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Can Biology Textbooks Recover from Over-Praising Darwin?

They say that admitting a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. I’ll admit that I’m something of a bookaholic: I’m constantly picking up books, especially books on evolution. It’s been fascinating to read how Darwin is praised not only as the patron saint of “Western thought,” but sometimes as if he invented sliced bread and cupholders in cars.

For example, Douglas Futuyma’s textbook Evolutionary Biology stated that “it was Darwin’s theory of evolution … that provided a crucial plank to the platform of mechanism and materialism–in short, to much of science–that has since been the stage of most Western thought.” John Dupré rejoices that “Darwin’s theory provides the last major piece in the articulation of a fully naturalistic world-view and hence would, if fully appreciated, deliver a death blow to pre-scientific, theocentric cosmologies.” Stephen Jay Gould explained in his “In Praise of Charles Darwin,” that “Darwin has been the inspiration of my life and work.” Gould continued: “Let rejoice that we can identify, in our complex and ambiguous world, a man with such power of thought and such influence upon us all–a man who, at the same time, managed to be an exemplary human being.”

Darwin surely has had a profound influence upon many people, but what were his skills a field scientist? Lisowski and Strauss’s Biology: The Web of Life gives the standard treatment, explaining that Darwin “pursued his love of nature when he sailed to the Galapagos Islands” and praised Darwin because his “observations there led to a theory that revolutionized biology.” (pg. 233)

But David Tyler recently reports that a recent paper in Journal of Biological Education argues that some textbooks “have provided over-simplified and inaccurate accounts of Charles Darwin’s contribution to the study of evolution over a period of many decades.” In short, they overstated Darwin’s field skills: “They have credited him with field skills and insight that he did not possess, and repeated several historical inaccuracies. Darwin’s strength was as a synthesiser of information but, at least in his early life, he was not a particularly observant or careful field biologist. The specimens collected on his voyage on HMS Beagle were largely identified and analysed by others, but this is rarely acknowledged.” (Paul A. Rees, “The evolution of textbook misconceptions about Darwin,” Journal of Biological Education, Vol. 41(2):53-55 (Spring 2007), emphasis added.)

It seems that some textbook authors have a strange problem over-magnifying the abilities and accomplishments of Darwin. The question is, will they admit they have a problem?


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.