|Series on Problems with Current Textbook Treatments of Evolution
• Full Report: “An Evaluation of 22 Recent Biology Textbooks And Their Use of Selected Icons of Evolution”
Part of our updated 2011 textbook review, “An Evaluation of 22 Recent Biology Textbooks and Their Use of Selected Icons of Evolution,” looked at interesting comments in textbooks that didn’t fit under classical “icons” categories. Here I’d like to review some of these comments as they further illustrate the inaccurate and biased treatment of evolution in many textbooks.
Faux Critical Thinking Exercises
Many textbooks surveyed contained what I would call “faux-critical thinking exercises,” where students are asked to investigate the evidence, but only in a one-sided fashion.
For example, Campbell and Reece’s 2009 edition of Biology: Concepts and Connections asks students: “Write a paragraph briefly describing the kinds of evidence for evolution.” (p. 275) No questions ask students to identify evidence that counters evolutionary theory, because no such evidence is presented in the text.
Likewise, Prentice Hall’s 2009 Science Explorer: Life Science states:
“Identifying Supporting Evidence. Evidence consists of facts that can be confirmed by testing or observation. As you read, identify the evidence that supports the theory of evolution.” (p. 182)
It of course does not ask students to consider any evidence that would not support evolution, because such evidence is excluded from the textbook.
The 2006 edition of Glencoe’s Biology: The Dynamics of Life is rare in that it asks students to look at the “strengths and weaknesses” (p. 402) of the evidence regarding evolution. However, the textbook only presents a pro-Darwin viewpoint, even stating “The modern theory of evolution is the fundamental concept in biology.” How can students evaluate the theory’s “weaknesses” when none of the many dissenting scientific voices on the subject are mentioned?
Not all textbooks completely hide from students the fact that there are scientists who disagree with Darwinism. Belk and Maier’s Biology: Science for Life devotes half a page to attacking Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” list. The critique attempts to flatter the student as a “Savvy Reader” by praising the “savvy” student when they “critique the argument” against Darwinism, all-the-while seeking to direct the student to dismiss the existence of scientific dissent from Darwinism. (p. 251) Apparently the “Savvy Reader” section wants students to accept arguments from authority rather than form their own opinions after examining the evidence. At the least students will come away feeling good, thinking that by simply agreeing with the consensus, they are being “savvy.”
Pushing Evolution From the Start
Most textbooks follow a logical order. First you learn about the nature of science, then you move into cells and DNA. Only after you’ve learned a bit about macrobiology do the authors introduce more complex topics like evolution, usually somewhere in the middle to end of the book. After all, if students haven’t even learned about cells, chromosomes, DNA, and the basis of inheritance, how can they understand topics like Darwinian evolution?
However, some textbooks are so eager to push evolution that they have reordered the material in a pedagogically illogical manner. For example, George B. Johnson’s Essentials of the Living World goes out of its way to promote Darwinian evolution, devoting Chapter 2 to covering “Evolution and Ecology” — even though students have not yet reached the book’s chapter on the chemistry of life, which should have come first.
Likewise, the 2006 textbook BSCS Biology: A Human Approach is structured in a way that is highly unusual: The very first lecture in the first chapter of the first section of the book promotes human evolution from apes. Students are expected to learn and accept that humans evolved from other primates — when they have not yet even learned what a cell is.
This textbook is so illogical that an anonymous public school biology instructor, who has been forced to teach from it, related the following to me:
While I would recommend other BSCS textbooks I’ve used, this one raised pedagogical and academic concerns. In particular, both my colleagues (who support evolution) and I thought it was inappropriate that the textbook started, from the get-go, by promoting human evolution from primates. This is unusual for two reasons.
It’s an unusual starting point in that it seems premature to introduce evolutionary biology when students had not yet encountered the underlying basic biological topics like the cell or DNA. If the vehicle for evolution is DNA mutations, then students must at the very least encounter that concept before studying evolution.
Additionally, starting the year with the most controversial topic in the entire course generated controversy and division among my students at a critical time when I needed to have them on board for the remainder of the year. Whether or not one agrees with evolution, it seems like an unnecessary and unwise decision to start the book with the most controversial chapter and topic — the idea that humans descended from primates. Again, this concern was shared not just by me but also my colleagues who are evolutionists. Any good teacher would know that you don’t start with the most controversial topic at hand when the beginning of the year should be used to build bridges, excitement, and enthusiasm.
The textbook did not use good teaching practice. The authors seemed to have an evolutionary agenda that overrode not just logical pedagogy but any sensitivity towards the multiple viewpoints that students walk in with at the start of the school year.
I want to make one point clear: this Darwin-doubting biology teacher did not object to teaching evolution and fully taught it to the students. However, by cramming ‘humans evolved from lower primates’ down the throats of students from the very first lesson, this textbook hindered the learning experience.
Forcing Students to Assent to Darwin
At least one textbook demanded not just that students learn about evolution, but that they assent to it. Sylvia Mader’s Essentials of Biology asks, “Explain why evolution is no longer considered a hypothesis?” and the text provides the answer: “Evolution is supported by many diverse and independent lines of evidence.” (p. 225) Four pages later, it offers a multiple-choice question where students are forced to answer that evolution is supported by multiple lines of evidence:
10. Evolution is considered aa. hypothesis because it is supported by data from the fossil record.
b. hypothesis because it is supported by multiple types of data.
c. theory because it is supported by data from the fossil record.
d. theory because it is supported by multiple types of data.
Of course from the question on page 225 we know the correct answer here is intended to be “d,” which forces students to claim that evolution is “supported by multiple types of data.” Yet each answer choice forces students to give assent to the view that evolution is “supported.” The student is not allowed to express scientific dissent from neo-Darwinian evolution.
Attention Students: Please Think Inside the Darwinian Box
The 2010 edition of Ken Miller and Joseph Levine’s Biology quotes coauthor Joseph Levine singing praises of Darwin’s theory:
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is often called “the most important scientific idea that anyone has ever had.” Evolutionary theory provides the best scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. It unites all living things in a single tree of life and reminds us that humans are a part of nature. As researchers explore evolutionary mysteries, they continue to marvel at Darwin’s genius and his grand vision of the natural world. (p. 447)
This makes it all the more ironic that in the earlier pages of the book, the authors state: “Good scientists are skeptics, which means that they question existing ideas and hypotheses,” and “Scientists must remain open-minded, meaning that they are willing to accept different ideas that may not agree with their hypothesis.” Does it sound like they are applying such a scientific approach to evolution?
Likewise, Futuyma’s 2005 textbook Evolution emphatically states that “descent with modification of all organisms from common ancestors … is as much a scientific fact as the atomic constitution of matter or the revolution of the Earth around the Sun.” (p. 523) Ironically, the textbook later states, “Science is tentative.” (p. 542) If only they taught evolution as if that were true.
The full report, “An Evaluation of 22 Recent Biology Textbooks and Their Use of Selected Icons of Evolution,” can be found here.
Textbooks Cited (listed in order mentioned in this article):
- Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reece, Martha R. Taylor, Eric J. Simon, Jean L. Dickey, Biology: Concepts and Connections (6th Ed., Pearson, 2009).
- Michael J. Padilla, Ioannis Miaoulis, Martha Cyr, Science Explorer: Life Science (Prentice Hall, 2009).
- Alton Biggs, Whitney Crispen Hagins, Chris Kapicka, Linda Lundgren, Peter Rillero, Kathleen G. Tallman, Dinah Zike, Biology: The Dynamics of Life (Glencoe, 2006) (Florida Edition).
- Colleen Belk and Virginia Borden Maier, Biology: Science for Life (Benjamin Cummings, 3rd ed., 2010).
- George B. Johnson, Essentials of the Living World (McGraw Hill, 2006).
- BSCS Biology: A Human Approach (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2006).
- Sylvia S. Mader, Essentials of Biology (McGraw Hill, 2007).
- Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine, Biology (Pearson, 2010).
- Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution (Sinauer, 2005).