Even More Good News on the Texas Science Textbook Adoption

As we have reported, the State Board of Education voted last month to adopt all of the high school biology textbooks up for adoption in Texas. The adoption of one of those textbooks, from Pearson Education, was made contingent on a final examination of factual errors made by Ide Trotter, a creationist who had served on that textbook’s official review panel. (Pearson’s textbook is a market leader.) We now hear that the expert panel assigned to review the Pearson textbook appears pretty solid — all respected scholars and supporters of evolutionary science.

The three panelists include Ron Wetherington, an evolutionary anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; Arturo De Lozanne, an associate professor in molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of Texas at Austin; and Vincent Cassone, chairman of the Biology Department at the University of Kentucky (and former department chair at Texas A&M).

Wetherington, who served as an official reviewer of several non-Pearson textbooks, has already analyzed and rejected Trotter’s complaints about the Pearson material. We published Wetherington’s analysis in September. De Lozanne testified during a public hearing in favor of adopting the textbooks and has called on the state board not to water down instruction on evolution.

Cassone has also been a strong public defender of evolutionary science. When Kentucky legislators in 2012 expressed concern about the presence of evolution in state science standards (one lawmakers even called for teaching creationism in science classes), Cassone had this to say:

“The theory of evolution is the fundamental backbone of all biological research. … There is more evidence for evolution than there is for the theory of gravity, than the idea that things are made up of atoms, or Einstein’s theory of relativity. It is the finest scientific theory ever devised.”

Cassone also has plenty of experience dealing with proponents of “intelligent design”/creationism. Here’s a recording of a debate between him and prominent “intelligent design” advocate Michael Behe in 2005 (with Ide Trotter moderating!):

Strangely enough, board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, appointed Cassone. Cargill is a creationist who has insisted that biology textbooks should teach “another side” to evolution. Her reasons for appointing Cassone are not clear, but we applaud her decision to choose a true expert in the field.

Under rules adopted by the state board last month, the review of Trotter’s alleged errors in Pearson’s textbook should be completed within the next week or two. Decisions about whether Trotter’s objections are based on valid science will be determined by a majority vote of the three science experts.

Josh Rosenau at the National Center for Science Education has more on the appointment of this expert panel here. From Josh:

“These are all real experts, and as I told The [New York] Times’s Motoko Rich, it’ll take about 5 minutes for them to dismiss the claims leveled against Pearson’s Biology.”

This is good news, indeed.

We should also note that Trotter is a finance consultant and chemical engineer by training. Another scientist, James A. Shapiro, a microbiologist at the University of Chicago, last week took Trotter (though not directly by name) to task for using one of his (Shapiro’s) books to make a misleading argument against evolution. It’s quite the take down. Check it out here. Money quote:

“The school textbook board members who misquoted my work are not just against evolution. They are against freedom of speech in scientific research, honesty in public decision-making, and suitable modern education for the students of Texas. That sounds counter to the ideals of liberty, democracy and opportunity on which this nation was founded.”


13 thoughts on “Even More Good News on the Texas Science Textbook Adoption

  1. Is there a link to Trotter’s objections? I would love to read them for myself. I expect they would be a good laugh.

  2. This is really too hilarious. I am speaking, of course, about Prof. James Shapiro’s umbrage about Ide Trotter using a quote of his to make a misleading argument against evolution! What makes this so funny is that Shapiro himself does not accept the modern scientific theory of biological evolution that is often termed the Synthetic Theory of Evolution or, less preferably, the Neo-Darwinian theory (Neo-Darwinism) or, quite incorrectly, simply Darwinism. Creationists invariably use the latter two terms to personalize evolution to make it easier to attack in their marketing strategy since a belief system named after a person sounds more like an ideology rather than a science; would you more readily accept The Theory of Relativity or Einsteinism, or Quantum Theory or Planckism (Neo-Planckism!)? Astute readers are probably aware that scientists are individuals and each has his or her own understanding of how the evolutionary process works. Shapiro is the perfect example of this. He completely accepts evolution, of course, not ID Creationism, but contrary to the scientific consensus held by almost all evolutionary scientists, Shapiro disagrees with the concept that natural selection is a creative process. Instead, he believes, it is capable of only winnowing or purifying genetic variability; something else must provide genetic variability or novelty for speciation and biological diversification. Trotter’s ignorant error was claiming that “no mechanism . . . has been firmly established” for the introduction of such genetic novelty.

    Shapiro’s idiosyncratic, anti-selectionist beliefs are often held by those very few legitimate scientists who refuse to accept natural selection as the major force in evolutionary biologic diversification. They uncontroversially say, as do all evolutionary scientists, that mutagenesis, endosymbiosis, meiotic recombination, horizontal DNA transfer, interspecific hybridization, etc. are the original or ultimate source of genetic variability. Then they say that this genetic variability is the ONLY source of evolutionary novelty, that natural selection only removes the chaff from the grain, winnowing or purifying the genetic variation and contributing nothing itself to diversification. This is what James Shapiro believes, and it is utter nonsense. Many classic papers have been written by Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky, Maynard-Smith, Dawkins, and others explaining precisely why natural selection is a creative force in evolution; indeed, it is the major creative force for taxa higher than prokaryotes and protists. Natural selection is a determinative rather than a random process, but in interaction with the environment it has a high degree of non-optimality or non-perfection, thus introducing a significant amount of novelty or creativity into evolutionary results. Anti-selectionists such as Shapiro and Lynn Margulis worked with microorganisms, so perhaps this is why their understanding of evolutionary diversification is stunted. Steve Gould was also an anti- or minimal-selectionist and I don’t know what led him to deemphasize it in his understanding of evolution. He certainly thought there was more to evolution than natural selection and I can only agree with that viewpoint.

    Shapiro is quite explicit in his HuffPost article and his major book on the topic, “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century,” about his profound disagreement with what he misleadingly terms “traditional Neo-Darwinism.” In reality, he disagrees with modern evolutionary theory. Creationists find his fertile writing to be a good source to quote mine tidbits to use against mainstream evolutionary scientists. He explains, “I see the generation of novel genome structures as a more important source of evolutionary innovation. Traditionally, what I call natural genetic engineering has been called Variation in the evolution literature. To me Natural Selection operates post-Variation as a purifying force eliminating novelties that are not adaptively useful.” He might be right for evolutionary history 3 billion years ago when microbes ruled the Earth, but his viewpoint is anathema for modern evolutionary theorists. Ten, twenty, or fifty million species (various recent estimates of current biodiversity; the total biodiversity through evolutionary history could be in the billions) could not possibly be generated by pre-selection genetic variation alone (what Shapiro terms “genetic engineering”!). Almost all of this variation would be lethal and would never experience selection. I think his term for genetic variation is ludicrous since it implies that species genomes have the facility to “engineer” their own diversification, an idea similar to the discredited hypothesis of creative mutationism. It’s an idea that won’t die, however. Shapiro may believe this himself since in his HuffPost article he prominently quotes this sentence from his book: “Uncovering the molecular mechanisms by which living organisms modify their genomes is a major accomplishment of late 20th Century molecular biology.” Contrary to Shapiro, living organism do not and cannot modify their genomes by themselves. Outside forces, most prominently natural selection, accomplish this for them. Individual offspring can possess modified genotypes, but only species that undergo natural selection can possess modified genomes. Shapiro should remember that species evolve, not individuals.

    Vincent Cassone, chair of the University of Kentucky’s biology department, said that, “The theory of evolution is the fundamental backbone of all biological research. . . . There is more evidence for evolution than there is for the theory of gravity, than the idea that things are made up of atoms, or Einstein’s theory of relativity. It is the finest scientific theory ever devised.” He has historically been a major opponent of ID Creationism. It is a genuine mystery why Barbara Cargill chose Professor Cassone as her expert. He would be able to see through Ide Trotter’s misunderstandings, misinterpretations, specious arguments, and bad rhetoric (sophism) instantly–as would also Ron Wetherington and Arturo De Lozanne, of course.

  3. I’m thankful for the good news that we are taking a rational approach to this process, finally. But isn’t it tragic that this is news? “Qualified professionals review textbooks to remove factual errors, ” yawn. In 2013, we are still debating evolution, as if it’s some wild idea thrown together on a whim.

    1. Don:
      Considering the grossly unqualified individuals you relied on as “experts” during your term on the State Board of Education, your objection to Ron Wetherington’s presence on the Pearson review team is astonishing. Prof. Wetherington is an evolutionary anthropologist who has researched and taught in that field for decades.

    2. Don:
      You know very well that physical anthropology is a focus on human and evolutionary biology, which is my specialty. You may be unaware of my 2011 peer-reviewed Oxford University book, Readings in the History of Evolutionary Theory.

      1. Don. You are a dentist. You know teeth. I am an anthropologist. I know anthropology.

        The whole subfield of physical anthropology is about human biology, human genetics, and primate/human evolution. Physical anthropologists ARE “biologists” in the true and central sense of the term. They just go by another name. Read Shakespeare and take his advice on names.

        P.S. Many physical anthropologists teach human anatomy in medical schools.

        1. Sorry Ron. I was trying to reply directly to Don McLeroy but apparently clicked the wrong reply button. Do you know Dick Jantz?

    3. Don, you must be the least self-aware person on the planet. When it comes to logic and reason, you really do seem to have the mentality of a toddler. It’s weird.

  4. “Intelligent Design”…..the term always gets me tickled. Isn’t there some form of illegal encroachment resulting from the “Creationists” utilizing terminology including the word “intelligent”? Surely there’s some nook or cranny within our legal system that could effectively address the gross misrepresentation readily apparent in the use of such disgracefully stupid terminology!
    Oh well, one can hope.