Face-Off: Should both sides of the Debate on Evolution be Included in Textbooks?

Seth L. Cooper
Spring Hill Review (Southwest Washington State)
January 1, 2004
Print ArticleCenter for Science & Culture's Seth Cooper in a point-counterpoint debate with J.E. Hill.

(Cooper's argument)

There is no such thing as a false fact. But a typical high school biology textbook might try to tell you a different story, as many textbooks contain widely acknowledged factual errors that overstate the case for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many textbooks also omit empirical data contradicting aspects of Darwin’s theory. Solid science education demands that these problems be addressed by allowing students to learn even more about Darwin’s theory. Students should learn the scientific weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, not just its strengths.

Peer-reviewed scientific literature documents many problems with textbook presentations of Darwin’s theory. For instance, some textbook accounts of the famed Miller-Urey origin of life experiment mislead students by failing to acknowledge it was based upon inaccurate ideas about the earth’s early atmosphere. Other textbooks falsely state that revised versions of the experiment produced results helpful to understanding the origin of the first life, when in fact these experiments are widely considered a dead-end by origin of life researchers.

And only now are many textbook publishers beginning to remove long discredited diagrams by 19th century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel that purport to show that human, fish and chicken embryos are similar during their earliest stages of life. Many textbooks continue to claim that vertebrate embryos are the most similar in their earliest stages of development and that differences only emerge later on. Such textbooks still make the same point that Haeckel’s fraudulent drawings were used to illustrate.

In addition, peer-reviewed scientific literature points to significant problems with various aspects of Darwin’s theory. Yet, the science curriculum for many students is surprisingly silent about the scientific weaknesses of Darwin’s theory. Many scientists, for example, now doubt that small-scale micro-evolutionary processes can account for large-scale “macro-evolutionary” innovations in the history of life. This problem leaves unexplained the “Cambrian explosion,” a geological event wherein major groups of animals appear suddenly in the fossil record. Yet, a number of major textbooks fail to mention the Cambrian explosion at all.

Growing numbers of scientists are critical of contemporary evolutionary theory. Over 300 scientists have signed a statement saying they’re “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” Some of these scientists favor a scientific theory called intelligent design, which simply holds that various aspects of the universe and livings things can only be explained as the result of an intelligent process, not a purely naturalistic one like natural selection.

Yet, design theorists aren’t the only scientific critics of Darwin’s theory, and those asking for more accurate biology textbooks and for students to be able to critically analyze Darwin’s theory aren’t asking for intelligent design to be taught. Rather, they are simply asking that students learn all the evidence they need to assess Darwin’s theory, and not just the evidence that happens to support it.

While serving the purposes of scientific integrity and academic honesty, this approach is also popular with the American public. According to a 2001 nationwide Zogby poll, 71 percent of Americans agreed that “Biology teachers should teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it." Only 15 percent disagreed. Subsequent regional polls have yielded similar results. (In an academic argument, how strong is it to use a public opinion poll? Will it just be dismissed?)

Requiring students to learn the scientific weaknesses of Darwin’s theory as well as the strengths is supported by the laws of the land. In the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, the US Supreme Court’s seminal decision concerning origins science in public education, the Court ruled that state legislatures could require the teaching of scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories. Furthermore, the Conference Report to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stated that students should understand the full range of scientific views concerning controversial topics like biological evolution.

By denying students all the information we are limiting their education. Wouldn’t a more complete presentation of Darwinian evolution bolster science education and better prepare students for global competition? Perhaps the words of Charles Darwin himself provide our best guide: "A fair result can only be obtained by balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."

(Cooper's response)

Some neo-Darwinists who oppose teaching students the scientific weaknesses of evolution feel the best way to win the evolution debate is try to pretend no debate exists. At the other end of the spectrum are creationists who want Darwin’s theory removed from school classrooms or creationism to be given “equal time” alongside Darwin’s theory. Neither side has it right. Instead, we should insist that schools teach Darwin’s theory, but teach even more about it by including the scientific weaknesses of Darwin’s theory.

In making the false claim that there is no debate over evolution, Mr. Hill ignores peer reviewed science literature calling into question many aspects of Darwin’s theory. For instance, evolutionists like the late Stephen Jay Gould acknowledged Haeckel’s drawings were fraudulent and recommended their removal from biology textbooks. Many scientists have called into question the ability of the Miller-Urey experiment and later experiments to explain the origin of the first life, based upon new information about early earth’s atmospheric conditions. And as mentioned earlier, the Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago contradicts the gradual, branching tree pattern of life that Darwin’s theory would predict. In wrongly insisting that no debate exists, students are denied a full disclosure of the scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory.

Mr. Hill advances his erroneous claims through the use of fuzzy terms, claiming there is no debate over “evolution,” and simultaneously failing to point out the precise meaning of the term being used. In truth, “evolution” can mean many different things. In the new peer-reviewed science book Darwinism, Design and Public Education (Michigan State University Press 2003), Dr. Stephen Meyer and Dr. Michael Keas describe six distinct definitions of that term. The word “evolution” can mean everything from “change over time” to “universal common ancestry” to the idea that all of life’s history can be explained as the product of unguided, purposeless material processes. And, as Meyer points out, science research shows there are differing levels of evidentiary support for each meaning of the term “evolution.” For example, while the idea that “change over time” exists is not controversial, “evolution” in the sense of “universal common ancestry” is in dispute amongst scientists. Unfortunately, most students are not being taught about the different meanings of “evolution” and the evidence supporting or contradicting each meaning.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hill tries to portray the issue as whether creationism should be given equal time in public school science curriculum or whether it should be included at all. If that were the issue, the debate would already be over, as the Supreme Court held in Edwards v. Aguillard that it is unconstitutional to teach creationism in public schools.

The real issue is whether a student’s education in science, a discipline concerned with facts, should extend to those facts that contradict Darwin’s theory as well as those facts that support it. Yet, Mr. Hill further avoids the issue by wrongfully labeling any scientific critic of Darwin’s theory a member of the religious right or a creationist. He likewise misunderstands intelligent design and mistakenly confuses it with creationism. Whereas creationism is concerned with defending a literal biblical creation account, intelligent design has no concern for the source of design. Rather, intelligent design is merely concerned with whether design can be empirically detected. In any case, instruction in the scientific weaknesses of Darwin’s theory does not require a student be taught intelligent design.

Students should have all the evidence they need to understand and critically analyze Darwin’s theory. This requires we end science censorship and teach students both the theory’s strengths and weaknesses.