June 7, 2006
When biology professor Jim Sparks lectures at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, he’ll spend plenty of time on the missing link. In this case, however, it’s his new textbook.
The 35-year-old adjunct professor is upset about the new text his peers at VCU have chosen for him to use in teaching Biology 101. Sparks says it omits critical chapters in evolutionary theory and is biased toward creationism and intelligent design, which argues life is too complex to have evolved over millions of years solely through Darwin’s theory of natural selection and must have come at the direction of a supreme being or a supernatural force.
The book Sparks faults is “Essentials of Biology” by prolific science writer Sylvia S. Mader and published by the mainstream McGraw-Hill press.
“The text is confusing and minimalist,” Sparks says. “I can’t teach a lecture based on this book.” Describing most introductory biology texts as uniform, Sparks says he first thought the book was just weak.
… [But he] soon learned that one of his colleagues who pushed for the book has strong creationist ties and that the text has also been picked up by Oral Roberts University. And in the chapter called “Darwin and Evolution” on page 230, he found a direct reference to the California-based Institute for Creation Research, stating that the organization “advocates that students be taught an ‘intelligent-design theory.’”
… Sparks says the mention of the institute is disturbing. “It’s product placement,” he says, “like when Tom Cruise drinks Pepsi in the ‘War of the Worlds.’”
… VCU switched biology books because teachers deemed the previous text too complex for the approximately 1,000 students who take the course each semester, professors say. In an effort to curb the failure-dropout-withdrawal rate and to make science more accessible and relevant to students, VCU approved Mader’s book, which included attractive supplemental online content and a smaller price tag, says Jill Reid, a VCU biology professor who was on the textbook team. The book costs $102.25, about $30 less than a typical hardcover biology text.
Sparks insists VCU and its students are getting ripped off. When he tried to use his previous syllabus to create a new one for the Mader text, he says he couldn’t because critical elements of evolution were missing from the book.
For example, the Mader book doesn’t mention a concept called abiogenesis or the Miller-Urey experiment, which posits that life may have originated from simple amino acids and nucleotides being synthesized by exposing the earth’s early gaseous atmosphere to electric charge and UV radiation.
That’s the kind of detail that might have been lost on Reid, who describes herself as a “former creationist”—an uninspiring qualification for someone supposedly teaching biology at college level. But then VCU seems to be her kind of institution:
… Eugenie Scott, executive director of the Oakland-based, nonprofit National Center for Science Education, faults VCU’s biology faculty for adopting a book “that skimps on evolution.” While much of the debate about science curricula has centered on elementary, middle and high schools, Scott expects colleges to become the new testing ground for how evolution is discussed.
She scoffs that VCU does not have an entire course dedicated to evolution. The concerns that Sparks raises about the Mader text and the discourse that follows at VCU “is going to become more the case in the future,” Scott says. “Evolution is not a controversy at college level. We argue about the details, not the whether.”
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