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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Darwin misconceptions in textbooks slammed in biology journal

"Darwin misconceptions in textbooks slammed in biology journal" is the title of an article posted by Denyse O'Leary on Post-Darwinist. Here's what she says,
British ID blog Truth in Science features a critique of Darwin hagiography and misconceptions promoted in textbooks, published by Brit prof Dr. Paul Rees in the Journal of Biological Education. The critique aims at inaccurate accounts of Charles Darwin "found in many A-Level textbooks", identifying seven common misconceptions in twelve popular textbooks published in 12 popular textboks over the last 35 years. The .pdf of the article is here. A suitable addition to examples of ridiculous hagiography in trade books and exhibitions.
Here's the link to the actual article by Raul A. Rees [The evolution of textbook misconceptions about Darwin]. Let's look at the seven misconceptions to see how they help Denyse and the Intelligent Design Creationists.
  1. Darwin was the first to propound the theory of evolution by natural selection. Rees argues that natural selection was discovered by others before Darwin, and not just Wallace. This is rather silly, in my opinion. I don't take issue with textbooks that say Darwin discovered the theory of natural selction.
  2. Darwin created the concept of "survival of the fittest". The term was coined by Herbert Spencer in 1864—five years after the first edition of Origin of Sepcies. If textbooks actually state flat out that Darwin made up the term then they need to be changed. Very few do this.
  3. Darwin travelled around the world on HMS Beagle and published On the Origin of Species on his return to England. Rees doesn't actually give any examples of this misconception. Instead he laments the fact that most textbooks don't emphasize the long delay (23 years) between returning to England and publishing On the Origin of Species. It would be nice if the textbooks got this right.
  4. Darwin was an observant naturalist and made careful collections of specimens during his voyage. Rees wants to make the point that Darwin didn't recognize the evidence for natural selection in the material he collected on the Beagle voyage. This isn't very important but it would be nice if the textbooks placed more emphasis on the theory and recognized that it didn't just fall out of the data.
  5. Darwin recognized the evolutionary significance of the adaptations shown by the Galapagos finches. It's not true that the Galapagos finches played an important role in developing the theory of natural selection. In fact, Darwin didn't appreciate the signficance until Gould pointed it out in 1837 and even then it took a while for Darwin to start using the finches as evidence for selection.
  6. Darwin first heard that Alfred Russel Wallace had independently formulated a theory of evolution when he received a letter from him in 1858. This is essentiall correct. Rees wants textbooks to point out that the two had corresponded for several years.
  7. Darwin and Wallace jointly presented papers on their ideas at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London in 1858. Wallace was in the Far East and Darwin was at home burying his son. It would be wrong for textbooks to state that they were both present at the meeting where their papers were read. Rees quotes from two textbooks published in 1984 and 1987 that imply otherwise. Tempest in a teapot.
How do these "misconceptions" affect evolution? Not at all. The IDiots would like to think that all criticism of Charles Darwin and his ideas represent evidence against evolutionary biology. They are fixated on Darwinism and events that happened 148 years ago when On the Origin of Species was first published.

Denyse O'Leary and her creationist friends seem incapable of understanding that modern evolutionary biology has moved far beyond anything that Darwin could have imagined. He is rightly credited with founding modern evolutionary biology but the scientific facts of evolution do not depend on any of the seven "misconceptions" that Paul A. Rees raises.

Rees, P.A. (2007) The evolution of textbook misconceptions about Darwin. J. Biol. Education 41: 53-55 [PDF]


  1. I guess that puppy doesn't know that Darwin liked to beat puppies just for the sense of power it gave him (according to noted authority Sal Cordova).

  2. Of course this has got nothing to do with a desire to teach evolutionary biology and everything to do with just muddying the waters. It’s a classic Truth in Science tactic. For those who don’t know, Truth in Science (what a great Orwellian name by the way), is a UK-based ID lobby group (yes, we have them here too) who recently sent slick Discovery Institute DVDs to every school in the country claiming they just wanted to “teach the controversy”.

    Their board of directors is composed mainly of evangelical Christians. Their most well-known advocate is Andy McIntosh, a hard-core Biblical literalist who is also a professor (ie equivalent to American Full Professor) of combustion science at the otherwise excellent Leeds University. Here he gets a milder than he deserves treatment from Paxo and Lewis Wolpert.

  3. Maybe it is my misconception, but I had the impression that Darwin only grudgingly accepted the use of the term "survival of the fittest" since it isn't the best description of selection.

    It is an example of framing in science, and we all know what that leads to. :-)

  4. Apart from its obvious flaws - for example, her failure to notice that Rees laments Darwin's exit from the curriculum - O'Leary's article also gives further evidence that creationists and their kin remain wedded to credential inflation for those whose words they quote approvingly. She refers to Rees as "Brit prof Dr. Paul Rees". Rees is a (fairly recently appointed) senior lecturer, having spent the 20 years after his doctorate in 1982 teaching 16-18 year-olds.

    Anyone want to bet that if what he had said had been unpalatable to her, she would have called him a schoolteacher...

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  6. The Department for education to its credit did warn schools that the DVDs were not suitable as science teaching material. However, I think we in the UK ignore the larval ID movement at our peril. Tony Blair (soon to be ex PM) refused to condemn the teaching of creationism when challenged in Parliament. The leader of the Conservative opposition when confronted waffled around the 'teach controversy' line. We have state-funded faith schools here and a some of them are showing distinctly creepy signs of evangelical influence in the labs. That's one of the reasons why we're going to build a replica HMS Beagle for the 2009 celebrations, and use it to support science education and public outreach.

  7. The textbook I used in introductory biology contained none of those misconceptions, at least insofar as they're genuine misconceptions. I'd be curious to get a hold of the textbooks referenced, as well as a representative sample of other texts, and see exactly what it is that they say. I think there's a strong possibility that Rees is either cherry-picking texts or misrepresenting their content.

  8. Maybe it is my misconception, but I had the impression that Darwin only grudgingly accepted the use of the term "survival of the fittest" since it isn't the best description of selection.

    Well, Darwin was pretty enthusiatic when Wallace first proposed using "survival of the fittest" (calling it an "excellent expression"). Wallace had pointed out that there is an implied teleology in the term "selection," though Darwin said that no one had objected on those grounds before Wallace did.

    I'm not sure whether Darwin ever came to rue "survival of the fittest" but I'm sure he would have framed it well if he had.

  9. "Well, Darwin was pretty enthusiatic when Wallace first proposed using "survival of the fittest" (calling it an "excellent expression")."

    Funny how people phrase things. Wikipedia elaborates this as:

    "In the first four editions of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used the phrase "natural selection" [1] and preferred that phrase. However, Spencer's Principles of Biology drew parallels between his economic theories and Darwin's biological ones and made first use in print of the phrase "survival of the fittest". Darwin agreed with Alfred Russel Wallace that this phrase avoided the troublesome anthropomorphism of "selecting", though it "lost the analogy between nature's selection and the fanciers'."
    He gave full credit to Spencer, writing "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."" ( )

    I think it was this not so enthusiastic phrasing I remembered. Thanks for finding the original source!

    Without Wallace's letter I can't comment on teleology. Both your reference and Wikipedia mentions avoiding anthropomorphism, which is behind but not equal to teleology.