Textbook Debate

It's All About the Evidence
Stephen C. Meyer
Houston Chronicle
September 19, 2003
Original article

CYNICAL old lawyers have a maxim: When you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When neither is on your side, change the subject and question the motives of the opposition. That seems to be the strategy of many Darwinists now that the Texas State Board of Education has begun to evaluate whether current biology textbooks meet state standards for accuracy in their presentation of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Consider what happened at last week's hearing of the Board of Education in Austin. There, numerous Texas scientists, educators and students asked the board to insist that textbooks comply with state law by correcting factual errors in current biology textbooks and by presenting both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory.

This seemingly reasonable request elicited a torrent of personal abuse and misinformation from those lobbying for Darwin's theory to be presented uncritically. Motives were questioned. The subject was changed. Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science even compared those asking for full scientific disclosure to Stalinists and Nazis!

Some reporters and editorialists joined the misinformation campaign, warning (falsely) that textbook critics want to teach the biblical account of creation in the science classroom. And defenders of the current texts dismissed all scientific critiques of contemporary Darwinism as religiously motivated .

Yet these claims are as irrelevant to assessing the question before the board as they are hysterical and misinformed.

First, it's not what motivates a scientist's argument that determines its validity; it's the evidence. Even if all scientific critics of Darwin's theory were motivated by religious belief (and they are not), their critiques would still need to be judged by the evidence.

Motives don't matter in science. Evidence does.

If this weren't the case, then several Darwinists who testified at last week's hearing would be sorely out of luck. Schafersman, for example, is a self-described secular humanist who has written that supernaturalistic religion and naturalistic science are and will remain in eternal conflict. Does Schafersman's anti-religious motivation invalidate his support of Darwinian evolution? Of course not.

The same standard should apply when considering scientific critics of Darwinism. True, some scientists critical of contemporary evolutionary theory also favor a new alternative theory called intelligent design. Darwinists say such religious-based ideas cannot be science. But the theory of intelligent design is not based on religious doctrine. It's based on scientific evidence. For example, the leading advocate of intelligent design, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, bases his case for design on intriguing new evidence: the miniature motors and complex circuits now found in cells.

Some may decide that Behe's conclusions lend support to their religious beliefs. But that does not mean that his theory is based on religion, only that it may have theistic implications. But so what? Many Darwinists, and even some Darwinist textbooks, openly state that Darwinism has anti-theistic implications. Implications don't decide the truth of theories either. Evidence does.

In any case, design theorists are not the only scientific critics of Darwinism, and those asking for more accurate biology textbooks are not asking for the theory of intelligent design to be taught. Instead, they are asking that students learn all the evidence they need to assess Darwinian theory, not just the evidence that happens to supports it.

Peer-reviewed scientific literature now documents the existence of many problems with current evolutionary theory and with the textbook presentations of that theory. For example, at least three of the texts currently used in Texas use discredited 19th century diagrams of embryos as support for Darwin's universal common ancestry thesis. These now infamous Haeckel embryo drawings allegedly demonstrate the similarity of the early embryological development of fish, chickens, pigs and humans. Yet scientists have long known that these different vertebrate classes do not strongly resemble each other during early embryological development. Why must this inaccuracy persist in Texas textbooks?

The law of the land also supports this approach, as does our national education policy. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard, the controlling legal authority on how to teach about origins questions, that state legislatures could require the teaching of scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories. Last year, in the No Child Left Behind Act Conference Report, Congress expressed its support for greater openness in science instruction, citing biological evolution as the key example.

Teaching both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory will engage student interest and teach them to weigh evidence -- a key skill in scientific reasoning.

As Charles Darwin himself wrote in the Origin of Species, a fair result can only be obtained by balancing the facts and argument on both sides of each question.

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University and worked formerly as a geophysicist in Dallas with Atlantic Richfield.