Texas Citizens for Science
P. O. Box 13022
Odessa, TX 79768-3022
September 6, 2003
Ms. Judith P. Fowler, President
Holt, Rinehart and Winston
10801 North Mopac Expressway
Austin, Texas 78759
Dear Ms. Fowler:
I hope you won't mind if I comment on the Holt Biology textbook controversy concerning the changes your company made in response to the Discovery Institute analysis. I am the president of the scientist and citizen's organization formed to oppose the pressure from out-of-state creationists and in-state State Board of Education members to censor high school biology books up for adoption this year by forcing publishers to make scientifically inaccurate and unwarranted changes. More importantly, I am an evolutionary scientist who has been leading the effort in Texas for over twenty years to improve and protect biology textbooks from creationist and State Board efforts to marginalize, diminish, and even eliminate the textbook presentation and teaching of evolution in Texas public schools. I am keenly aware of both powerful political pressure on publishers to make scientifically ill-advised content changes in their textbooks and of self-censorship on the part of publishers to make such changes in advance of explicit pressure but in response to ideological suggestion. This vicious cycle has been part of Texas textbook adoption for at least four decades and has affected the content and quality of science textbooks used throughout the United States.
Already, two Board members have publicly threatened to place textbooks on the non-conforming list whose publishers refuse to make changes that add "weaknesses" to evolution content. Every legitimate scientist who spoke in the July public hearing testified that adding such "weaknesses" is unwarranted and that this demand is only a ploy to diminish evolution content in biology textbooks and intimidate teachers into avoiding or watering-down the topic. Obviously, publishers such as yourself are playing in a high-stakes game whose outcome is uncertain and in which the rules can be changed midstream by individuals with vested ideological interests.
Regardless of the scientific facts, in Texas the State Board of Education members decide, by majority vote, whether or not a book contains factual scientific errors--and they, not scientists, determine what is or isn't a factual error. The Board members can place a book on the non-conforming list--and consigns it to marketing hell--if they determine that it does not meet all the Texas Essentials of Knowledge and Skills--and they, not experienced educators or scientists, interpret the deliberately ambiguous TEKS requirements for "strengths and weaknesses" of "hypotheses and theories." If you think that this is no way for a state to adopt science textbooks, then I agree with you. I recognize that you and the other publishers are in a difficult position, and sympathize with you, but I also urge that you maintain the scientific integrity of your biology textbooks and not make unwarranted and inaccurate changes that pervert evolutionary content as wished by political organizations composed of creationists and pseudoscientists.
Now, let's turn to your biology textbook. I was in New York City when I was phoned by a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News about Holt revisions to their biology textbook (Johnson and Raven's Holt Biology Texas). I couldn't comment because I was away from my computer and had no knowledge of the changes, but I promised to call back once I had that information. By the time I was able to phone back, the paper was no longer interested, since the article about the Texas Freedom Network's criticism of your changes had already been published and picked up throughout the state. I read your PDF files of responses to oral and written testimony and your proffered changes, and I found nothing scientifically inaccurate or inappropriate about your suggestions. Later I spoke with a number of National Center for Science Education officials, and they had already formed the same opinion.
The main topics of criticism of Holts were (1) your willingness to take the Discovery Institute analysis and criticism of your book seriously, and (2) your addition of the paragraph to use the "media center or Internet resources to study hypotheses for the origin of life that are alternative to the hypotheses proposed by Oparin and Lerman...." I took the first criticism--to treat the DI seriously--to be a stratagem on Holt's part, knowing that some of the State Board members were sympathizers of the creationist institute and not wishing to ignore or disdain them, but at the same time not actually making any of their requested pseudoscientific changes. However, this sort of strategy is disingenuous and not quite respectable. You wrote the following:Implicit in the TFN press release is the belief that this comment from the Discovery Institute was a creationist attack on the teaching of evolution and scientific explanations for the origin of life. Holt, on the other hand, interpreted the Discovery Institute's comment as referring to our pedagogy. Regardless of what motives one may wish to ascribe to them, the Institute was challenging teaching methodology, not content.
"Teaching methodology"? This is over-reaching on your part and not quite credible. Of course the Discovery Institute is challenging your book's content; they wanted to intimidate you to water down and mischaracterize the evolution content in Holt Biology (which you creditably did not do). Texas Freedom Network was perfectly correct in believing that the DI analysis is "a creationist attack on the teaching of evolution and scientific explanations for the origin of life." That aspect of their criticism is completely accurate, and I agree with them one hundred percent.
For the second criticism, I interpreted your response to ask students to search for alternative origin-of-life hypotheses as a perfectly valid request, since there are more than two legitimately scientific hypotheses about the origin of life. The second criticism would only be valid if you asked students to search for a creationist or intelligent design hypothesis for the origin of life, but you did not do this. The confusion occurred because you did not specify searching for scientific hypotheses, and while this was your intention in context, the paragraph might be considered ambiguous by some, thus leading to misinterpretation. Therefore, I strongly advise that you insert the word "scientific" in front of some of the mentions of "hypotheses" in your suggested change to remove this unintentional ambiguity.
Let me turn now to some additional comments which do not, however, detract from the totality of your textbook's scientific content and suggested additions. First, the added content about the Cambrian Explosion refers to 160 million years as a "relatively short time span." As an evolutionary paleontologist, I can assure you that 160 my is not a "relatively short time span," in either geological or human terms. The duration of the Cambrian Explosion was about 30-40 million years, but this can be lengthened if one considers time necessary for ancestors. But no scientist specializing in this area, to my knowledge, has ever suggested 160 my as the duration of the Cambrian Explosion. I might add 30-40 my is itself quite long and completely sufficient for the origin of the taxa that appear during this time; the higher taxa that appeared then obviously had evolutionary histories prior to their first appearance. Creationist claims (such as those in Jonathan Wells Icons of Evolution) that they didn't or that this was impossible, and their repeated misstatements of legitimate scientists' research that suggest these, are deliberate mischaracterizations.
Second, your added statement that "reductant molecules used in Miller's experiment could not have existed in abundance on the early Earth" is not exactly correct. Some of the molecules Miller used did exist in abundance, and others didn't. Earth's early atmosphere and ocean were reducing, despite repeated creationist efforts (such as those in Wells' book) to claim otherwise. Later scientists have repeated Miller's experiment omitting ammonia and methane, but adding other organic molecules now known to be present, and have achieved similar results. The Miller-Urey experiment remains an excellent historical illustration of the fact that a variety of organic and inorganic compounds can mechanistically react to form chemicals and organic precursors of compounds necessary for life.
Third, and most serious, is your statement that, "During the preparation of Holt Biology Texas, the authors and the publisher did reevaluate coverage of several of the "icons of evolution" cited in Wells book. As a result, discussions of peppered moths and Haeckels drawings of embryos were removed prior to publication." This remark proves that Holt has indeed engaged in prior self-censorship. Both the peppered moths and vertebrate embryo drawings (not Haeckel's, of course) are perfectly valid and even exemplary examples to illustrate evolutionary principles. I can't emphasize how wrong you and your authors are (with all due respect to Drs. Johnson and Raven) to believe anything in Wells' fraudulent book. Creationists repeated their deliberate misrepresentations so frequently that people who should know better begin to believe them. Frankly, removing these two examples for the reason you give is shameful; other biology textbook publishers did not do this.
Please see "Fine Tuning the Peppered Moth Paradigm" by Bruce S. Grant in Evolution, 53 (3), 1999, pp. 980-984, for a modern survey of peppered moth research and its continuing scientific relevance and value as an outstanding and easily-understood example of natural selection. The glued-moths-on-bark photographs were artificially arranged, but that in no way invalidates the example, because the actual experiments did not use glued moths. The "staged" moth photographs were used to easily illustrate the concept. While it is well known that Ernst Haeckel's original drawing was exaggerated to show perfect identity, drawings or photographs of vertebrate embryos are essential to illustrate the close similarity of human embryos to those of other vertebrates, especially the ephemeral presence of pharyngeal slits and a notochord in the human embryo during development. This is outstanding evidence of human inclusiveness in the evolutionary history of vertebrates. To eliminate these two illustrations of the fact of evolution from your textbook because of reliance on "Wells' book" is irresponsible and not worthy of a distinguished publisher of science textbooks.
I hope you will transmit my concerns to your authors, Drs. George Johnson and Peter Raven. I am happy to stipulate that Holt Biology Texas is an excellent book and is strong and relatively uncompromising on the topic of evolution (as every high school biology textbook should be). I just wanted to bring the above points to your attention. In my opinion, any compromise with or indulgence of an organization such as the Discovery Institute or the creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education is a mistake. However, I understand your difficult position and truly sympathize with your attempt to find a middle way out of the Texas textbook adoption morass. Holt did not invite this situation upon itself, but found it thrust upon them by the authoritarian, puritanical, and self-righteousness ideologues of the times. I'm sure you are as disgusted with this situation as much I am, and so I will not criticize Holt too strongly.
My best regards,
Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science