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Ohio State Evolutionary Biologist Steve Rissing: Teach Students More Evolution and Climate Change, Less Biology

In 2005, a winsome and intelligent graduate student named Bryan Leonard was about to defend his doctoral thesis at Ohio State University (OSU).

Leonard, who had a master’s degree in biology, also taught public high school biology and used a state-approved lesson plan to teach his students about the evidence for and against neo-Darwinian theory. His doctoral thesis analyzed the pedagogical benefits of teaching Darwinian evolution in this objective manner. When some evolutionary biologists on the OSU campus caught wind of it, they wrote a letter protesting Leonard’s thesis defense, claiming that “there are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution” and therefore his teaching about problems with neo-Darwinism was “unethical” and “deliberate miseducation.”

You read that right: in their view, merely teaching students that there are scientific weaknesses in neo-Darwinian theory amounted to a form of “unethical” human research experimentation.
One of those OSU evolutionary biologists was Steve Rissing (pictured below).

Bryan Leonard was ultimately cleared of Rissing’s repugnant and contrived charges, but now Dr. Rissing has taken up a new cause: He wants to see students spend less time learning about molecular and cell biology so that they can spend more on evolution. An OSU news release quotes Rissing as saying that the way to make “a more scientifically literate public” is to shift attention from molecular biology to evolution:

These general education students are getting a lot about cell division mitosis from their textbooks when they really should be learning about things like personalized medicine, evolution and the impact of climate change,” Rissing said.

rissing.jpgOh, the horror! Students learning about the fundamentals of how cells work, when they should be studying evolution and climate change.

In his accompanying paper in Life Sciences Education, Rissing gives specific example of what he thinks is wrong. He laments that one edition of Campbell’s Biology only shows nine species from hominid evolution, omitting species like Orrorin tugenensis, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and Australopithecus anamensis.

In the news release, he worries that without those fossils “some students may believe the evidence for evolution is not as strong as it really is” — because of course his primary goal is to get students to accept evolution. But Rissing doesn’t realize that his strategy won’t work towards that goal. The fossil remains of the aforementioned species he complains are missing, are fragmented and incomplete, and in some cases they have features that strongly contradict the standard hominid tree. In fact these fossils do little to bolster the case for human evolution. (Click the links on each one to see a discussion.) Students might be more likely to “believe” in evolution if such disappointing “evidence” were left out!

In any case, Rissing’s complaint applies not only to general education biology textbooks, but also to those used by biology majors. The problem, in his view, is that in the major textbooks, “cellular and molecular biology came first,” but “Biology of body systems, and developmental, organismal and population biology came last in the books, where it is more likely to be skipped if instructors don’t have enough time over the course of the semester or quarter.”

Now I’m all for learning about evolution, body systems, and organismal biology. Heck, I just wrote a textbook curriculum that discusses those topics. But it’s difficult to teach students that their DNA shows they evolved from fish, when they haven’t yet studied DNA.

I’m reminded of comments a teacher sent me regarding a high-school textbook published by BSCS, Biology: A Human Approach (2006) — a textbook that takes Rissing’s approach to heart. In the very first lecture in the first chapter of the first section of the book, it teaches that humans evolved from ape-like creatures. The textbook expects students to accept that humans evolved from other primates when they have not yet even learned what a cell is. This textbook is so illogical that a public school biology instructor (who shall remain anonymous for their protection), who has been forced to teach from it, related to me the following:

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 must point out: this Darwin-doubting biology teacher did not object to teaching evolution and fully taught it to their students. However, by cramming “humans evolved from lower primates” down the throats of young people from the very first lesson, this textbook only succeeds in hindering the learning experience.

But I suppose according to Dr. Rissing’s vision of education and society, all of this is ok. So long as students are learning about evolution and climate change, they will know everything they need to be “scientifically literate.”

Image credit: Ohio State University.


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.



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