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Probe Ministries > Faith and Science > Origins > The Controversy over Evolution in Biology Textbooks


The Controversy over Evolution in Biology Textbooks Print E-mail

Dr. Ray Bohlin

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

Texas, Textbooks and Evolution

Public school textbooks are big business in Texas. Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks behind California. Texas also employs an extensive review process which involves input from the public. Independent school districts in the state of Texas can purchase whatever textbooks they prefer. But if they want state assistance in the purchase of textbooks, they'd better pick those texts that are recommended by the State Board of Education.

Publishers know that whatever books Texas approves, other states will adopt as well. Therefore the decisions by the Texas State Board of Education regarding textbooks influence what many students across the country will be reading over the next few years. Publishers pay very close attention to what goes on in Texas.

Evolution has been a contentious issue before the State Board for decades. A few years ago, they passed a resolution that said textbooks were to be free from factual errors and that the information in the texts should allow students to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including scientific hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

This certainly sounds scientific and fair. I mean, who doesn't want both sides of scientific controversies presented? Any "scientist to be" needs to be able to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations. Scientists rarely want to just take someone's word for something. Scientists tend to be skeptical in nature. That's a good thing. Students ought to be encouraged and trained to think this way.

That is, they ought to be trained to think this way about everything in science, except evolution. Evolution has become the unassailable myth of modern science. No dissension allowed. No controversies accepted. No challenges tolerated. Evolution is a fact and anybody who doesn't think so is ignorant, dishonest, or religiously motivated.

But for some reason, skepticism about evolution and Darwinian evolution in particular just won't go away. The dissenters are also growing in number and levels of education. So when the Texas State Board of Education announced its two public hearings in the summer of 2003, the battle lines were clearly drawn. Skeptics of Darwinism came loaded with careful examinations of the textbooks up for adoption, pointing out inaccuracies, falsehoods, and skimmed-over controversies. No one came to include creation or intelligent design into the textbooks.

Defenders of evolution came loaded with little else besides crude attempts to discredit their critics and scary words of warning about attempts to get religion into the science textbooks.

What's Wrong with the Textbooks As They Are?

If you have occasion to pick up a high school biology textbook, you quickly realize that the process of writing it must be a daunting task. The amount of detailed information they contain today over a wide range of biological phenomena is truly staggering.

The reality that they contain errors or out of date material can be easily understood. You would think that authors and publishers would welcome those who spot these problem areas and take the time and effort to point them out. For the most part this is indeed the case. Except when the errors concern the presentation of evolutionary theory. Pointing out factual errors, exaggerated claims or poor logic in the presentation of evolution suddenly becomes suspect. One's motives should be questioned. Evolution is a fact, after all, and surely no one thinks that evolution as presented in textbooks should be altered in any way.

I'm being facetious, of course. Evolution should be open to scrutiny as much as any other area of biology, but it isn't. Some mistakes in biology textbooks have persisted for decades, despite efforts to point them out and seek their removal or correction.

A classic example involves the Miller-Urey experiment. In 1953, Harold Urey and Stanley Miller published the results of an experiment that was meant to simulate the production of biochemicals necessary for life from gasses that were thought to be in earth's early atmosphere. Among a host of meaningless organic compounds, Miller and Urey found a few amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

The experiment caused quite a sensation and launched the origin of life field with a bang. Over the years, however, numerous problems showed up that invalidated the experiment. Chief among these problems was the determination that the atmosphere they used--ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrogen gasses--did not represent the early atmosphere. These hydrogen rich gasses were replaced with carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. When these gasses are used, the experiment is a dismal failure. Trace amounts of the simplest amino acid, glycine, sometimes appears, but not enough to get excited about.

All this has been known since the late 70s. But over thirty years later, textbooks represent the Miller/Urey experiment as if it still represents a realistic simulation. Why? Because it's the only experiment that works. And there needs to be a naturalistic story of where life could have come from.

Other problems remain in the infamous and fraudulent embryo drawings of Ernst Haeckel, the newly discovered problems with the peppered moth story, the startling evolutionary problem of the Cambrian explosion, and many others. Some of evolutionists' most cherished examples of evolutionary principles have fallen on hard times.

A Public Hearing in Texas in July 2003

The Texas State Board of Education is a powerful group of people. Every six years they evaluate textbooks for use in the Texas public schools, and many private schools and public schools from other states follow their lead. Part of the reason for this is the extensive review process the board employs.

Not only do the fifteen elected Board members review the texts, but a committee of educators from the Texas Education Agency also reviews them, and the public is invited to state its opinions as well. The Board reviews textbooks every year but they cycle through several categories every six years. The year 2003 was the year for biology textbooks.

I attended the first public hearing on July 9th in Austin, Texas. Citizens of Texas who wish to testify need to sign up about two weeks prior to the hearing. Each testifier is allotted three minutes, which is closely timed, and then a few board members may ask a few questions.

Three minutes isn't very long. It's about the length of one of our daily radio programs. So whatever you need to say, you'd better say it concisely and quickly. My testimony can be found on our website at www.probe.org/menus/textbook.html. I briefly presented my scientific credentials and addressed problems with the Miller-Urey experiment, the Cambrian explosion, and the mutation/natural selection mechanism of evolution.

I kept my remarks strictly along factual lines and discussed the evidence, with no mention of a Creator or Intelligent Design. But before the meeting even started I knew I was in for a long afternoon. At noon, one hour before the meeting, a group from The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) gave a press conference warning the media to expect another attempt from pseudo-scientists to try to include creationism into the textbooks.

Actually of the forty or so people signed-up to testify, only three of us were there to criticize evolution and no one was there to argue for creation. In the minutes before the meeting there was suddenly a horde of media looking for me and asking for interviews. Thanks to the NCSE I was provided with opportunities for nearly a dozen interviews, mostly TV. I was able to explain our side of the story and correct the NCSE's distorted paranoia.

The defenders of evolution came to say that evolution ought to be left alone: don't cave in to the pressure! But who was exerting the pressure? There were only three of us and over thirty of them. We came with scientific criticisms. They offered little else besides blatant misrepresentations and character assassinations.{1} These testimonies primarily set the stage for the September hearing.

A Second Public Hearing in September 2003

A major player in the entire hearing process was the Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org), a public policy institute out of Seattle, Washington. Discovery sponsors a Center for Science and Culture that provides limited funding for skeptics of Darwinism and proponents of Intelligent Design. I have received two limited fellowships from Discovery to help write a new edition of my book with Lane Lester, The Natural Limits to Biological Change. It was Discovery that contacted me about possibly testifying at the July 9th hearing.

Because of the intense media coverage of that hearing, the folks at Discovery spent a great deal of time addressing the media, correcting their errors and explaining the real story. As the September 10th hearing approached, Discovery sent out press releases and sent a team to Texas to hold press conferences and potentially testify before the State Board of Education.

Because of all the media attention, that ranks of testifiers swelled to unmanageable portions. Over 150 people signed up to testify and they all expected their three minutes. You do the math! This was going to be a long meeting. Most of those associated with the Discovery Institute and a Texas-based organization, Texans for Better Science Education (www.strengthsandweaknesses.org), gained the early testimony slots when the board members were most alert. The meeting dragged on until 1 a.m., a full twelve hours.

Once again, those of us criticizing the textbooks came prepared with specific criticisms of the textbooks and the other side simply wanted to say that we had no place at the table of discussion and should be ignored because we are pseudo-scientists and religious fundamentalists.

Most distressing of all was a pastor from a large Southern Baptist Church in Austin who came to tell the Board that evolution was of science and creation was of Genesis and faith and that the two had nothing to do with each other. He went on to add that he and everyone else knew that the dissenters from evolution were only there to protect their religious beliefs. He received a thunderous round of applause from the theistic evolutionists, agnostics and a theists in the crowd.

How sad that this brother in Christ was so deceived and even pretended to know why I was really there, having never spoken to me, nor had we even ever met. This broke my heart, as did other pastors who came to help but only showed their lack of knowledge about evolution and ended up hurting more than they helped.

While many evolutionists embarrassed themselves by exhibiting a childish paranoia, so did many Christians who just really didn't understand the issues. I'd love to do a Probe Ministries Mind Games Conference in all these churches--they need it.

Was Anything Accomplished?

There was heavy media interest from July through early November when the Texas State Board of Education made their final decision. Special interests from both evolutionists and those dissenting from evolution were involved.

Those who wanted to strictly follow Texas guidelines to teach evolution, but remove factual errors and include both strengths and weaknesses of evolution hoped to vote on each textbook individually. But the more liberal majority decided to vote on adopting the Texas Education Agency's recommendation to approve all eleven textbooks. This motion passed by a vote of 11-4. Only two textbooks had made sufficient changes to be judged "conforming."{2} The other nine would have been judged "non-conforming," which would have still made them eligible to be purchased with state funds. Only a book judged "rejected" would not be purchased by the state.

This was a small setback. But some significant changes were made. The fraudulent Haeckel drawings of vertebrate embryos, suggesting far more evidence for evolution than actually exists, have been virtually removed entirely. The fraud has been known for over 100 years. Two textbooks (Holt and Glencoe) have now inserted acknowledgments that the Miller-Urey origin of life experiment was based on ideas about the earth's early atmosphere no longer accepted by scientists. Another textbook has qualified an earlier claim made about evolutionary intermediates. The original textbook claimed that "since Darwin's time, many of these intermediates have been found." The revised text now reads: "Since Darwin's time, some of these intermediates have been found, while others have not." {3}

The journal Science matter-of-factly reported, "In response, some textbook publishers made minor changes, including replacing embryo drawings with photos and dropping the term 'gill slits.' One also eliminated the assertion that Darwin's theory is the 'essence of biology.'"{4}

While many of these changes are small, the public perception of the debate seems to be changing as evidenced by this statement from a Dallas Morning News editorial from November 5th:

"This ought to be easy; science is supposed to deal solely in facts. But the teaching of evolution is so entangled with politics that warring factions can't even agree on the facts. (What did the flawed Miller-Urey "origin of life" experiment prove, if anything, for example?) This is an injustice to the people of the state, who have a right to expect their children's biology textbooks to be a straightforward presentation of the most up-to-date scientific information, facts not privileged from a religious or anti-religious perspective."

Other errors and problems still remain.{5} But this has been a good start.

Notes

1. Sample testifier statements:

  • Steven Schafersman, President of Texas Citizens for Science: "I am aware that the Discovery Institute, a creationist organization out of Seattle, Washington, has become involved in the Texas education process just as they did recently in Kansas and Ohio. They have prepared written testimony about the books submitted here and apparently deputized a member of a Texas creationist organization, Probe Ministries, to speak on their behalf." (Hey, that's me!)
  • Ms. Amanda Walker: "So what we are really doing here is talking about using the political process to override the science process to suit creationists whose theories can't stand up in the global scientific community"
  • Dr. David Hillis, Professor of Biology, UT Austin: "The objections to evolution in textbooks that you have heard are not about science or facts. They are about pushing a religious and political agenda."
  • Ms. Kelly Wagner: "If you consider at all adding intelligent design to any of these textbooks, I would like you, again, this is a very, very personal question. I would like you to think, am I furthering medical research? Or am I contributing to Kelly Wagner's early death?" Ms. Wagner felt that "weakening" evolution in the high school biology textbooks would compromise medical research and therefore that research on her heart condition could be compromised.
  • 2. Most likely these would have been the Holt Biology book and the Glencoe Biology book, both of which made numerous constructive changes.

    3. Holt Biology, p. 283

    4. Constance Holden, "Texas resolves war over biology texts," Science Vol. 302(Nov.14, 2003):1130.

    5. Use this website from Discovery for full report on the Texas debate. http://www.discovery.org/csc/texas/.

    ©2003 Probe Ministries


    About the Author

    Dr. Ray BohlinRaymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

    What is Probe?

    Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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