Creationism has become a possible minor issue here in Florida recently as instructional materials committees conduct a scheduled review of materials and recommend new textbooks for the state’s classrooms. A book meant for marine science classes contained some unusual language that raised red flags for a couple of members of one committee. “Life on an Ocean Planet” (a Florida edition published by Current Publishing Corp with a copyright of 2011, ISBN 978-1-878663-66-5) contained a two page informational sidebar entitled “Questions About The Origin and Development Of Life” that is packed with good ol’ fashioned creationist language. No, I am not exaggerating; it’s really packed. For a purported science book, these two pages manage to mangle basic science concepts to a jaw-dropping degree while at the same time injecting a laundry list of tired creationist objections to evolution. Here’s an example:
“First, Darwin proposed that natural selection is the driving force for change. It favors organisms with particular characteristics (color, size, etc.) that enhance survival. Those with these characteristics survive and reproduce more that those lacking them. Over time, the favorable characteristics predominate in the organism’s population. For example, suppose there are white and black variations of an insect, and birds eat fewer black ones because they’re harder to see. Over time, the insect population will become predominantly or almost entirely black. This is called microevolution or genetic drift. It is the expression or suppression of characteristics that already exist in the genetic code (DNA).”
Wrong. The terms genetic drift and natural selection are not synonymous but describe very different processes in evolution. Genetic drift is a random process not driven by environmental or adaptive pressures. Natural selection is nonrandom and is caused by environmental factors that affect the reproduction of living things. The example provided in the text of white and black variations of an insect being eaten by a bird describes natural selection and has nothing to do with genetic drift. The statement “This is called microevolution or genetic drift” is a blatant error in fact. Students reading this will be misled and confused.
That’s just the beginning. The authors followed the standard creationist script of inaccurately defining macro- and microevolution, insisting that there is a lack of transitional fossils, and claiming that some biological structures are irreducibly complex. An example from the text:
“Skeptics observe that general evolution doesn’t adequately explain how a complex structure, such as the eye, could come to exist through infrequent random mutations.”
The “skeptics” are never identified. Earlier in the text the authors’ term “general evolution” is synonymous with “macroevolution”, and it requires “that new information enter the genetic code”, which the authors cast doubt on. And, yes, evolution can produce complex structures.
Another curious quote to chew on: “Virtually all scientists accept genetic drift as a valid, well proven theory. General evolution, on the other hand, is the mainstream view in biology, but is not universally accepted among all scientists beyond biology.” As you can see, the grossly inaccurate use of “genetic drift” permeates the text. And what are the authors trying to say with the “scientists beyond biology” comment? Are biologists the weirdoes none of the other scientists want to talk to at parties?
Florida Citizens for Science president Joe Wolf sent a letter to Florida Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith earlier this week requesting that he review this material for himself prior to deciding on whether or not to adopt this text. Here is the final paragraph of that letter:
A textbook’s job is to present the current state of science so that students can engage with contemporary science. However, this textbook’s treatment of “Origin and Development Of Life” is clearly bad science and bad pedagogy. The sidebar is simultaneously actively misinforming, at odds with state standards, and ultimately irrelevant to marine science. It should be removed entirely, as there is so little information that is either correct or useful to make it worth retaining.
In the opening of this post, I said that this was a “possible minor issue.” First of all, this is just one textbook out of many working their way through the adoption process. This is an important issue, but not one that requires a “damn the torpedoes” mentality. Secondly, there is some confusion about the current status of this book in the process. Florida Citizens for Science was informed that the textbook was approved by its adoption committee on a 7-2 vote. The reason why Florida Citizens for Science sent a letter to Commissioner Smith is because he has the final say in textbook adoption after the committees submit their recommendations. The committee vote is clouded in uncertainty, though, because the Department of Education told the St. Pete Times that the committee approval was with the caveat that “two specific pages,” presumably the sidebar, be removed. Information we have about the committee vote indicates that they voted to approve the textbook overall, and then a second vote was called for to remove the sidebar. That second vote failed but a compromise was reached to “fix” the sidebar. Quite frankly, the sidebar is unfixable! Further muddying of the waters comes from there being two versions of the textbook: an electronic one on CD and a print one. It’s unclear whether the votes pertain to both versions or just one since it looks like the committee only reviewed the electronic one.
We are cautiously optimistic that the Department of Education’s statement is a clear indication that the problem is solved. However, Florida Citizens for Science is keeping track of this issue just in case. Updates will be posted as they become available.