Sep 11 2012

Creationists Improve Teaching of Evolution in South Korea

This is a wonderfully ironic story from South Korea involving the presentation of evolution in science textbooks. Three months ago we learned that there was a clever effort by South Korean creationists to remove references to evolution in a major science textbook. Nature reported at the time:

A petition to remove references to evolution from high-school textbooks claimed victory last month after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx. The move has alarmed biologists, who say that they were not consulted. “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,” says Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University.

This was the result of efforts from a group called STR – the Society for Textbook Revise (I assume it doesn’t translate well), an offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research.  I have to admit that their strategy was very clever. School textbooks are notoriously low in quality, especially science textbooks, which can be riddled with errors, bad examples, and poor explanations. The STR apparently realized that they could complain about the poor quality of information related to evolution in South Korea’s high school science textbooks and petition that the bad science be removed from the books.

Their purpose, of course, is not to promote good science but to remove mention of evolution, but their argument is that the treatment of evolution is poor quality – which may in fact be true. The far better response would be to improve the treatment of evolution in the textbooks, not remove it, but the STR was successful in arguing to the MEST that the problematic sections on evolution should just be removed.

Then the story gets more interesting. In response to the MEST action there was outrage among scientists and educators, who immediately saw the action for what it was. I suspect the purpose of the STR was to be distinct from the Korean Association for Creation Research, but if so it didn’t work for even a nanosecond, as it was painfully obvious that creationist fingerprints were all over this affair.

The two examples of evolution that the  STR found so offensive were that of horse evolution and Archaeopteryx as an example of the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. The STR’s objections represent old and long discredited arguments from the creationists. Essentially they argue that, with regard to horses, the classic sequence from Eohippus (now hyracotherium – really, paleontologists, get it together and fix the name) to modern Equus is misleading. The sequence is made from cherry-picked examples of early horses creating the false impression of a linear evolution from small many-toed animals to the large single-hooved modern horse.

This criticism is correct. In fact, we have fossils demonstrating a branching bush of adaptive radiation among horse ancestors. One branch of that bush led to modern horses, and it is nothing but hindsight bias to look back at that complex bush as somehow leading to modern horses. The representation of horse evolution now stands as the iconic example of the switch among evolutionary scientists from looking at evolution as a ladder to looking at is as a branching bush.

High school textbooks, unfortunately, are lagging behind and some are still using the misleading representation of horse evolution from the early 20th century.

Archaeopteryx is a related but distinct tale. Archaeopteryx was thought for many decades to be an ancestor to modern birds and a link between theropod dinosaurs and avians. I’m not sure how many evolutionary scientists thought it was a direct ancestor to modern birds, but that is often how it was presented to the public. Like with the horse story, however, feathered dinosaurs and early avians represented a complex branching bush of diversity, with one twig leading to modern birds. That twig was not inevitable nor the “purpose” or “goal” of feathered dinosaur evolution – it was just one highly successful branch.

We now have many examples of fossil species that exist in the morphological and temporal space between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. It is probably true that none of them are direct ancestors to modern birds. Statistically very few of the proto-avian populations would be the ones to lead to modern birds, while most would represent other branches (even the term “side-branch” is hindsight biased). This does not diminish the importance and implication of these fossils, however, and that is the error that creationists perpetually make.

Archaeopteryx is still a beautifully transitional fossil representing features of both theropods and birds, even though it is almost certainly not a direct ancestor of modern birds. It’s cousin was an ancestor, however.

Back to the Korean textbook story – the MEST responded to the backlash against their ill-considered decision by putting together an expert panel of scientists (which they should have done initially) to consider the STR petition. The panel has now rendered their recommendations:

On 5 September, the panel concluded that Archaeopteryx must be included in Korean science textbooks, and it reaffirmed that the theory of evolution is an essential part of modern science that all students must learn in school.

The panel accepted that the textbooks’ explanation of the evolution of the horse was too simplistic and should be revised or replaced with a different example, such as the evolution of whales.

So the end result of the STR action was to inspire an improvement in the quality of teaching evolution in South Korean public schools. Good work.

I would like to see the textbooks keep the example of horse evolution, but use it as an example of how modern scientists view the process and history of evolution and contrast that to the out-of-date linear view of evolution. I would also include whale evolution as another example, because the sequence of intermediate whale fossils is dramatic and impressive. Ambulocetus is a literal walking whale, another stunning transitional fossil.

This is a great win for science education against the anti-scientific agenda of the creationists. It also highlights another problem and potential solution. The STR did correctly point out an outdated example of evolution lingering in South Korean science textbooks. This prompted a review by actual scientists and great recommendations for improving the quality of the text, and thereby improving science education.

So why don’t we bypass the step of having antiscientific cranks complaining about the poor-quality of science in textbooks for their own agenda and just skip ahead to having panels of  scientists review science textbooks for accuracy, completeness, and quality and make specific recommendations for improvement? We should not limit this process to textbooks either, but have relevant scientists review the entire science curriculum. This should also be an ongoing process, to keep the content up to date.

Imagine – having scientists involved in teaching science.


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