Let’s change science standards and let students do real science

Originally published at Philadelphia Inquirer

Should Pennsylvania’s science standards be changed?

Draft language for the standards is expected to go before the state legislature early in 2001. According to standards adopted in 1998, students are expected to “know” that “organisms arose from materials and life forms of the past” because of “evidence of evolution in the form of fossils . . . embryological studies and DNA studies.”

If the proposed changes are approved, students will be expected to analyze these same forms of evidence, as well as “new scientific facts,” to determine whether the facts “support or do not support the theory of evolution.”

Defenders of the old standards object that the proposed changes will leave “room for debate” over the validity of evolutionary theory and open the door to the teaching of biblical creationism in science classes. But the new standards say nothing about creationism. They merely encourage students to ask whether the evidence supports or does not support evolutionary theory.

Isn’t this what scientists are supposed to do? According to the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, “it is the nature of science to test and retest explanations against the natural world,” and “all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available.” Even a theory as widely held as Darwinian evolution must be tested and retested against the evidence.

Yet much of the “evidence” for evolution in current biology textbooks is false. For example, a 1953 experiment is widely used as evidence that life’s building-blocks could have formed from materials on the early earth. But geochemists have known since the 1960s that early earth conditions were probably nothing like those used in the 1953 experiment. When realistic conditions are used, the experiment doesn’t work. Textbooks omit this important fact.

All biology textbooks show branching-tree diagrams that trace the evolution of modern animals from a common ancestor and claim that this pattern is confirmed by scientific evidence. But most textbook ignore the “Cambrian explosion,” in which the major groups of animals appear in the fossil record fully formed at about the same time, without evolving from common ancestors – a fact that Darwin himself considered a “serious” problem for his theory.

As far as Darwin knew, the “strongest” evidence for his theory came from embryo drawings made by his German contemporary, Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel’s drawings purport to show that all animals with backbones have strikingly similar embryos, implying that they share a common ancestor.

But Haeckel faked his drawings. The embryos actually look quite different from one another. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in the March, 2000, issue of Natural History magazine that scientists should 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.”

Ten years ago, molecular biologists were hopeful that DNA studies would confirm Darwin’s “tree of life.” As they compared more and more genes, however, they found that relationships among the major kingdoms of life are a tangled thicket rather than a branching tree. In 1999, molecular biologist W. Ford Doolittle wrote in Science that scientists should stop trying to “force the data . . . into the mold provided by Darwin.”

As evidence for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, most textbooks rely on the story of peppered moths. Before 1820, most peppered moths were light-colored, but during the industrial revolution they became mostly dark-colored. In theory, the shift occurred because light-colored moths were more visible against pollution-darkened tree trunks, and thus were eaten by predatory birds. Textbooks typically illustrate this story with photographs of peppered moths on tree trunks. In the 1980s, however, biologists discovered that peppered moths in the wild don’t rest on tree trunks. The textbook photographs were staged — often by gluing or pinning dead moths in place.

Clearly, a person does not have to be religious — much less a fundamentalist — to object to the way students are now being taught evolution in Pennsylvania classrooms. Using falsehoods to insulate a theory from critical analysis is not education, but indoctrination.

The proposed new standards will encourage students to do what good scientists are supposed to do — examine the evidence and think critically about it. Pennsylvanians who want their children to receive the best possible science education should welcome them.

Jonathan Wells holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Berkeley and is currently a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is the author of “Icons of Evolution.” 

© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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.