Santa Barbara News-Press, December 24, 2000

Evolution Theater: A View from the Peanut Gallery


By Mark Hartwig

One thing I love about the creation/evolution controversy is that it provides no end of amusement.

Take the summer of 1999 for example. When the Kansas state board of education voted to de-emphasize the more speculative aspects of evolution in the state science standards, folks went wild.

In a broadside published in Time, Harvard paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould suggested that "as patriotic Americans we should cringe in embarrassment that, at the dawn of a new technological millennium, a jurisdiction in our heartland has opted to suppress one of the greatest triumphs of human discovery."

A little later, Scientific American, editor-in-chief John Rennie urged college admissions officers to "make it clear [to the Kansas school board] that in light of the newly lowered educational standards in Kansas, the qualifications of any students applying from that state in the future will have to be considered very carefully."

Judging from the hyperbole you'd never guess that the Kansas standards require as much knowledge of evolution as any other state in the union. Yet the melodrama has gone on for over a year.

For sheer paranoia, however, the current controversy in Pennsylvania wins the prize.

The controversy centers on Pennsylvania's proposed academic standards for science and technology. Among hundreds of other things, these standards specify that students should "acquire the knowledge and skills needed to . . . compare and contrast scientific theories and beliefs" and to "critically examine the status of existing theories."

In physical science, chemistry and physics, this means that students must be able to do things like "evaluate mathematical formulas that calculate the efficiency of specific chemical and mechanical systems." In biology, they must be able to do things like "analyze evidence of fossil records, similarities in body structures, embryological studies and DNA studies that support or do not support the theory of evolution" and "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution."

These are just the kinds of skills that science educators normally long for. Except, that is, for the ones having to do with evolution. What do they think of those?

"It's code," said Molleen Matsumura, of the National Center for Science Education, an organization headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., whose purpose is defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

"There are people waiting in the wings to 'help' teachers with that," she said, referring to "creationists."

Matsumura also fretted that some teachers may think they have a green light to teach creationism.

This all makes for great theater. But while our heroes have been out guarding the schools from creationists, they have neglected more serious problems.

These problems have been documented in a new book by Jonathan Wells, a Berkeley-educated postdoctoral biologist and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Titled Icons of Evolution, this new book uncovers many false and misleading claims about evolution made by introductory biology texts--claims that mainstream research biologists know are wrong.

One example that Wells documents is the peppered moth. If you've taken an introductory biology class in the last couple of decades, you've probably been told that the peppered moth is a classic example of "evolution action." You've probably also seen pictures of these moths resting on tree trunks, showing how their coloration either camouflages them or exposes them to predation by birds.

According to the textbooks, in woodlands where the color of the trunks was darkened by pollution, moth populations became predominantly dark colored. When the trunks became light again, following the imposition of pollution control, the populations shifted back to light colored moths.

That seems pretty straightforward. Problem is, biologists who study peppered moths have known since the late 1980s that moths in the wild don't rest on tree trunks. Instead, they apparently rest on the undersides of small horizontal branches in the tree canopy.

So the textbook story is wrong. Worse yet, the photos have been staged. Since the moths don't normally rest on the trunks, some photographers have glued or pinned dead specimens to the trees. Others used live moths. Dazed by the sunlight, these night-flying moths don't move around much.

Most textbooks also contain drawings of embryos that biologists have known to be false for over a century. Indeed, in 1997 one researcher who led a team of international experts in an investigation of these drawings remarked, "It looks like it's turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology."

So where's the outrage? Where are the calls to clean up these errors?

To his credit, Stephen Jay Gould has spoken out about the embryo drawings. But by his own admission he's known about the problem for decades. And it wasn't until a "creationist" (actually a professor of biochemistry) spilled the beans in the August 13, 1999, New York Times, that he chose to speak out. And then he chastised creationists for trying to capitalize on the exposed fraud.

With this kind of attitude, it's no wonder that the origins debate continues to blaze in our public schools. If the "defenders" of science education were more diligent to clean up their own act, perhaps they would have fewer problems with creationists. They would certainly engender more trust.

That won't happen soon, But until it does, we can at least look forward to more fine theatrics.

Popcorn anyone?

Mark Hartwig is science and worldview editor for Focus on the Family and former editor of Teachers in Focus magazine. He received his Ph.D. in educational psychology from UCSB.