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Young male teacher paleontologist in the classroom
Young male teacher paleontologist in the classroom
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Natural Selection Found in Report on Science Education

Science teaching, and the teaching of evolution in particular, continue to be a flashpoint in American education. Hoping to correct the problem, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation just released a report (with the American Association for the Advancement of Science), “Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States.”

Written by Lawrence Lerner, the report recommends increased emphasis in America’s public schools on biological evolution. Unfortunately, by failing to point out that students are being systematically misled about the scientific evidence, Mr. Lerner and the Fordham Foundation are encouraging precisely the sort of bad science they pretend to criticize.

Of course, biology students should be taught about biological evolution. But in most of our schools the concept is being supported with “evidence” that scientists themselves have shown to be false or misleading. For example, most introductory biology textbooks feature drawings that supposedly show similarities in the early embryos of animals with backbones, and these similarities are claimed to be evidence that humans and fish evolved from a common ancestor. But embryologists have known for more than a century that the embryos are not most similar in their earliest stages. In 1997, a British embryologist called the drawings one of the most famous fakes in biology.

Earlier this year, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould called the continued use of these “fraudulent” embryo drawings the academic equivalent of murder. “We do, I think, have the right, he wrote, 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.” Obviously, this is a serious problem in biology education. Why does the Fordham report ignore it?

There are least 10 major examples of such textbook falsehoods, such as the popular photographs of camouflaged peppered moths resting on tree trunks as evidence for natural selection. But biologists have known since the 1980s that peppered moths don’t normally rest on tree trunks. The textbook photographs have been faked -many of them by pinning or gluing dead moths on desired backgrounds.

When University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne learned of this in 1998 — more than a decade after it was announced in the scientific literature — he wrote that he was “embarrassed” to find that the peppered moth story he had been teaching his students for years was seriously flawed. He compared his reaction to “the dismay attending my discovery, at age 6, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve.”

If a professional evolutionary biologist can be misled for so long by such falsehoods, then surely it is time to correct them. By failing to do so, the Lerner report implicitly condones scientific misconduct instead of good science.

The Lerner report also perpetuates the lie that Kansas has eliminated evolution from its state science standards, awarding that state an “F-minus” for “removing all references to biological evolution.” In fact, the standards adopted by Kansas in August 1999 increased coverage of biological evolution fivefold over the standards that had been in effect since 1995. In fact, the wording of the new standards resembles the Lerner report’s own recommendations for higher grade levels. What enraged dogmatic Darwinists was that the Kansas School Board failed to require local districts to teach that Darwin’s theory explains all major features of living things – something that even respected biologists question.

Either Mr. Lerner did not bother to read the 1999 Kansas State Science Standards, or he is intentionally misrepresenting them. Whichever is true, his report appears to be just another attempt to promote Darwinian dogmatism without regard for the facts. Such dogmatism bears a major share of the responsibility for the current problems in American science education.

In the past, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has made valuable contributions to educational reform. In this case, however, the Foundation has allied itself with the wrong people. Foundation President Chester R. Finn laments the tendency of public schools to “brainwash” children. “Instead of children being taught to think for themselves,” he writes, “students are purposefully led into certain belief structures of importance to one or another group of adult activists. Instead of being presented with accurate information, they are fed opinions and conclusions.”

Sadly, the Lerner report contributes to just the sort of “brainwashing” Mr. Finn criticizes. Mr. Lerner wants students to learn Darwinian evolution – without being told that many textbook “evidences” for the theory have been faked. Mr. Lerner wants students to be taught scientific misconduct masquerading as good science, instead of being given accurate information and being encouraged to think for themselves.

This stunning failure of the Fordham Foundation to live up to its principles may be due partly to its reliance on the advice of biologist Paul Gross. The high-minded language of Chester Finn quoted above is from the Foreword of a Fordham Foundation article by Mr. Gross (quoted in the Lerner report). In that article, Mr. Gross claims “assertions that ‘Darwinism is in trouble with the evidence’ are propaganda,” and the Lerner report follows Mr. Gross in implying that only creationists are critical of Darwinism. If Darwinism is not in trouble with the evidence, however, why is the best-known “evidence” for it misrepresented so consistently in our nation’s textbooks? The propagandists in this case are Mr. Gross and Mr. Lerner, and they have beguiled the Fordham Foundation into promoting bad science.

American science education is in serious need of reform. But the Fordham Foundation report is part of the problem, not the solution.


A biologist and senior Fellow of Discovery Institute in Seattle, Mr. Wells is author of the book “Icons of Evolution” (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2000).


Senior Fellow and program director of Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow, Assistant Research Professor, Executive Editor
Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, Executive Editor of The Stream and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute where he works with the Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality. In addition to writing many academic articles, books, and popular essays on a wide variety of subjects, he edited the award winning anthology God & Evolution and co-authored The Privileged Planet.  His most recent book is The Human Advantage. Richards has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a B.A. with majors in Political Science and Religion. He lives with his family in the Washington DC Metro area.  

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.