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Smithsonian Misrepresents Evolution to AP Biology Students

Sarah Chaffee

AP Biology

Scientific American recently recommended a resource from the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. It’s for AP biology teachers, and it’s entitled Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource. Basically, it’s a how-to guide for sugarcoating evolutionary dogma in the science classroom.

The CRS Resource recommends using a survey to gauge “acceptance.” It notes:

Not all teachers perceive a need for such strategies or are uncertain as to whether their students are already accepting of the theory of evolution. The appendix of this CRS resource also includes a copy of a survey teachers may use with their students to measure the students’ acceptance of evolution, the Generalized Acceptance of Evolution Evaluation (GAENE). Teachers may choose to administer this survey before making a decision about the usefulness of these strategies for their classrooms.

Let’s take a look at this survey. 

An Unexplained Acronym

First, it’s odd to me that the student page is simply called “The GAENE  Survey.” It does not tell the students what the acronym stands for. Why not?

Second, as to the contents, there are 16 statements. Students are asked to rate their level of agreement or disagreement. The document repeatedly use the words and phrases “evolution,” “evolve,” “evolutionary theory,” and “evolutionary biology” — but these concepts are not defined. Statements say things like, “The theory of evolution is the product of good science,” or “Evolutionary theory explains why humans and chimpanzees share many characteristics.” There is a little bit on common ancestry (shared human-chimp characteristics, and general questions on speciation). With such generic terms, how are students to know whether they agree or disagree?

As Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas note in an article, “The Meanings of Evolution,” there are at least six ways people use the word:

  1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
  3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
  4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
  5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
  6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.

The GAENE survey does not distinguish among these various meanings. 

An Updated Version

The CRS Resource was published in 2015. There is also a 2016 version of the GAENE survey online. There, students are asked to rank their viewpoints, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Some statements are fairly close to those in the older survey, but this newer one also veers in a different direction. Here are a few of the new statements:

  • “It is important to let people know about how strong the evidence that supports evolution is.”
  • “I would be willing to argue in favor of evolutionary [sic] in a public forum such as a school club, church group, or meeting of public school parents.”
  • “Nothing in biology makes sense without evolution.”
  • “I would be willing to argue in favor of evolution in a small group of friends.”

This is quite one-sided and focuses on arguing in favor or telling about strong evidence rather than simply presenting evidence. It is also very revealing of the intentions of the GAENE survey creators.

Back to the CRS Resouce, this document does not distinguish between meanings when it presents examples of evolution. It mentions Tibetans and their adaptation to living at high altitudes (an interesting topic, but in a short biology class discussion unlikely to get down to the biomoleculular level), malaria bacteria that have become resistant to chloroquine (evolution, but an issue almost no one would dispute, and a very, very small change as Michael Behe notes), and differences in cancer risk among Israelis due to differing skin color (a very general evolutionary idea that people have adapted to living in different places on the globe…nothing about DNA or molecules). 

Dismissing the Evolution Controversy

Furthermore, the Resource glibly rejects the concept of teaching the controversy about evolution. It does so with almost no explanation, noting: “It is also important to dispel the notion that controversy about evolution — rather than discussion and dialogue about mechanisms of evolution — exists in the scientific community.” 

Oh really? And how are we to know whether that’s actually true or not when you haven’t even defined “evolution”?

There is no other discussion about real controversies in science over the origin of life and biological diversity. No mention of the RNA world or metabolism first scenarios, or about scientists who doubt the sufficiency of natural selection and random mutation in accounting for the myriad forms of life. No citations of peer reviewed literature, or even references to a biology textbook. 

It also tries to dismiss any hint of controversy by clarifying the nature of a scientific theory — “not a hunch or a guess but a well-substantiated best explanation.” This is a smokescreen.  

In short, the CRS Resource seeks to help indoctrinate AP biology students, not educate them. What’s going on here? For perspective you could take a look at an Evolution News article from earlier in the week, “Sociology Journal: Why Lobbyists So Persistently Call Evolution a ‘Fact.’

Photo credit: Biology classroom, U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo.