Introduction: The Catechism Versus the Data
On September 24, 2008, biologist and science writer John Timmer published an online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). Timmer had previously written about EE without having read it, so Discovery Institute sent him a copy.
Alas—having EE in his hands improved neither the quality of Timmer’s writing about the book, nor indeed his coverage of the relevant science. In fact, Timmer so baldly misrepresents both the content of Explore Evolution, but especially the associated scientific evidence and controversies, that his review perfectly illustrates the need for a book like EE.
Our reply will reverse the order of Timmer’s review. He starts by using nearly 1200 words to speculate about the motives of EE‘s authors. Since Timmer did not contact any of us, his speculations—such as “the authors know precisely the sort of conclusions they’d like everyone to reach”—cannot be better than groundless. We shall comment briefly in the last part of our reply, however, on a couple of his more philosophical points.
We want to focus on the science. Timmer’s review reflects a deep dilemma that increasingly confronts educators in biology. The devil is in the details—the data—but if organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, or the National Association of Biology Teachers, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science, don’t want students to hear about the devil, namely, about challenges to accepted theory, then they will have to omit—i.e., censor—the data, namely, the evidence and how biologists variously interpret it.
Hence, many scientific publications that raise interesting questions about evolution will never see the inside of a classroom. The questions are too risky. Science education will become a catechism, diverging from science itself, because the questions now being raised by many evolutionary biologists cut ever closer to claims long held to be “fact.”
This dilemma—call it the catechism versus the data—does not concern intelligent design, which has already found its way into public attention without science classroom endorsement.
The dilemma concerns, rather, how evolution is taught. When students hear that “biologists today know that natural selection explains the origin of complexity,” or “all biologists agree that every living thing descended from a single common ancestor”—stock claims in many biology textbooks—they are being miseducated about the actual state of the science.
And that is wrong.
In what follows, then, we rebut Timmer’s hopelessly inaccurate construal of the contents of EE, and the evidence on which the book rests.