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The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 7): Timmer’s Mis-Aimed Critique of Inquiry Based Learning (Updated)

Casey Luskin

This is the seventh installment of a series responding to John Timmer’s online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). The first part is here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here, the sixth here.

7. Timmer’s Mis-Aimed Critique of Inquiry Based Learning
Timmer calls Explore Evolution‘s use of Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) a “sham” because he asserts the textbook “abdicates the responsibility for reasoning entirely.” But his criticism is bogus. EE contains multiple sections that encourage students to weigh the evidence and consider open-ended questions about the evidence like, “Which picture best illustrates the history of life?,” “Do all living things, past and present, share a common ancestor?,” “Can natural selection produce fundamentally new organisms from pre-existing ones?,” and “Are there other similarities that point to common ancestry?”

A comparison to other textbooks quickly shows EE‘s use of IBL is vastly superior to most mainstream biology textbook treatments of evolution, which tend to force rote memorization of Darwinism, and offer little meaningful IBL on evolution.

For example, in Miller & Levine’s treatment of avian evolution, students are asked “Why do you think many scientists infer that birds evolved from dinosaurs?,” and “What are the two alternative explanations for the evolution of modern birds?” (Miller and Levine, 2008, p. 807) Students are never encouraged to think outside of the evolutionary box created by the text, and in all questions, an evolutionary reptile-to-bird transition is taken as a given. Likewise, Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell’s textbook Biology: Concepts and Connections, forces students to think only within the Darwinian box: “Write a paragraph briefly describing the evidence for evolution,” it asks. (Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell, 2003, p. 279)

Other textbooks like Raven & Johnson’s Biology don’t even ask questions allowing students to evaluate the evidence, and instead just make dogmatic claims like, “the evidence for Darwin’s theory has become overwhelming” because “information from many different areas of biology–fields as different as anatomy, molecular biology, and biogeography–is only interpretable scientifically as the outcome of evolution.” (Raven, Johnson, Losos, and Singer, 2005, p. 453)

Holt’s Life Science asks students to only consider how “organisms can be compared to support the theory of evolution” or “how fossils provide evidence that organisms have evolved.” (Holt, 2001, p. 176, emphasis added) Likewise Sylvia S. Mader’s 2007 edition of Essentials of Biology carefully steers students away from any meaningful critical thought over evolution, asking students to “Explain why evolution is no longer considered a hypothesis.” For students who cannot regurgitate from the text, the proper “answer” is given directly below the question — up-side-down, so students don’t have to hunt too hard for the “correct” answer: “Evolution is supported by many diverse and independent lines of evidence.” (Mader, 2007, p. 225)

Many more examples could be given, but sadly, these textbooks are only following the proscription of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences which recently charged that schools should teach no evidence against evolution because “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,” which is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter” it.

If anything is a “sham,” it is this kind of IBL which stifles creative and critical scientific thinking, and forces rote memorization of the “overwhelming evidence” showing only “support” for the “fact” of evolution, never encouraging students actually engage their minds to consider that some scientific evidence might challenge neo-Darwinism. A comparison between EE and other textbooks shows the great need for textbooks like EE that actually do encourage students to engage in real critical thinking over evolutionary biology.

References Cited:
Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reece, Lawrence G. Mitchell, and Martha R. Taylor, Biology: Concepts and Connections, Benjamin Cummings, 4th Ed., 2003.

Holt Science & Technology, Life Science: California Edition, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 2001.

Sylvia S. Mader, Essentials of Biology, McGraw Hill, 2007.

Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph Levine¸ Biology, Prentice Hall, 2008.

Peter H. Raven, George B. Johnson, Jonathan B. Losos, Susan R. Singer, Biology, McGraw Hill, 7th Ed., 2005.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, 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.



Explore EvolutionJohn Timmer