Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Explore Evolution: Notes from the Field

Fieldwork, for me, used to mean putting on a pair of hiking boots and crawling through entangled masses of rhododendron in the Southern Appalachian Mountains to catch the elusive Mountain Dusky salamander. As Education Project Director at the National Center for Science Education, fieldwork looks entirely different these days. During the first weekend in August 2007, I attended the Science Teacher Symposium at Biola University in La Mirada, California, for the unveiling of Explore Evolution, a slick new supplementary textbook being peddled by the Discovery Institute. (Nick Matzke gave advance warning of it in RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 [6]: 28–30.)

When I arrived at the symposium, I was not sure whether I should announce my association with the National Center for Science Education. The registration form asked whether applicants were teachers and where they taught. I qualified: I am a teacher, and I was then teaching an on-line course entitled "Teaching Evolution" for teachers through Montana State University.

My intention was certainly not to keep my identity secret, but it became clear quite early in the symposium that I was in an environment that was very discordant with my religious and spiritual beliefs as well as my training as an evolutionary biologist — I might add, in that order. As the symposium proceeded, the climate became overtly hostile toward people who accept evolution, and specifically NCSE, and I decided it best to keep my NCSE affiliation quiet.

The uncomfortable feeling I experienced when the symposium opened with an evening prayer to "Our Lord, Jesus Christ" might be thought to parallel those of students with religious fundamentalist beliefs who enter a biology classroom and learn that all organisms share a common ancestry. But there is a huge difference: the biology student can still believe in God and accept evolution. Evolution is a scientific endeavor dealing with natural explanations for natural phenomena; it cannot make any statements about the existence of God. That was not the attitude of the presenters at the Teacher Symposium, however; they claimed that humans do not share common ancestry with other organisms, and those scientists who have publicly expressed their belief in God and their acceptance of evolution are being dishonest about either their acceptance of evolution (for fear of retribution by the scientific community) or their faith.

Following the evening prayer, we were treated to a lecture by Jonathan Wells on "Evolution and Intelligent Design in Public Education". Kitzmiller v Dover may have been a nail in the coffin of attempts to get "intelligent design" into the public school classroom, and Wells at least acknowledged the verdict as a temporary disaster, but those on the evolution/creationism frontlines have been bracing for the next attack on science education, which will be waged beneath a banner reading "Teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution".

Wells's talk might have been taken from the chapters of Explore Evolution, but included only the "reply" sections, which outline the weaknesses of evolution. Despite the title of his talk, "Evolution and Intelligent Design in Public Education", and the subtitle of Explore Evolution, "The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism" (emphasis mine), not once did Wells mention the overwhelming evidence, the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers, and the statements by numerous scientific establishments in support of evolution as the best explanation we have for the diversity of life on earth. Nor did Wells address the requirements to teach evolution, clearly enunciated by the major professional associations of science teachers and outlined in all sets of state science standards receiving high ratings from the Fordham Foundation. Mike Keas, a faculty member at Biola University and organizer of the Science Teacher Symposium, argued that students should be encouraged to treat evolution as a jury would, forming an opinion given the evidence — as though a vote on the issue were an appropriate method of evaluation. Of course, neither Wells nor Keas nor the Explore Evolution text speak authoritatively or comprehensibly on the scientific evidence for evolution.

Evolution is …

What was overwhelmingly clear at the conference, although perhaps only to me given my training in organismic and evolutionary biology, was that neither Wells nor Keas understands evolution. Neither do the authors of Explore Evolution, as NCSE discovered in reviewing this new textbook that supposedly presents the arguments for and against "neo-Darwinism". The "arguments against evolution" were created by misrepresenting or misinterpreting the evidence for and predictions of evolution. For example, when asked about the whale fossil record as evidence for evolution, Wells's response was that "all whale fossils have adaptations that take them off the line of descent," which according to Wells, challenges this as an example of evolution. However, the whale fossil record is actually exactly as evolution predicts. Lineages that go extinct have combinations of traits representing adaptations no longer present in extant forms. Furthermore, it is the similarities, not the differences, that inform our hypotheses about common ancestry. Wells was able to perpetuate such anti-evolution propaganda largely because the audience could not recognize the falsity of his claims and the absurdity of his explanations. I thought about challenging Wells, but feared I might be thrown out of the symposium for my acceptance of evolution and association with NCSE — at one point called "the Gestapo" by Wells and Keas.

Wells also presented evidence for "intelligent design", which is not to be found in the Explore Evolution textbook. He claimed that ID does not rely on biblical authority or religious doctrine and does not tell us the nature of the designer, but went on to inform participants that for him, the designer is the God of the Bible. Of course the Science Teacher Symposium on Explore Evolution had absolutely "no religious agenda" — a claim continually made by Keas, Wells, and John Bloom, head of the Science and Religion Program at Biola, formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.

The final piece of Wells's advice to participants was what to teach about evolution in the public school science classroom. Only a few of the thirty-odd participants in the room actually taught in a public institution, based on a show of hands. A few teachers, currently teaching at private Christian schools, were concerned about their "rights" should they teach in a public school, as though their rights might somehow include the right to instruct students in the specific doctrines of their Christian denominations. Wells's recommendations, reiterated by Keas in the next sessions of the symposium, were predictable. Teach "critical analysis", the evidence for and against neo-Darwinism, but not "intelligent design", unless at a private institution supportive of creationism.

Explore Evolution Goes to School

The remainder of the symposium was very disappointing. The organizers advertised that teachers would be supplied with curriculum materials to accompany Explore Evolution, but the materials turned out to be just two handouts and a DVD titled Investigating Evolution. The first handout included the schedule for the symposium, a section on "How to Teach Evolutionary Biology to High School Students" complete with advice to "teach the controversy" (as supposedly encouraged by the Santorum Amendment; see Glenn Branch and Eugenie C Scott, "The antievolution law that wasn't", The American Biology Teacher 2003; 65 [3]: 165–6), a list of "Resources on Neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design" (the standard list of anti-evolution books by the usual suspects), and finally a page entitled "Tell Me More", an evaluation survey for the present symposium and an announcement for the next (yikes!) Biola Science Teacher Symposium, to be held in 2008. The second handout included a variety of documents intended to help teachers use Explore Evolution in the classroom: an "Ancillary Introduction", "Lecture Outline to Explore Evolution", "Biology Textbook and Supplement Correlation", "Sample Lesson Plans to Explore Evolution", and finally a "Test Bank to Explore Evolution", all of which simply restate the erroneous information presented in the text.

On a pedagogical note, Explore Evolution was promoted, both on the Explore Evolution website and at the symposium, as "the first inquiry-based curriculum to key aspects of Darwin's theory". Most inquiry-based learning involves encouraging students to generate open-ended questions, thereby offering them the opportunity to direct their own investigations and find their own answers. Explore Evolution fails on every front with respect to claims of being an "inquiry-based" curriculum. There are no questions, only assertions. Students do not find their own answers; they are provided with incorrect information and/or quotes from scientists taken out of context, and then asked to regurgitate the information. For example, the "Lecture Outline" asks students to fill in the blanks:
Evolution #1: _____ Over Time;
Evolution #2: _____ Descent;
Evolution #3: _____ of Change: Natural _____ acting on random _________.
This type of "fill in the blank" learning is definitely not "inquiry-based"; instead, it is an intellectual insult to students, teachers, and scientists, as is the content of Explore Evolution. In my judgment, science and science education will suffer disastrous consequences should the creationist agenda presented in Explore Evolution, and promoted at the Teacher Symposium at Biola University, be included in any science curriculum.

By Louise S Mead
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