and the motion of the planets. "Intelligent design" is a mystical, Dark Ages, anti-science philosophy trying to disguise itself as science.

Pandas is based on the assumption that evolution and "intelligent design" are competing theories. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As a working scientists, I am not aware of any serious scientific work being done on so-called "intelligent design". The fact that evolution has occurred is accepted by most qualified scientists, whose views are based upon thousands of research results in such diverse fields as anthropology, astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry, and geology.

The theory of evolution, which is a well-substantiated scientific explanation for what has occurred, deals with changes in organisms with time:

Evolution: change in the hereditary characteristics of groups of organisms over the course of generations (NAS 1998).

The above definition was given in the publication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, published by the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's premier science organization (chartered by Congress in 1863). (Note: The glossary on pages 149-51 of Pandas needs to be corrected to coincide with accepted definitions.)

The theory of evolution is silent on how life originated and it makes no claims about religious beliefs. The fact that evolution has occurred is evident from the fossil record, which is a long record of modifications in the characteristics of animals and plants from the simpler to the more complex over hundreds of millions of years. Scientific work in such diverse fields as astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry and biology overwhelmingly supports the theory that life has evolved on the earth.

Pandas never really provides a scientific definition of "intelligent design". On page 14, Pandas states that "[i]ntelligent design, by contrast, locates the origin of new organisms in an immaterial cause: in a blueprint, a plan, a pattern, devised by an intelligent agent". But nowhere does Pandas provide a scientifically testable definition or theory of the "intelligent agency". What properties does it have? How would a scientist detect it? What measurements could be made? What predictions could be made?

On pages 99-100, Pandas states that "[i]ntelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact-fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, and so on." But this is contrary to the fossil evidence. For example, Pandas states that "[n]o creatures with a partial wing or partial eye are known", yet in Padian and Chiappe 1998 we find the so-called "partial wing" in Archaeopteryx and its relatives, and in Pennisi and Roush 1997 we find a summary of some evolutionary studies indicating that the ancestral bilateral animal may have had a simple photoreceptor. Using the "partial eye" argument has been an old favorite erroneous criticism offered by creationists, who do not seem to recognize that any light-sensitive organ would give an animal an advantage over its blind companions. Dawkins (1986) gives a good discussion about how an eye could evolve. Even Darwin, despite the limited knowledge of the fossil record of his day, gave a good explanation of how the eye might have developed (Darwin 1859/1979). Finally, it should be noted that hundreds of thousands of the single-celled amoeba named Dictyostelium have been observed coalescing into something that resembles a multicellular creature with some amoebas acting as eyes (Zimmer 1998). It is surprising that the Pandas authors are continuing to advance objections refuted long ago.

However, what is perhaps worse about pages 99-100 is that Pandas puts itself into the discredited camp of abrupt creation, that is, with those who believe the earth is only 10 000 years old and that every kind of plant and animal was created at once with no changes since (see also page 92). The fossil and geological record clearly shows the earth is older than 10 000 years and that whole species have evolved and died out-there have been fantastic changes!

On page 150, Pandas defines "intelligent design (cause)" as "[a]ny theory that attributes an action, function, or the structure of an object to the creative mental capacities of a personal agent. In biology, the theory that biological organisms owe their origin to a pre-existent intelligence". There are a number of problems with this definition, beginning with the fact that it is a circular definition, i.e., it defines "intelligent design" in terms of itself. What is a "personal agent"? Secondly, "intelligent design" is not a theory in any sense of the word in the field of biology. The National Academy of Sciences defines "theory" as "[i]n science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses" (NAS 1998). "Intelligent design" fails this definition.

Finally, given the definition on page 150 and the discussions on pages 14 and 99-100, the reader is left in total confusion. Are the authors of Pandas talking about "intelligent design" or an "intelligent agency" or a "personal agent" or a "preexistent intelligence"? Pandas is so confused and circular in its reasoning that it clearly does not meet the test of a good science book; however, it would fit in nicely in a comparative religion class or a class on investigating pseudoscience and the uses of propaganda.

The crux of the issue is that so-called "intelligent design", which has been described as one of the latest evolutions of the ever-evolving creationist movement, is based on supernatural intervention. In effect, "intelligent design" assumes that God was involved at various points in the evolutionary process, but it provides no evidence in support of this belief. Given that the Catholic Church and the mainstream Protestant community have accepted evolution as the way God created the millions of species, one wonders why the creationists still insist upon a literal reading of Genesis. Theologian Langdon Gilkey has stated that creationists come "very close, yes, very close indeed to the first, and worst, Christian heresy!" (emphasis in original) because they try to separate the act of creation from God as if there were two gods, which was the heretical position of the Gnostics (Gilkey 1985). Thus, not only is creationism or "intelligent design" bad science, it is also arguably bad theology!

Professor of philosophy and zoology Michael Ruse has written this about Pandas:

And, let me (for what seems the millionth time in my life) protest at the Creationists appropriating exclusively unto themselves the mantle of religion. The world of life may or may not be designed. But the argument is not that the choice is between an exclusive disjunction of evolution and design. I believe that if God chooses to do things through unbroken law, then that is God's business, not ours. What is our business is the proper use of our God-given powers of sense and reason, to follow fearlessly where the quest for truth leads. Where it does not lead is to the pages of the book Of Pandas and People (Ruse 1989).


"Intelligent design" suffers from a fatal philosophical flaw:

[O]ne might suppose that if organisms are not ideally adapted, if they have characteristics that are not adaptations, they could not have been intelligently designed-or at least the designer couldn't come up with the right materials or the right plan. A designer wouldn't equip organisms with useless appurtenances; yet every species has vestigial structures that may once have been adaptive but are adaptive no longer. Every species also has characteristics that are not now and never were adaptive-characteristics that are the "side effects" of genes that serve some other adaptive function (Futuyma 1995, 128-9).


Presumably the intelligent designer is not so intelligent!

The premise of Pandas is the faulty notion that science should proceed from the supernatural to the natural. Science, by definition, is based on studying the natural world. We do not have Hindu science or Mormon science or Catholic science or Protestant science; we just have science. If the apparently fundamentalist-inspired Pandas is allowed into the classroom, then every religious group can claim with equal justification to have its books included too.

In the 1982 Arkansas court case on teaching creationism (Rev Bill McLean et al. v. Arkansas Board of Education), Judge William R Overton defined science in his ruling against the teaching of creationism (Gilkey 1985; Pennock 1999):
  1. It is guided by natural law;
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
  3. It is testable against the empirical world;
  4. Its conclusions are tentative, that is, they are not necessarily the final word; and
  5. It is falsifiable.

"Intelligent design" fails these tests. Furthermore, Overton (and others) found that "intelligent design" promotes a particular sectarian view in violation of the First Amendment.

Pandas co-author Percival Davis has exposed his biblical literalist bias in a book (A Case for Creation) that he wrote with Wayne Frair: "We accept by faith the revealed fact that God created living things. We believe God simultaneously created those crucial substances (nucleic acids, proteins, and so on) that are so intricately interdependent in all of life's processes, and that He created them already functioning in living cells" (quoted in Pennock 1999, 162). The notion that God operated in an evolutionary way (as accepted by the Catholic Church, mainstream Protestant churches, and various American Jewish organizations) seems not to have affected Davis.

The other co-author, Dean Kenyon, was "an erstwhile origin of life researcher who became discouraged about the whole field and subsequently [lent his name in support of YEC [young-earth creationist] activism..." (Pennock 1999, 162). With no scientific support, Pandas tries to be both "young earth" and "old earth" (see page 92). Young-earth creationists believe that the earth along with the entire universe was created 6000 to 10 000 years ago. To date, there is no recognized scientific support in any field of science for such a belief. There have been many years of student complaints about Dean Kenyon's teaching at San Francisco State University, mainly centered on allegations that he is more interested in what amounts to religious proselytizing than in teaching peer-reviewed biology (Scott 1994). From the foregoing, one would suspect that if Pandas were adopted in biology classes, the next step would be to insist that anthropology, geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy courses be changed to fit with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Professor Douglas J Futuyma summed up the issue best with his observation:

Suppose creationism had equal time in science classes. What would be taught? If creationists teach that the universe and all its inhabitants were suddenly created a few thousand years ago, and that all of extinction and all of geology were caused by a universal flood, what more can they say? Shall they provide scientific evidence that explains why blue-green algae are in the lowest geological strata and flowering plants in the uppermost? Shall they explain, in terms of modern biology, how a million or more species of animals fit into the ark? Shall they provide evidence from modern physics that explains away the fact that we can perceive light from stars that are billions of light years away, and took billions of years to get here? Shall they provide a testable hypothesis to explain the genetic similarity of apes and humans? Will they describe experiments that elucidate the mechanisms of creation, as geneticists have the mechanisms of evolution? You will seek in vain for answers... (Futuyma 1995, 215-6).

Pandas commits the philosophical error of assuming that because our minds see order there must be an intelligent designer. But a number of laboratory experiments (see, for example, Amabilino and Stoddart 1994, Futuyma 1995, and Ingber 1998) have shown that matter can self-organize. Scientists have even observed single-celled amoebas self-organizing into a sort of multicellular creature (Zimmer 1998). Studies in the mathematical field of complexity theory have shown that chaotic systems can exhibit patterns that look like order. Computer studies have shown how evolution can work (see, for example, Dawkins 1986 and chapter 2 of Pennock 1999). In short, Of Pandas and People fails to deal with the very real probability that order is intrinsic in nature and not superimposed.

Finally, by assuming that life originated by "intelligent design", Pandas opens up a number of questions it fails to answer, such as "Who or what is the intelligent designer?" and "Who or what created the intelligent designer?"

Using the arguments in Pandas, one could equally well support the view advanced by the Raëlian Movement "that intelligent aliens landed here millennia ago in spaceships and formed all of life on earth, including human beings, using highly advanced genetic engineering" (Pennock 1999, 234). If one put Pandas in the classroom, in fairness one would also have to put in the Raëlian book The Book That Tells The Truth. As Professor of Philosophy Robert T Pennock has observed, if we allow Pandas, we would also have to allow "textbooks that advocate Claude Vorilhon's Raëlian model, the Swami Prabhupade's cyclical Hindu model, and so on. As they say, this way lies madness" (Pennock 1999, 368).

Pandas tries to bias the reader by the choice of words the authors use to describe the two positions they discuss. Scientists are referred to as "Darwinists" as if to say that all scientists are followers of some religious guru named Darwin. In light of new information, evolutionary science has moved beyond Darwin's original ideas and so scientists working in the field of evolution should properly be referred to as "scientists". Using the verbal tactics of the authors of Pandas, one would have to refer to advocates of "intelligent design" as "Morrisites" (in acknowledgment of the biblical literalist Henry M Morris who was instrumental in founding the modern fundamentalist belief known as creationism or "intelligent design").

Perhaps Kevin Padian, Professor of Integrative Biology and Curator in the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, said it best:

Of Pandas and People is a tract on hard-shell fundamentalist creationism in disguise. This underlying theme never speaks its name in this tract, but it is there nonetheless. It is hard to say what is worst in this book: the misconceptions of its sub-text, the intolerance for honest science, or the incompetence with which science is presented. In any case, teachers should be warned against using this book (Padian 1989).


The complete list of references is contained in the longer "Review of the book Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins (second edition)" by Gary L Bennett, which will be available soon on The Textbook Letter web site. Other reviews of Pandas from The Textbook League are available on line at .

References

Amabilino D, Stoddart F. Molecules that build themselves. New Scientist 1994 Feb 19: 25-9.

Darwin CR. The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. NY: Avenue Books, 1979 [originally published in 1859].

Dawkins R. The Blind Watchmaker. NY: WW Norton & Company, 1986.

Futuyma DJ. Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates, Inc, 1995.

Gilkey L. Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. Minneapolis (MN): Winston Press, Inc, 1985.

Ingber DE. The architecture of life. Scientific American 1998 Jan; 278 (1): 48-57.

NAS (1999) Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd edition. Washington (DC): National Academy Press, 1999.

Padian K. Gross misrepresentation. Bookwatch Reviews 1989; 2 (11): xxx-xxx.

Padian K, Chiappe LM. The origin of birds and their flight. Scientific American 1998 Feb; 278 (2): 38-47.

Pennock RT. Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism. The MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 1999.

Pennisi E, Roush W. Developing a new view of evolution. Science 1997 Jul 4; 277 (5322): 34-7.

Ruse M. They're here! Bookwatch Reviews 1989; 2 (11): xxx-xxx.

Scott EC. Dean Kenyon and "intelligent design theory" at San Francisco State U. NCSE Reports 1993/1994; 13 (4)/14 (1): 1, 5, 13.

Zimmer C. The slime alternative. Discover 1998 Sep; 19 (9): 86-93.