“E” is for evolution; “F” is for Fordham

We count on scientists to tell us what they know and do not know–not just what they want us to hear. But when it comes to the origin and evolution of life on earth, spokesmen for official science–and science education–have been far less forthcoming than we might wish.
When writing in scientific journals, leading biologists candidly discuss many scientific difficulties facing contemporary versions of Darwin’s theory. Yet when these same scientists take on the public defense of Darwinism–in educational policy statements and textbooks–that candor disappears behind a rhetorical curtain. “There’s a feeling in biology that scientists should keep their dirty laundry hidden,” says biologist Danny Hillis, adding that “there’s a strong school of thought in biology that one should never question Darwin in public.”

Moreover, many spokesmen for science not only hesitate to criticize Darwin’s theory, they now increasingly demand unquestioned public acceptance of it–all in the name of good science education.

Consider: Recently, the Fordham Foundation, a private educational think tank, released a report in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “grading” the science standards of various states. Their sole criterion for assessment: “full instruction” in Darwinian evolution. Not surprisingly, Kansas, singled out for scorn, received an “F”.

The report refused to allow any critical discussion of scientific difficulties associated with Darwinism. Indeed, it denied that any exist. As biologist Paul Gross said in the report, “no evidentiary claim against ‘Darwinism’ has so far withstood testing while the evidence in favor of natural selection grows exponentially.” The report concluded reassuringly that “no controversy about Darwinism exists at the university level.”

But is this really the case? Are Fordham’s biology experts telling us everything they know about the evidence concerning life’s origins? It’s hard to think so.

Technical journals across the subdisciplines of biology now document numerous problems with neo-Darwinism. Though few biologists dispute the power of natural selection to produce small-scale “micro-evolutionary” changes (such as those in the size and shape of Darwin’s famous finch beaks), many now doubt that the Darwinian mechanism can explain the large-scale “macro-evolutionary” innovations necessary to build new organisms (such as birds) in the first place. As biologists Gilbert, Opitz and Raff put it, “natural selection explains the survival but not the arrival of the fittest.”

Yet the Fordham report rejects the distinction between micro and macro-evolution “as creationist jargon” and chastises states such as Kansas that have tried to make it in their curricular standards. Indeed, the report fails to make any distinction between separate meanings of “evolution”–a term that can refer to anything from trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces. Yet many biology texts treat evidence of evolution in the former trivial sense as proof of 1the latter philosophically-laden sense–an egregious fallacy that the Fordham report ignores, despite its stated concern for good science education.

Consider: Fossil studies reveal “a biological big bang” near the beginning of the Cambrian period (530 million years ago) when some 40 separate major groups of organisms (including most all the “phyla” or basic body plans of modern animals) emerged suddenly without clear precursors.

Fossil finds have repeatedly confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms–not the gradual step-by-step change predicted by neo-Darwinism. Yet, neither basal biology texts, nor the Fordham report, discuss the challenge that Cambrian fossils pose to neo-Darwinism.

To compound matters, many textbooks support Darwinian claims by misrepresenting facts. For example, many biology texts continue to use misleading drawings of embryos to support Darwin’s common ancestry thesis. These diagrams, first published by the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel in the 19th century, allegedly demonstrate the similarity of the early embryological development of fish, chickens, pigs and humans.

Yet, biologists have long known that different classes of vertebrates do not strongly resemble each other during early development. Earlier this year, Harvard professor Stephen Gould characterized these drawings as “fraudulent.” Gould wrote that we “have the right to be both astonished and ashamed by the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.” Yet, Fordham and the science association do not even mention this or other errors.

Of course, the presence of textbook error doesn’t mean there isn’t a case to be made for Darwin’s theory. Nor does it mean that students shouldn’t learn it. They should. But students also have a right to know the scientific weaknesses of neo-Darwinism and that biology texts misrepresent important facts. The public has a right to know a good deal more than the science education establishment has been willing to tell.

Stephen C. Meyer directs Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.