The Alabama Insert

A Call for Impartial Science


by Norris Anderson

May 15, 1996

"Most Alabamians know by now that the state Board of Education voted last month to paste a warning label inside biology texts used in public schools...The push to adopt this label was provided by religious fundamentalists whose fear of science is rooted in a poor understanding of the methods of science...Must we now portray Alabama as a state that mocks science, confuses its children, insults its teachers and trivializes religious faith?" (From December 8, 1995, Mobile Press Register editorial)

This quotation is an example of a highly emotional reaction to the Alabama State Board of Education's decision to place an educational aid at the beginning of all high school biology texts. Is this reaction warranted? The purpose of this paper is to present the data upon which the State Board of Education's decision was based, and to allow the readers to make up their own minds.


The Problem

What constitutes good science teaching? The answer to this question determines the shape of the science curriculum and the type of textbooks selected. In 1995, Alabama's answer to this question changed the direction of science teaching in the state:

"Scientific literacy for all Alabama students serves as the goal of Alabama's K-12 Science Education Program. ...Scientific literacy enhances a person's ability to observe perceptively, reflect thoughtfully upon those observations, and comprehend the explanations offered. ...The K-12 science program is an inquiry-based program that allows for observation, discovery, prediction, problem-solving, theory usage, appreciation of the natural world, and finally a fascination with the scientific quest" (Alabama Course of Study Science, Bulletin 1995, No. 4, p. 1).

Alabama determined that good science teaching uses inquiry-based methods to reach the goal of "scientific literacy." The "Alabama Course of Study Science" gives further operational definitions of "inquiry-based methods" under the category of "required scientific processes." For example, required scientific processes for the Biology Core include:

"Understand fundamental assumptions... . ... Exhibit attitudes and habits appropriate to the scientific enterprise - curiosity, imagination, creativity, honesty, patience, logical reasoning, attention to detail, critical thinking, openness to new ideas, skepticism "(ibid, pp. 114-115).

The Alabama State Board of Education also adopted an amendment to the entire Course of Study which reads in part: "Explanations of the origin of life and major groups of plants and animals, including humans, shall be treated as theory and not as fact." This statement was adopted to insure that the controversial topic of origins is treated in a fair, impartial way, and subject to the same rules of inquiry as any other area of study.

The "Alabama Course of Study Science" is the standard for evaluating all science textbooks. It is the main tool used by the State Textbook Committee in determining which textbooks are acceptable for adoption. The problem faced by the 1995 State Textbook Committee, of which I was a member, was how to avoid a major train wreck between the "Alabama Course of Study Science"and the current crop of inquiry-deficient science textbooks submitted by mainline publishers.

When teaching evolutionary theory, current science textbooks read more like a catechism than scientific literature - they give the appearance of trying to indoctrinate rather than educate. They fail to meet high standards of good science education by inadequately defining terms, by presenting assumptions as conclusions, by not distinguishing between scientific evidence and inference, and by omitting all discussion of anomalous scientific data and unsolved problems.

An article in "The American Biology Teacher" analyzed 1991 biology textbooks and found the same problem of impeding the acquisition of critical thinking skills as we find in the 1995-96 editions:

...(I)t should be apparent that the errors, overstatements and omissions that we have noted in these biology texts, all tend to enhance the plausibility of hypotheses that are presented. More importantly, the inclusion of outdated material and erroneous discussions is not trivial. The items noted mislead students and impede their acquisition of critical thinking skills. If we fail to teach students to examine data critically, looking for points both favoring and opposing hypotheses, we are selling our youth short and mortgaging the future of scientific inquiry itself " ("Origin of Life Evolution in Biology Textbooks - A Critique," Mills, Lancaster, Bradley, The American Biology Teacher, Volume 55, No. 2, February, 1993, p. 83)

Good principles of science education have been sacrificed for a perceived greater good - to protect the theory of Darwinism. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, contends:

"In my opinion, using creation and evolution as topics for critical-thinking exercises in primary and secondary schools is virtually guaranteed to confuse students about evolution and may lead them to reject one of the major themes of science" (The Sciences, New York Academy of Science, January/February, 1996, pp. 20-25).

Perceived threats often lead to extreme reactions. The danger is the development of a type of scientific McCarthyism in which those who make constructive criticisms are lumped with "the enemy" and their comments dismissed. The purpose of the Alabama Insert is not to bring any "ism" into the science classroom. On the contrary, its purpose is to keep "isms" out and to insure that science is taught objectively.


The Insert

"A Message from the Alabama State Board of Education"

"This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

The Insert's introductory statements correct a problem found in many textbooks: confusing data with inference. For example, one textbook reads:

"...(N)early all biologists now see evolution as an extensively documented feature of life, much as historians who did not personally witness the U.S. Civil War are convinced, based on an accumulation of evidence, that the war really happened" (Biology, Campbell, Benjamin/Cummings, Addison-Wesley, 1993, p.12).

The critical difference between these phenomena is that no written eye-witness documents exist for macro-evolutionary events. Written eye-witness records do exist for the Civil War.

As any historian knows, interpreting a past event without eye-witness documents requires a greater degree of sophistication and hypothetical interpretation than if such documents exist. The fossil record is not a written document, but a collection of artifacts subject to interpretation based on selected assumptions. Fossils are analogous to artifacts such as canteens, cannons, and swords found on a battlefield. The fossil record contains nothing analogous to diaries or military documents.

The attempt to establish a false analogy between fossils and a written record does not serve the goal of teaching science as inquiry. The goal should not be to convince students of the validity of a given interpretation - as attempted by the authors of Understanding Biology: "...if the principle of evolution is central to biology, then we ought to be able to convince our students of its validity" (Times Mirror Mosby, 1998, p. vi). Instead, the goal should be to show the true nature of data and how to interpret it. To call an explanation a "theory" is not to demean it, but to show the type of interpretation required.

"The word "evolution" may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species. (White moths, for example, may "evolve" into gray moths.) This process is microevolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing to another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macroevolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things." (continuation from the Alabama Insert)

Good science education is based on the accurate definition and use of terms. Unfortunately, the word "evolution" is used in such an ambiguous manner as to actually be misleading. Here are some examples:

"Evolve" is defined as "to change over time" (Evolution, Prentice Hall, p. 114F).

"So, when you hear someone wonder about whether 'evolution' occurs, remind yourself that evolution simply means change through time" (Biology Concepts and Applications, Cecie Star, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1994, p. 191).

Note that these first two definitions could also apply to aging, migrations, and the effects of weight lifting. One book has a section entitled "Evolution on the Farm"(Science Interactions, Glencoe, 1995, Course Three, p. 557). "Evolution" does not even appear in the glossary of Biological Science An Ecological Approach (BSCS Green Version). Some books refer to designs by human intelligence as analogous to evolutionary events:

"In the previous investigation, you gathered evidence that bicycles have changed a lot in the past 170 years....In this investigation, you will examine evidence for change in horses" (Middle School Science And Technology, BSCS, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1994, Level C, p. 108).

Note how the following definition blurs the distinction between what is an inferred process and what is an observed process:

"evolution: process by which modern organisms have descended from ancient organisms; any change in the relative frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population" (Biology, Miller Levine, Prentice Hall, 1995, reference / p.29).

The second part of the definition refers to the process used to produce different breeds of dogs such as poodles or fox terriers. Once this definition is established, the book then treats evolution as "fact" (a directly observed process) because part of the definition includes a process that is observed. Thus, a big jump is made from micro-evolution (variations within a species) which is an observed process to macro-evolution (formation of major groups of life forms) which is an unobserved inference from fossils and other data. This linguistic slight of hand confuses rather than instructs students in the proper methods of scientific inquiry.

Perhaps the most important definitional clarification is that "evolution" can also refer to the unsupported belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things. The greatest failures of the texts are that philosophical assumptions are not identified, and that such assumptions are treated as "scientific knowledge". An unwarranted world view is presented to students under the color of scientific authority and knowledge. The following quotations illustrate this problem:

"We can learn a great deal about the nature of life by comparing body systems among invertebrate groups and by tracing the patterns of change as we move from one phylum to another. As we do so, it is important to keep this concept in mind: Evolution is random and undirected. ...In many ways, each animal phylum represents an experiment in the design of body structures to perform the tasks necessary for survival. Of course, there has never been any kind of plan to these experiments because evolution works without either plan or purpose" (Biology, Miller Levine, Prentice Hall, 1995, p. 658).

"One of the great wonders of our existence and of life itself is that it has all arisen through a combination of evolutionary processes and chance events (Biology Concepts and Connections, Benjamin Cummings, 1994, p. 390).

".. neither human nor divine agency is needed for evolution to occur" (Biology, Fourth Edition, Arms and Camp, Saunders College Publishing, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1995, p. 371).

Statements such as "evolution works without either plan or purpose" illustrate that Darwinism is a theory with explicitly anti-theistic implications. Clearly, those who promote Darwinianism as fact have a theological ax to grind:

"...the material world is all that exists...there is nothing supernatural, no God or gods, no creator, no creation" (Monkey Business, Eugenie Scott, New York Academy of Science, Jan/Feb 1996, pp. 20-25).

To teach this philosophy uncritically in state schools establishes a religion antagonistic to all theistic views. Students who are theists (such as Muslims, Christians, Jews) are misled by switches back and forth between a scientific meaning of evolution and an ideological one. By identifying the ideological meaning of evolution the Insert helps to create a more impartial science classroom, one that, hopefully, is free of religious biases.

"There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbooks, including:

Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion)?

Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record in a long time?

Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record?

How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of "instructions" for building a living body?

Study hard and keep an open mind. Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth." (continuation of the Alabama Insert)

Missing in current texts is one of the key elements of teaching science as inquiry. This element is described in materials pioneered in 1963 by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) using the coined word "enquiry":

"The teaching of science as enquiry would also include a fair treatment of the doubts and incompleteness of science and indicate the possibility that through the advance of enquiry scientific knowledge can change" (Biology Teachers' Handbook, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1963, p. 41).

In most biology texts reviewed by the State Textbook Committee no mention is made of any problems with current theories of origins. The texts read more like a legal brief than an objective presentation of a theory subject to continual re-evaluation and modification. These texts deprive students of information that would help them evaluate what is being taught and that would stimulate them intellectually. Students should be exposed to evidences at variance with the prevailing Darwinian theory. The Insert attempts to remedy this problem by highlighting several areas where further research is needed.

All texts, except one, omit any reference to one of the most classic and intriguing problems - the Cambrian explosion. As Time magazine expresses it:

"For billions of years, simple creatures like plankton, bacteria and algae ruled the earth. Then, suddenly, life got very complicated"("Evolution's Big Bang," Time, December 4, 1995, p. 67).

"Suddenly" is the operative word. All phyla but one appeared during 10 million years of the Cambrian explosion, 530 million years ago. Why so fast? Why no new phyla level body plans since the "explosion?" Why no transitional forms between the phyla? The uniqueness of the Cambrian explosion is summarized by James Valentine, Douglas Erwin, and David Jablonski:

"The paleontological data are consistent with the view that all of the currently recognized phyla had evolved by about 525 Ma. Despite half a billion years of evolutionary exploration by the clades generated in Cambrian time, no new phylum-level designs have appeared since then" ("Developmental Evolution of Metazoan Bodyplans: The Fossil Evidence," Valentine, Erwin, and Jablonski, Developmental Biology 173, Article No. 0033, 1996, p. 376).

Why are students not informed about this explosive pattern of phyla origins as well as that it is at variance with Darwinian predictions? Is there a fear that they will "lose faith" in the alleged power of natural selection? The first three questions in the Insert touch on phenomena related to the Cambrian Explosion and will challenge students to think more deeply about theories of origins. Shame on the textbooks for omitting information about evolution's "big bang."

The last question in the Insert points to a very challenging problem for contemporary evolutionary theory - the origin of information. I have on my desk a guide to using Windows 95. It is composed of paper, glue, and ink. But is that all? The paper, glue, and ink serve only as material carriers for the manual's most important ingredient, instructions on how to use the program. An organism's DNA is directly analogous to my manual. No current proposed evolutionary mechanism can account satisfactorily for the origin of information. Information has never been shown to arise from any type of random, chance based mechanism.

This last question in the insert also opens the door for a thoughtful analysis of the major mechanism of evolution, natural selection. Some texts treat natural selection as the prime "creative" force in the biological world:

"Darwin not only stated that evolution has occurred, he also proposed its mechanism - Natural selection" (Biology Visualizing Life, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1994, p. 186).

The power of natural selection is then demonstrated by reference to minor variations such as color change in peppered moths, beaks of finches, and antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

From these examples of minor variations, a huge jump is made to the assumption (presented as knowledge) that the major phyla were produced by the creative work of natural selection. This is a particularly difficult jump because natural selection is unable to account for the origin of the genetic information required to generate the new phyla produced during the "short" ten million years of the Cambrian explosion. The failure of the mechanisms of microevolution to explain the process of macroevolution is highlighted in a recent paper:

"Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern only the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest" ("Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology," Scott Gilbert, John Opitz, and Rudolf Raff, Developmental Biology 173, Article No. 0032, 1996, p. 361).

Science educators must avoid making unwarranted extrapolations from minor variations to major innovations as is common in the textbooks.

It is also hard to conceive how natural selection can account for certain biochemical and physical structures exhibiting "irreducible complexity." Picture three mouse traps each with a part missing. Which of the three would natural selection select? The answer is, none. A mouse trap is an irreducibly complex structure because ALL of its parts must be present for it to have any meaningful function. Natural selection cannot select if its object has no function. In a soon-to-be published book (Darwin's Black Box, The Free Press, A Division of Simon and Schuster, NY) Michael Behe discusses several irreducibly complex biochemical and biological structures that cannot have emerged gradually via natural selection. Examples include the cilium, blood clotting, antibodies, and cellular regulation mechanisms.

What then is the role of natural selection? Again, the textbooks do a disservice to thinking students by relating natural selection only to the process of change. The main observable function of natural selection - stabilization - is practically ignored. Natural selection can be observed to preserve a population from radical harmful changes, and to provide a plasticity in the midst of changing environments. Perhaps the process should be renamed "natural stabilization," and a new mechanism sought for major innovation. The textbooks fail to stimulate student inquiry when they treat only the strengths and not the weaknesses of natural selection as a creative force. They also fail, as mentioned before, when they make unwarranted extrapolations from minor variations to major innovations. Hopefully, the Insert will help promote the objective discussion of evolutionary mechanisms.

The inclusion of questions in the Insert has elicited many attacks such as the following from a letter to the editor:

"The most misleading part of the disclaimer is the list of so-called 'unanswered questions about the origin of life' - particularly the three pertaining to 'major groups,' which are actually inaccurate assertions calculated to convince students that the fossil record does not support evolution. Such misrepresentations of the evidence are the stock-in-trade of 'scientific creationism'" (The Harbinger, December, 1995, p. 3).

The issue is not whether the fossil record does or does not support the highly manipulative word, "evolution." The critical point is that the pattern of appearance of the phyla in the fossil record does not support the primary Darwinian mechanism, natural selection, that is reported to have created them. As is the case with most of the attacks on the insert, the authors of the attacks see the purpose of the insert as opening the door for the teaching of "creationism". This is the same type of unwarranted fear that has produced a crop of textbooks more dedicated to indoctrination than to education. The real purpose of the insert is to avoid indoctrination of any kind and to stimulate scientific inquiry. The rationale for the questions in the Insert is best expressed in the following quotation:

"The conservatism in the treatment of evolution at the introductory level is also reflected in the concentration on seemingly solved problems As practicing scientists, much of what we talk about, think about and occasionally even work on are problems which are not solved. Much of the pleasure of being an evolutionary biologist is speculating on the answers to unanswered questions. Nevertheless, in teaching evolution at the introductory level, we tend to avoid giving students the opportunity to participate in these speculations by presenting pat nonsolutions - to see what I mean just consider the treatment of the evolution of sex in most introductory texts. While the display of humility in the face of unanswered questions may tarnish our facade of authority, the recognition of our limitations and the realization that they can make significant contributions to speculative discussions will certainly increase student interest and self-confidence. Indeed, with their relative absence of preconception and bias, their contributions are likely to be even greater than ours" (Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Lewin, R., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, p. 452).


Conclusion

As one who was involved with promoting the Alabama Insert I can honestly say that I am unaware of any attempt to use the Insert to bring creationism into the classroom. On the contrary, the reasons for supporting the Insert were to keep religious indoctrination out of the science classroom, whether it be theistic or anti-theistic, and to promote full disclosure of both the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories.

Bradly Byrne (D), Alabama State School Board member from Mobile, gives a clear statement of the board's motives for adopting the Insert:

"Many persons including some scientists, believed that the textbooks taught evolution as an established and absolute fact instead of presenting it as a scientific theory. Others, including some scientists, did not feel that the textbooks inappropriately addressed evolution. The state board resolved the issue by approving the textbooks without any deletions and by adopting a statement for inclusion in high school biology textbooks. The statement does not mention religion or creationism. It does state that evolution is a scientific theory and not an observable fact, then differentiates between microevolution and macroevolution, and raises certain scientific questions which challenge the material offered in the main text. This statement was endorsed by science professors from major state universities, scientists in the private sector and physicians and dentists from around the state" (Mobile Register, Nov. 19, 1995).

Some have questioned why explanations of evolutionary theory should be "targeted" with an educational aid such as the Alabama Insert. Evolutionary theory is so poorly taught that an insert is required. Many other theories do not require an insert because they are presented properly in the texts examined by the Textbook Committee. For example, here is the exemplary way in which one text treats the Big Bang Theory:

"Was there a Big Bang? No one knows, but you now know some of the evidence" (Project Star, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1993, p. 321).

If evolutionary theory were presented in the same way, there would be no need for an insert. We hope the Insert will motivate publishers to correct their textbooks and bring them into conformity with the inquiry requirements of the State of Alabama.

Finally, I would like to appeal both to those who strongly defend current evolutionary theory and to those who perceive its weaknesses. We have an opportunity through discussion and disagreement to be good role models for students. Let us put aside ad hominem arguments, and let us debate ideas. Let us not impugn one another's motives, but let us work together to improve science education. Let us not allow our philosophical beliefs to divide us, but let our belief in the search for truth be the shared value that unites us.