Andrew Moore is manager of the Science & Society Programme at the European Molecular Biology Organization and he has some strong views on the way evolutionary theory is taught within Europe. In a Commentary article in Nature, he is insistent that "Science teaching must evolve". This is (possibly) a welcome emphasis, because ID advocates have been saying something similar for a long time. In this context, the word "evolve" does not mean undirected, unsupervised change, but the intelligent engineering of the curriculum and the way it is taught.
A resource for teachers not mentioned by Moore (For more, go here)
There is common ground with Andrew Moore about some of the faults of present practices.
"[M]ost schools across Europe still teach phylogeny based on comparative anatomy, embryology and physiology. This works fairly well, but to preserve it as the paradigm to describe evolution in the face of a more robust approach is like continuing to describe the universe and matter in terms of newtonian mechanics, neglecting relativity and quantum mechanics. In fact, it is worse, because newtonian mechanics is sound and consistent within certain frames of reference. Phylogeny based on similarity of form is fundamentally unsound because of the adaptation and convergent evolution witnessed in nature."
Clearly, Moore finds serious limitations in traditional approaches to taxonomy. There are too many ambiguities for this to be handled within school science classes, and it is certainly possible for students to question the outcomes in ways that would not show evolutionary theory in a favourable light. The result, says Moore, is that "they leave school without fully understanding how well supported evolutionary theory is. Worse still, the understanding they have - based on the fossil record - is easy prey to specious arguments from anti-science movements." So, instead, Moore wants a strong emphasis on molecular phylogeny:
"Molecular phylogenetics is routine science. In the early 1960s researchers were already comparing gene sequences to infer evolutionary relatedness. Early work included the comparison of haemoglobin sequences between horses, pigs, cattle and rabbits, and between various primates."
"It is, however, worth asking how teachers will deal with the material. The theoretical basis of molecular phylogenetics should be simple to grasp. A useful, albeit imperfect, analogy is the tracing of modern European languages back to archaic language groups by studying 'mutations' in spelling and pronunciation. [. . .] But equipping teachers with modern tools is rather left to chance, and many have trouble with ideas such as the molecular clock - a basic concept in molecular evolution."
This heavy emphasis on molecular phylogenetics does not do justice to the different assessments by scientists of this particular methodology of handling data. An important contribution to this legitimate debate was blogged here: Undermining the assumed hegemony of molecular systematics. Another blog drew attention to the problems of using molecular data to assess time intervals: Molecular clocks tell the wrong time!
The point is that these are legitimate debates within science. The implication of Moore's essay is that the molecular data is free of the ambiguities of "comparative anatomy, embryology and physiology" and the "fossil record". But this is simply erroneous.
Another problem area for origins teaching where there is (possible) agreement concerns Origin of Life research. Moore realises that this is not Darwinism and that it is highly speculative. He writes in a way that is reminiscent of an ID scientist with concerns about the way this subject is taught:
"Speculations on the chemical origins of life are almost universally covered in school curricula under 'Evolution', despite the questionable relevance of the topic for evolution, and its rather uncertain scientific basis. At most it represents an opportunity to discuss the principles of disagreement and competing ideas in science. But it is far from sound evolutionary theory."
Is there a way forward? Moore sees some light on the horizon.
"A developer of first-class teaching resources in molecular biology, the National Centre for Biotechnology Education (NCBE) in Reading, UK, will soon make a significant contribution for molecular evolution. [. . .] the NCBE is preparing "A birthday present from Mr Darwin": a teaching resource on modern concepts in evolution, to be circulated to UK schools and hosted on a freely accessible webpage. One of the 12 exercises, for example, involves studying the melanocortin-1 receptor (McR1) gene sequences from paleontological finds to deduce the probable coat colour of woolly mammoths."
In passing, it is worth noting that ID scientists would put the emphasis on molecular biology and its implications for variation in living things (rather than molecular evolution). However, the puzzle in the quote above is that the "probable coat colour of woolly mammoths" completely by-passes anything linked to Darwin's theory. The genetics of body hair colouration is common ground for ID and evolutionary biologists.
Let's go to the final paragraph:
"There is something more serious at stake: the erosion of public trust in Darwin's original theory of evolution by natural selection in the face of 'alternative theories' from the Intelligent Design movement. An article in Science recently demonstrated a moderate correlation between knowledge of genetics and acceptance of the theory of evolution among members of the general public. No less than before, evolutionary theory needs to be buttressed by all the good science it can get, and there is no better place to start than in school."Oh dear! Where is the emphasis on finding truth? Where is the desire to explore the issues and follow the evidence wherever it leads? Implicit in this article is the recognition that the traditional defences of Darwinism are not as rigorous or persuasive as Darwinists would like them to be. Instead of teaching evidence for and against the theory and developing critical skills in students, the counsel is one of burying old arguments and closing ranks behind molecular phylogenetics to buttress up Darwin's explanation of the origin of species. Is this what education is really about?
Science teaching must evolve
Nature 453, 31-32 (1 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453031a
Abstract: Evolutionary theory, study and knowledge moved on dramatically in the latter half of the twentieth century, but school teaching, curricula and teacher training are still in the primeval soup era
Tyler, D. Suggestions for improving the teaching of evolutionary biology, ARN Literature Blog, 25 April 2008.
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