Evolution Theory Well Represented in Leading High School Textbooks

By Sean Cavanagh — December 05, 2005 4 min read
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Textbooks—teachers’ road maps through the curriculum—generally do a respectable job of covering evolution, according to experts who have reviewed the books, though the thick volumes tend to be weaker in describing the theory’s relevance across the many areas of science.

Leading textbooks strongly present major points on evolution, the experts say, despite being jammed with information to comply with the academic standards of so many different states—a concern across many subjects.

“If you look at the major textbooks on the market, they all have one, two, or three chapters on evolution,” said Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study organization, in Colorado Springs, Colo., which develops textbooks and other instructional materials.

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Despite scientists’ concerns about the recent resurgence of criticism over the teaching of evolution, Mr. Bybee believes textbooks have, in fact, “strengthened empirical arguments” in presenting the theory in recent years, in response to critics’ attempts to find holes in it. He expects those efforts in the coverage of evolution to continue.

A 2000 study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington found that high school biology books were strong in presenting basic facts on evolution and other major scientific concepts. But those facts were too often presented in isolation, that analysis found, rather than in ways that described evolution’s influence throughout science.

“Kids need to understand why the scientific community supports evolution, and why it’s important,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, who directed the study and is also the director of Project 2061, an AAAS venture to improve learning in science, mathematics, and technology.

She attributed textbooks’ weaknesses in coherence partly to the tendency of the authors—primarily college professors—to gloss over connections that seem obvious to them, but might not be to precollegiate students.

Sticking to Science?

Publishers and other textbook experts say major science books avoid discussing “intelligent design,” a purported alternative to the theory of evolution, because the mainstream scientific community does not regard it as legitimate science. Yet one widely used textbook, Glencoe’s 2004 edition of Biology: The Dynamics of Life, describes intelligent design and other views in a section titled “Biology and Society.” The concept is described as a belief, not a scientific theory.

April Hattori, a spokeswoman for the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, a division of the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Education, said the book makes no other references to intelligent design. Overall, it treats evolution as a “unifying concept” in science, she said, which the publisher recognizes is backed by the vast majority of scientists.

At the same time, some private schools have shown an increased interest in science textbooks that discuss either creationism or intelligent design, said Derek J. Keenan, a vice president of the Association of Christian Schools International, in Colorado Springs. His organization represents 3,700 U.S.-based religious schools, many of which use Christian-themed science texts alongside those favored by the mainstream scientific community. Those schools, he said, often seek out texts through Christian-oriented publishers, such as A Beka Book, in Pensacola, Fla.

A Close Reading

Textbooks have come under inspection in a closely watched federal lawsuit on the Dover, Pa., school board’s decision last year to require students to be exposed to intelligent design. Sixty copies of a pro-intelligent-design textbook, Of Pandas and People, were anonymously donated to a district library.

Part of the controversy in Dover stemmed from board members’ objections to approving the prominent Prentice Hall textbook Biology, for use in the district. That book, which gives a broad treatment to evolution, is written by Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University biology professor, and Joseph S. Levine, a longtime science writer. During the trial, Mr. Miller was questioned by a school board lawyer about a heading on one section of the book titled “Strengths and Weaknesses of Evolutionary Theory.”

Mr. Miller testified that the authors added that wording to conform with Texas state standards, which call for students to critique various scientific theories and hypotheses. The Dover policy says students should be exposed to “gaps/problems” in evolution; the language in Mr. Miller’s book, the lawyer implied, seemed to justify such criticism.

The professor, however, said the headline was taken out of context. Intelligent-design advocates, he said in an interview, “will try to take that [language] and make something out of it.” Virtually any textbook discussion of evolution, he noted, could be scrutinized in the same way.

Mr. Miller has heard criticism that one of his previous biology texts was long on evolution facts and short on coherence across subjects. Not so with Biology, he said, which tries to make those connections. In fact, the author joked that a Dover school board member’s complaint that his book was “laced with Darwinism” could aptly describe his work.

“That,” Mr. Miller said, “should be a quote on the back cover of my book.”

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