Statement regarding the Texas State Board of Education hearings on biology textbooks by Dr. Jonathan Wells

Hello, my name is Jonathan Wells. I have a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley, where I also did post-doctoral research. I have published articles in several peer-reviewed scientific journals, I have taught embryology at a campus of the California State University, and I am a member of several scientific societies. Currently, I am a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here today.

I understand that my name came up at the July 9 hearing. I suppose I should be flattered, but am not here to talk about myself. Furthermore, I am NOT here to advocate the introduction of Intelligent Design or Biblical Creationism into biology textbooks, nor am I here to encourage you to remove or weaken the treatment of evolution in those textbooks.

I am here to help insure that textbooks are “free from factual errors,” in compliance with the Texas Education Code, and to insure that they enable students to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information,” as required by the provisions of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.

I have reviewed the coverage of evolution in all eleven biology textbooks being considered here for adoption. I found that many of them contain serious factual errors; and all of them, to one degree or another, fall short of enabling students to critique Darwin’s theory using scientific evidence and information. Since time is short, however, I will deal with only one topic: vertebrate embryos.

Charles Darwin thought that the embryos of vertebrates — animals with backbones — are most similar in their earliest stages, and become different only as they develop into their adult forms. He considered this to be evidence that all vertebrates are descended from a common ancestor; in fact, he believed that early vertebrate embryos show us more or less what the common ancestor of fish and humans looked like. Darwin considered this “by far the strongest single class of facts” in favor of his theory.

In the 1860s, German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel made some drawings to illustrate this point (Figure A). But Haeckel faked his drawings, as his own colleagues pointed out. He made the embryos in the top row appear far more similar than they actually are. Here is a comparison of Haeckel’s drawings with drawings of actual embryos (Figure B).

Despite the fact that Haeckel faked his drawings, they or some form of them still appear in many biology textbooks (Figure C, from Starr & Taggart). As Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 2000, we “have the right to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.”

Of the textbooks submitted for your consideration, two have improved slightly on Haeckel’s drawings (Figure D, from Biggs et al.), and two have replaced the drawings with actual photographs (Figure E, from Miller & Levine). But even these textbooks distort the facts.

Vertebrate embryos actually start out looking very different from each other (Figure F). Early vertebrate embryos differ markedly in their patterns of cell division and cell movement. Only after they reach the midpoint of development do they begin to appear somewhat similar. This is the stage Haeckel chose to portray as the first, and the Biggs and Miller-Levine textbooks perpetuate this factual error even though they do not use Haeckel’s drawings.

To conclude (Figure G): The Biggs and Miller-Levine pictures are of embryos at the midpoint of development, not the beginning. Vertebrate embryos are NOT most similar in their earliest stages, so what Darwin considered to be the strongest class of facts in favor of his theory are not facts at all. On the topic of vertebrate embryos, several of the textbooks you are considering for adoption perpetuate factual error and fail to enable students to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.”

Thank you.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.