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More Battles over Textbook Curriculum

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In step with the Texas Board of Education’s attempts — and successes — in seeking to alter educational curriculum to give materials a more conservative bent, the state of Florida recently approved utilizing a marine science textbook that included a section that opponents say contains the language of creationism and intelligent design.

The textbook, “Life on an Ocean Planet,” was approved for use as a whole or, as was later voted, with the sidebar section containing the inaccurate and specious arguments redacted. This article from the St. Petersburg Times quotes a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman as saying the book was adopted with the provision in place to remove the two pages in question. But according to a statement from the Florida Citizens for Science,

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. … 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.

So, what’s in this two page sidebar? The section called “Questions About the Origin and Development of Life” gives lip service to the idea that some questions — for instance, that life might have developed by unnatural forces before evolution got going — deserve our attention. Florida Citizens for Science member Jonathan Smith pulled out a few problem areas he found within the section, which were submitted to the St. Petersburg Times’ education blog:

Skeptics [Read: creationists or anti-evolutionists] observe that general evolution doesn’t adequately explain how a complex structure, such as the eye, could come to exist through infrequent random mutations. Such structures consist of multiple integrated components…a subcomponent has no survival advantage by itself, it would not be passed along by natural selection. There’s no survival advantage unless all the components exist at once, yet no random mutation process would produce all the required components at the same time. Transitional forms for some specialized characteristics would be expected to have a survival disadvantage, say skeptics.  An example is the bat wing…

Smith then commented: “This is a standard creationist trope, well known to be wrong.”

Yes, “wrong” being the key word.

And about the eye and bat wing: Richard Dawkins has already answered the argument from irreducible complexity, and even Darwin, speaking from the mid-19th century, and astoundingly to me, anticipated that some would attempt to dash his theory of evolution by bring to bear the argument that various organs, like the eye, were irreducibly complex.

But, Dawkins explained in The God Delusion and in The Blind Watchmaker, and in great detail, the usefulness of partial eyesight or partial wing matter. For, as he argues, surely part of a wing is better than no wing. At least with part of a wing, a bat can temper the blow of a fall from the sky. So it is with the eye. My eyesight, for instance, is quite poor when looking at something from a distance, but without the invention of glasses, I would prefer my current level of poor sight to outright blindness. Further, our eyes can function on less complex levels without some of their parts, as in the case of cataract surgery and the removal of the natural lens. So it is with bat wings. Take away a bone or two, and the bat may not be able to fly perfectly, but again, he could temper his fall. Thus, arguments from irreducible complexity break down, and the Florida board of education was quite right to redact this section from the marine science textbook because it gives lip service to theories that have few long since been debunked.

For further reading, here’s an interesting look at how Darwin came to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection and his personal journey to accept it in light of what he formerly believed about God and creation.

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About Jeremy Styron