What's wrong with the Kansas science standards?

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There's been a lot of fuss about the new Kansas science standards. I thought it would be worthwhile seeing what controversial stuff they actually say about evolution.

Page iv of the document contains the following long statement about evolution.

Regarding the scientific theory of biological evolution, the curriculum standards call for students to learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory. These curriculum standards reflect the Board's objective of 1) to help students understand the full range of scientific views that exist on this topic, 2) to enhance critical thinking and the understanding of the scientific method by encouraging students to study different and opposing scientific evidence, and 3) to ensure that science education in our state is "secular, neutral, and non-ideological."

OK, nothing really wrong here so far. The "scientific criticisms" section is sort of red meat for the anti-evolution crowd, but there certainly is plenty of room for criticism of some of the details of evolutionary theory---though not really for the general fact of evolution--which is it's still an active topic of research.

From the testimony and submissions we have received, we are aware that the study and discussion of the origin and development of life may raise deep personal and philosophical questions for many people on all sides of the debate. But as interesting as these personal questions may be, the personal questions are not covered by these curriculum standards nor are they the basis for the Board's actions in this area.

Evolution is accepted by many scientists but questioned by some. The Board has heard credible scientific testimony that indeed there are significant debates about the evidence for key aspects of chemical and biological evolutionary theory. All scientific theories should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered. We therefore think it is important and appropriate for students to know about these scientific debates and for the Science Curriculum Standards to include information about them. In choosing this approach to science curriculum standards, we are encouraged by the similar approach taken by other states, whose new science standards incorporate scientific criticisms into the science curriculum that describes the scientific case for the theory of evolution.

The first paragraph is pretty unobjectionable. The accuracy of the second kind of depends on the meaning of "key aspects". Certainly, there's plenty of controversy about the details of evolution, and I guess you could call those key aspects. But realistically, the topics on which there is controversy aren't the kind of topics that are likely to be taught in your average high school science class, any more than you'd cover the failings of the Copenhagen Interpretation in your average intro high school physics class. This passage is basically code for "we're going to teach there is a controversy about whether evolution happened", a topic about which there really isn't much scientific controversy. But they don't actually say that that's what they're going to do. Anyway, this is just a statement of purpose, so we need to see what the details are later.

We also emphasize that the Science Curriculum Standards do not include Intelligent Design, the scientific disagreement with the claim of many evolutionary biologists that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion. While the testimony presented at the science hearings included many advocates of Intelligent Design, these standards neither mandate nor prohibit teaching about this scientific disagreement.

As far as I can tell, this is basically false, and since the only real (in terms of airtime, not validity) criticism of evolution comes from I-D, it's hard to see how they're going to teach evolution without teaching I-D.

Moving on to page xiii, we have:

Patterns of Cumulative Change: Accumulated changes through time, some gradual and some sporadic, account for the present form and function of objects, organisms, and natural systems. The general idea is that the present arises from materials and forms of the past. An example of cumulative change is the formation of galaxies, explained by cosmological theories involving (among other theories) gravitation and the behavior of gasses, and the present diversity of living organisms, which the biological theory of evolution, or descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors, seeks to explain. The present position of the continents is explained by the theories of continental drift, which involves plate tectonic theory, fossilization, uplift and erosion. Patterns of cumulative change also help to describe the current structure of the universe. Although science proposes theories to explain changes, the actual causes of many changes are currently unknown (e.g. the origin of the universe, the origin of fundamental laws, the origin of life and the genetic code, and the origin of major body plans during the Cambrian explosion).

This is actually really interesting, since if you accept plate tectonics as the origin of the current continent structure, you're pretty much accepting that the Earth is extremely old. Similarly, if you accept that the Cambrian explosion involved "the origin of major body plans", which this paragraph seems to, then you're pretty much accepting a historical account consistent with evolution even if you think that it's not a result of evolution. So, while this last sentence is clearly intended to limit the scope of science, it's still a big step away from Young Earth Creationism.

The next mention of evolution is on p. 46:

Millions of species of animals, plants and microorganisms are alive today. Animals and plants vary in body plans and internal structures. The theory of biological evolution is an explanation of how gradual changes of characteristics of organisms over many generations may have resulted in variations among populations and species. Therefore, a structural characteristic, process, or behavior that helps an organism survive in its environment is called an adaptation. When the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics are insufficient, the species extinct.

The hedging sections in red were introduced recently, and they imply doubt about a topic where there's actually not really any scientific doubt. Still, it's the teacher's note section and seems basically harmless. And seeing as the student is supposed to learn that: "understands that adaptations of organisms (changes structure, function, or behavior that accumulate over successive generations) contribute to biological diversity." I'm having a hard time getting worked up about this section.

Moving on to grade 8-12 in the "Science As Inquiry" section, we get:

6. understands methods used to test hypotheses about the cause of a remote past event (historical hypothesis) that cannot be confirmed by experiment and/or direct observation by formulating competing hypotheses and then collecting the kinds of data (evidence) that would support one and refute the other

...

6. a. Formulates multiple hypotheses about a singular historical and develops a "best current explanation" about what caused the event, such as the cause of a fire or death.

b. Predicts the kinds of circumstantial evidence that one would observe under each hypothesis.

c. Collects evidence and draws an inference as to the best explanation and whether the evidence fits either hypothesis. Explains why either explanation can not be entirely validated by a laboratory experiment.

Ordinarily, this would be totally unremarkable, but given that it was added recently, it seems plausible that it's part of the "evolution is bogus" movement. That said, it seems like a perfectly reasonable formulation of scientific procedure to me, so I don't see much of a problem here.

On page 76, we have:

c. The sequence of the nucleotide bases within genes is not dictated by any known chemical or physical law.

Some scientists have complained about this:

Case says the statement that "the sequence of the nucleotide bases within genes is not dictated by any known chemical or physical law" deliberately ignores the fact that scientists are still exploring the organization of nucleotide bases. "If you say the sequences are not dictated by any known chemical or physical law, which is itself untrue, you could go one step further and ask if the sequences are dictated by a divine law," says Case.

This strikes me as overly sensitive. The sequence of nucleotides is basically an information carrier about protein structure. It's certainly possible that one particular mapping of base sequences to amino acides is somehow physically (energetically?) superior to others, but seeing as any given protein comes in a variety of different variants, I think it's reasonable to phrase it this way. I would feel pretty comfortable saying that the sequence of symbols in computer software isn't dictated by any known physical law, too.

The really objectionable material comes in the grade 8-12 Life Sciences section, on page 78-80. Partial excerpts follow.

Benchmark 3: The student will understand the major concepts of the theory of biological evolution.

This seems eminently reasonable.

1 understands biological evolution, descent with modification, is a scientific explanation for the history of the diversification of organisms from common ancestors

I can't tell whether this is an admission of common ancestry. Anyway, it seems harmless enough.

1. a. Biological evolution postulates an unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal.

b. The presence of the same materials and processes of heredity (DNA, replication, transcription, translation, etc.) is used as evidence for the common ancestry of modern organisms.

c. Patterns of diversification and extinction of organisms are documented in the fossil record. Evidence also indicates that simple, bacteria-like life may have existed billions of years ago. However, in many cases the fossil record is not consistent with gradual, unbroken sequences postulated by biological evolution.

a-b are fine, but c is only true in the most trivial sense. Sure, it's true that there's not a gradual unbroken sequence for every generation, but that's not what you'd expect or what evolution predicts. (Try finding an unbroken sequence of your own ancestors for the past 2000 years). While evolution of course does predict that there's an unbroken sequence of transitional forms, we don't have a fossil of every organism, so it's not reasonable to expect an unbroken continuous sequence. The sequence is plenty continuous enough to be convincing.

d. The distribution of fossil and modern organisms is related to geological and ecological changes (i.e. plate tectonics, migration). There are observable similarities and differences among fossils and living organisms.

e. The frequency of heritable traits may change over a period of generations within a population of organisms, usually when resource availability and environmental conditions change as a consequence of extinctions, geologic events, and/or changes in climate.

f. The view that living things in all the major kingdoms are modified descendants of a common ancestor (described in the pattern of a branching tree) has been challenged in recent years by:

i. Discrepancies in the molecular evidence (e.g. differences in relatedness inferred from sequence studies of different proteins) previously thought to support that view.

ii. A fossil record that shows sudden bursts of increased complexity (the Cambrian Explosion), long periods of stasis and the absence of abundant transitional forms rather than steady gradual increases in complexity, and

iii. Studies that show animals follow different rather than identical early stages of embryological development.

I'm not an expert on the molecular evidence, but as far as I can tell, basically nobody considers this stuff as any kind of real challenge to evolution. The punctuated equilibrium argument (ii) isn't an argument against evolution at all, but merely about the rate at which evolution happens. It's annoying that the creationists keep using it as an argument against evolution. Issue (iii) is basically an attempt to rebut a particular set of embryological observations that had been interpreted as supporting evolution. It's not an argument about evolution per se. Again, this stuff is creationist red meat, but nobody in the field takes it seriously.

d. Whether microevolution (change within a species) can be extrapolated to explain macroevolutionary changes (such as new complex organs or body plans and new biochemical systems which appear irreducibly complex) is controversial. These kinds of macroevolutionary explanations generally are not based on direct observations and often reflect historical narratives based on inferences from indirect or circumstantial evidence.

Nonsense. It's also worth noting that "irreducible complexity" is precisely the Intelligent Design argument made by William Dembski, so the claim earlier that they're not going to be teaching ID is disingenuous at best.

Finally:

a. A lack of empirical evidence for a "primordial soup" or a chemically hospitable pre-biotic atmosphere;

b. The lack of adequate natural explanations for the genetic code, the sequences of genetic information necessary to specify life, the biochemical machinery needed to translate genetic information into functional biosystems, and the formation of proto-cells; and

c. The sudden rather than gradual emergence of organisms near the time that the Earth first became habitable.

Well, it's certainly true that we don't really understand the origin of life well. However, none of this stuff is strictly relevant to the question of whether evolution explains the current collection of species, organisms, etc. Imagine some Fred Hoyle-type story in which the original organisms came from outer space (ignoring the problem of how it got there) and that's why we don't see any evidence of primordial soup, etc. I'm not saying that I believe that, just that it wouldn't cause any problem for evolution as the basic explanation of everything after that.

The bottom line here is that this looks to be a reasonably sound description of evolution interspersed with a number of old-style creationist or ID talking points intended to cast doubt on evolution. No alternate theory is offered (nor can one, really, in the face of Edwards v. Aguillard, since the theory that the doubters have in mind is of course creationism.) If we could only arrange that students were taught not only the objections to evolution but why those objections were bogus, we'd have a perfectly acceptable curriculum.

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2 Comments

It's worth noting that evidence of intelligent design wouldn't prove the existence of God or the literal correctness of Genesis. A determined atheist, faced with evidence of intelligent design, would just want to look around for the intelligent aliens that did the designing.

--John

Like the Flying Spagetti Monster...

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