Minority report

The Kansas Board of Education voted yesterday to accept the proposed changes to the state science education standards, pending outside review, according to this CBS News report (Lots of stories covering this, but the CBS one has a clever graphic with Michelangelo's God picking Darwin's nose!).

About that external review:

This latest version of the science standards is being sent to a Denver-based education think tank for external review, which is routine whenever the board alters school standards, the Kansas City Star reports.
The review, which is expected to cost more than $20,000, should last about a month.

Now, one would think the BOE could save most of the $20,000 by having a Regents' school review the standards instead. I mean, isn't that what universities are for? I guess not if your goal is to avoid actual scientists reviewing your science education standards.

Unlike them, you don't need a fancy external review: you can review the proposed standards yourself. The authors of the original minority report, which became the draft standards approved by the board, have an extensive web site, including the draft, their responses to critics, and the summary of the hearings held this spring.

I have the text of the grades 8-12 standards with proposed changes highlighted, courtesy of enlightened reader Matthew Stowe. I've redacted the parts with changes below, along with my own comments about why the change would appear to be in the interests of opponents of evolution. I've also included statements from the "Synopsis of Reply to Critics" from the authors' website, to inform my comments:

Grades 8-12 Indicators
The student...

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

Additional Specificity

1. a. The National Association of Biology Teachers statement on teaching evolution acknowledges the unguided nature of the evolutionary process by explaining that the process "has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species." (adopted 1995, revised May 2004).

Why has this text been inserted? Here is what the authors have to say:

9. Complaint: It is incorrect to state that biological evolution postulates an unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal. Science is neutral as to whether evolution is guided or unguided.

Response: This is false and exceedingly disingenuous. The Response itself states that science does not allow "teleology." Teleology postulates a guided process. The mechanisms of evolution are random mutation in replicating populations that produce variations sorted by random changing environmental circumstances. This mechanism is unguided.

In other words, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. You want to emphasize that science doesn't use supernatural explanations? Fine. We'll see that and raise you one: evolution is atheist dogma that denies purpose to life.

(standards continued...)

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</a> 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. </blockquote>

There's a lie. There's no inconsistency between the fossil record and evolutionary theory. None. An inconsistency would be, as Richard Dawkins famously put it, "rabbits in the Precambrian." Or Fred Flintstone's and Dino's footprints, walking twinkle-toed through Bedrock. Evolutionary theory does not predict that evolution should be slow, or that fossils must have formed of every intermediate organism. This kind of requirement would be fantasy. So is the proposed change.

d. The distribution of fossil and modern organisms is related to geological and ecological changes (i.e. plate tectonics, migration). There are observable similarities as well as observable discrepancies in the molecular evidence.

I wonder what discrepancies they mean. Really, I have no idea. Would those be discrepancies due to weaknesses in evolutionary theory, weaknesses due to problems with molecular clocks, or what? I can imagine several ways that molecular evidence might present discrepancies, but I'm not aware of any that challenge an evolutionary understanding of the "distribution of fossil and modern organisms." Indeed, with plate tectonics and migration, you've pretty much covered every possible way that organisms could get anywhere.

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. However, studies show that animals may follow different rather than identical early stages of embryological development.

That insertion derives from ID advocate Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, in which he argues that illustrations in many textbooks are wrong to show the similarity of embryos early in development. The argument is false, as shown by this review of Icons (click on "Haeckel's Embryos"). Inserted here, the text is just irrelevant (what does it have to do with the frequency of heritable traits?).

2) understands populations of organisms may adapt to environmental challenges and changes as a result of natural selection, genetic drift, and various mechanisms of genetic change.

Additional Specificity

2. a. Genetic changes occur only in individual organisms. Except in very rare cases, mutations that may be inherited are neutral, deleterious or fatal.

That is of course true. It does place the focus on the unlikelihood of adaptive evolution, which is often taken out of context by creationists. But it errs only by omission: individual adaptive changes are very rare, but over the vast timescale of the Earth, they have happened countless times.

In between this and the next item, there is a long series of standards that remain unchanged, including -- importantly -- the discussion of speciation. That's a good thing.

6) understands biological evolution is used as a broad, unifying theoretical framework for biology.

Additional Specificity

6. a. Organisms are classified and according to the rules of nomenclature, and are given scientific names.

b. The behavioral, physical, and genetic characteristics upon which these classifications are based are used as evidence for common descent.

c. Natural selection, genetic drift, genomes, and the mechanisms of genetic change provide a context in which to ask research questions and help explain observed changes in populations. However, reverse engineering and end-directed thinking are used to understand the function of bio-systems and information.

This last addition is intended to make ID look scientific: evolution deals in reverse-engineering, so it must acknowledge principles of design.

7) explains proposed scientific explanations of the origin of life as well as scientific criticisms of those explanations.

Additional Specificity

7. Some of the scientific criticisms include:

a. Empirical evidence for a "primordial soup" or a chemically hospitable pre-biotic atmosphere is unknown.

b. 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 is unknown.

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

Of course the origins of life itself, and the pre-biotic atmosphere, are not strictly germane to evolution. But as the minority authors say, textbooks generally cover these topics.

But saying that these issues are "unknown" is misleading. There are several good hypotheses concerning each of these issues. The "unknown" part is not that nobody can explain them, it is that we cannot currently decide which explanation may be the correct one. This is partly because good tests have not yet been performed, partly because testable predictions (as opposed to post hoc predictions) of the hypotheses have not yet been derived, and partly because some of the hypotheses are mutually dependent (e.g., the origin of the genetic code depends on whether it was initially manifested in RNA-based organisms or DNA-based ones, and deciding between these depends on further understanding prebiotic chemistry. So these issues are "unknown" in the sense that scientists are divided about them, but not in the sense that scientists are just scratching their heads in puzzlement about them.

The last clause, "c", appears to be a veiled reference to the "Cambrian explosion". It must refer to the Cambrian because nothing earlier can be construed as "sudden". But it is simply not true that paleontologists see the Cambrian as "the apparent sudden rather than gradual emergence of organisms" in the sense implied by this statement. The Cambrian represented an increase in the diversity of multicellular organisms that took anywhere from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years. It build upon diversity that already existed in the late Precambrian. It is "sudden" only in the sense that organisms changed more quickly than in earlier periods. But this increase in rate is fully consistent with evolution, and indeed there are several good evolutionary hypotheses to explain it.

Looking at the changes is a good way to judge the strategy of ID advocates. On the one hand, one may ask what all the fuss is about? The changes don't on the surface appear to vitally endanger evolution education. They are nothing like the 1999 changes by the Kansas BOE, which removed references to the age of the Earth.

But in each case, the change either directly questions long-accepted evidence for the history of life, or inserts language intended to make evolution appear to be an atheistic (and therefore inherently religious) viewpoint itself.

In my opinion, the adoption of these standards would leave Kansas school districts more vulnerable to lawsuits, because they create the appearance of religious conflict where none actually exists. I would guess that a slew of lawsuits after the adoption of standards like these is the implicit strategy of ID advocates: they cannot win the actual teaching of their ideas in schools, but they do hope to have evolution banned outright on First Amendment grounds as hostile to religion. That topic is the subject of much of the "Findings of Fact and Law" that came out of the hearings this spring.

If you doubt that, consider for a moment why dozens of ID proponents travelled across the country to testify in favor of these standards which do not mention ID at all. It wasn't for the pleasant Topeka capitol views (which among other things are why I visit Kansas).

ID advocates have one thing right: the overwhelming majority of mutations are deleterious. That goes equally for these "mutations" to the science standards. Many of them are simple nonsense, especially when read in the locations where they have been inserted. Their clear goal is not to clarify the teaching of evolution, but to emphasize the ways that evolution is objectionable to certain beliefs.

I guess I'll be hoping for some purifying selection in the next Board of Education elections.