SMU Prof Tears Apart Official Texas Review of Leading Biology Textbook

Anti-evolution activists have been alarmingly influential in the state’s official review process for proposed high school biology textbooks in Texas, but truly qualified reviewers have also been part of the process. One of the best examples of the latter is Ron Wetherington, an evolutionary anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Wetherington is not just a highly respected scholar and published researcher. He also is a veteran of the evolution battles at the State Board of Education (SBOE). In 2008-09, for example, he served as an expert adviser during the SBOE’s controversial revision of science curriculum standards for Texas public schools. As the award-winning documentary The Revisionaries makes clear, Wetherington helped frustrate creationists’ efforts to undermine instruction on evolution in those standards.

This year Wetherington is serving as an official reviewer for Texas textbook adoption. The textbooks assigned to him for review did not include Pearson Education’s biology textbook, one of the leading texts in the market. However, that textbook did go through the review panel that included Ide Trotter, one of the most prominent anti-evolution activists in the state. And sure enough, that panel’s review is filled with misleading and distorted arguments against evolution. Because Pearson is such an influential textbook in the high school market, how the publisher responds to the review is critically important to science education both in Texas and across the country. (You can read all of the reviews by the official panels that met in August here. Those reviews will be finalized once reviewers have evaluated any changes publishers propose to make to their textbooks.)

Working on his own, Wetherington has written a point-by-point rebuttal to that review. A State Board of Education member who received that rebuttal from Wetherington passed it on to us. You can read the full analysis below, but Wetherington makes it clear from the start that his comments are based on decades of experience in researching and teaching about the subject:

Although I was a panel member for several publisher submissions, Pearson was not one of these. My rebuttal simply constitutes my own individual assessment. Since I teach much of this material in my university classes, and have for almost 50 years, I have felt it my responsibility to reveal the biases and shortcomings in this official review, which resulted in a recommendation for rejection to the Texas Educational Agency.

Wetherington proceeds to dismantle, point by point, the anti-evolution propaganda found throughout the panel’s review. If you want to understand why we’re so alarmed about the pseudoscience we’ve seen promoted in this textbook review process, Wetherington’s analysis is a must read.

Pearson Review Rebuttal

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13 Comments

  1. john
    Posted December 13, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    thanks for the thorough review and effort. wonderful.

  2. Posted September 26, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for doing this, Dr. Weatherington.

    As you noted, the reviewers cite a publication reporting comparisons between gorilla, human, and chimpanzee DNA sequences as if those comparisons contradict the Pearson textbook’s discussion of the topic. A helpful response to ID theory proponents on this topic is found at
    http://biologos.org/blog/understanding-evolution-speciation-and-incomplete-lineage-sorting

    The reviewers cite results of the ENCODE project as if that too contradicts the textbook and supports ID theory. A helpful, concise response is at
    http://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/do-the-recent-encode-results-on-the-human-genome-support-intelligent-design/
    and a longer response is at http://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/junk_dna_design/

  3. Ron Wetherington
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate all of the comments, and I need to emphasize one point: my aim was to address the specific objections to the Pearson content; it was not to address the inadequacies or irrelevancies of the objections. While I briefly commented on these latter as simply non sequiturs, refuting these was not my aim. I could spend a long time on refuting these parts of the arguments against Pearson, but it would at this point serve little purpose.

  4. Art deVitalis
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I am bewildered that there is any debate at all. The clock continues to run backwards in the BibleBelt in 2013! 90 years after the Scopes Trial.

  5. Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Prof. Weatherington is correct that the Panel has introduced an error where none existed.

    Page 484: Panel, “Most mutations led to defective offspring while some may only lower fitness….”

    I’d go further to note that the majority of mutations don’t do anything at all. This is because so much of the DNA, and RNA codons are redundent. For example a codon for Serine, UCU, could be “mutated” 5 differnt ways and still yield the identical result. The Panel lacks even basic knowledge regarding genetics.

    • abb3w
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      The mathematics to allow students to recognize how the impact of beneficial mutations is surprisingly independent of their rarity would not be all that hard. There looks to be enough coverage in the grades 4-8 standards for the probability aspects. It would, however, require moving introduction of the “logistic curve” function up from “Advanced Quantitative Reasoning” into some earlier math segment that biology students will more generally have encountered.

      It also would involve throwing a lot of math at students saying “You don’t need to know how to do this here, you just need to see it done” — which is the sort of thing students would almost certainly tune out, and not actually learn much of anything from. Maybe if teachers sat there saying “Look how weird this is! The conclusion completely contradicts common sense — but common sense is WRONG!” However, far too many religious types might be disinclined to emphasize that last element strongly enough.

  6. Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Re: Page 466: Panel (Teacher)

    I certainly agree with Prof. Weatherington that the panel’s comment is merely a “rant.” They also make a major error of fact worth noting. They Panel wrote, “The biggest known evolutionary event, The Cambrian Explosion, took on the order of only 10 million years or less.”

    From the origin of life ~3800 million years (Ma) ago to the start of the Cambrian ~542 Ma is a very long warm-up. The Ediacaran, 635 to 542 Ma, saw many critical developments formerly assigned to the Cambrian. The Cambrian itself is divided into Early (31 million years long), Middle (10 million years long), and Late (12 million years long). There is no competent way to account for the Panel’s statement “the Cambrian Explosion took on the order of only 10 million years or less.” The Panel is indulging in a redefinition of the Cambrian that they have zero qualifications to undertake.

    The Panel is repeating a creationist falsehood about the Cambrian most recently published by the Intelligent Design creationist Steven Meyer. Instead, a competent review would be based on the scientific literature, specifically;

    Valentine, James W.
    2005 “On the Origin of Phyla” University of Chicago Press

    Erwin, Douglas H., James W. Valentine
    2013 “The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Diversity” New York: Roberts and Company Publishers

  7. Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Re: The age of the earth when it “cooled”

    Page 552: Panel
    About 4, NOT 4.2, billion years ago, Earth cooled..)
    Page 552: Wetherington
    This is not a factual error. It is a trivial complaint of the use of one of several estimates.

    The published studies favor the younger age of ~4.3. 4 Ga is about the time that the Late Great Bombardment ended. (I loved the all cap “NOT.” It is so typical of creationists).

    MOJZSIS, STEPHEN J., T. MARK HARRISON, ROBERT T. PIDGEON
    2001 ”Oxygen-isotope evidence from ancient zircons for liquid water at the Earth’s surface 4,300 Myr ago” Nature 409, 178-181 (11 January )

    E. B. Watson and T. M. Harrison.
    2005 “Zircon Thermometer Reveals Minimum Melting Conditions on Earliest Earth” Science 6 May 2005; 308: 841-844 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1110873] (in Reports) {4.2 Ga zircon suggests probable liquid water as early as 4.3 Ga}

    Wilde, Simon A., John W. Valley, William H. Peck, Collin M. Graham
    2001 “Evidence from detrital zircons for the existance of contenental crust and oceans on Earth 4.4 Gyr ago” Nature, Vol 409:175-181

  8. abb3w
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Pedantic trivial quibbling:

    Page 552: Panel
    “many basic building blocks of life form naturally” THROUGHOUT THE UNIVERSE, RATHER THAN “in our solar system
    Page 552: Wetherington
    This is not a factual error. Amino acids are found within our solar system but not beyond. Hydrocarbon molecules occur beyond this

    A quick whack at Google Scholar suggests this is a point I would better class as genuine scientific controversy. There have been several peer-reviewed journal articles which published claims of detecting simple amines (mostly focused on glycine) via spectroscopy of interstellar gas clouds; however, other attempts to measure such have yielded negative results.

    Nohow, I’ve no professional credentials for evaluating the claims.

  9. Kristin
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Painstaking. It is like being stuck in a BIOLOGY 101 class over and over until every last person passes the class. Can we just move on already State School Board of Educations. We would like to get back to our advanced studies – maybe even prepare our children college-level pursuits.

  10. Posted September 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    And this prof teaches at Southern METHODIST University, So?????

  11. Posted September 24, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Some info about Trotter from Texas A&M’s website:

    “Following the conclusion of a 28-year career with ExxonMobil Corporation in 1986, Dr. Trotter assumed a position at Dallas Baptist University as dean of business and professor of finance. In 1990, he founded an investment management company, Trotter Capital Management Inc. He and his wife continue to reside in Duncanville, where they are both highly involved in the Baptist church and dedicated to the investigation of the role of science as it pertains to the rich understanding of the miracle of creation.”

  12. Posted September 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Ron Weatherington! That was good educational reading.

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