Pushy creationists score textbook victory with distorted science

Posted on : 2012-06-15 12:24 KST Modified on : 2012-06-15 12:24 KST
How did basic points on theory of evolution get removed from South Korean high school textbooks?

By Lee Keun-young, science correspondent

Controversy is brewing after a number of international periodicals reported on evolutionary accounts being removed from South Korean science textbooks at the request of creationists.

The deletions, which included information about the archaeopteryx, a prehistoric bird used to explain evolution, were reported in reputable sources such as Nature, a British science journal, and the US weekly Time.

Here at home, evolutionary scholars sent a petition to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) expressing their opposition to the demands, which they said were academically inappropriate.

A poster on the website of Scientific American magazine responded to an article titled “South Korea Surrenders to Creationist Demands” with the comment, “This is hugely disappointing from a country that allegedly has the highest per capita intelligence in the world.”

Internet users have been expressing their concern ever since Nature first printed its article on June 5. A number of comments made sarcastic reference to US president Barack Obama’s numerous mentions of South Korea as an educational model.

As in the US, it is commonplace in South Korea for scholars from a religious background to dispute the theory of evolution. Some even demanded approval for the high school textbook “Creation Science,” which offers a Biblical explanation for the origins of human life.

But this is the first time such arguments have been accepted by a government agency. And it is especially awkward coming from a government that has been frequently accused of religious bias. So what happened?

On Dec. 5 of last year, the MEST received a petition titled “The archaeopteryx is not an intermediate species between reptiles and birds.” It requested the deletion of “academically inaccurate information” about the animal from the science textbook adopted by the nation’s high schools in 2011.

The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] (STR), the group responsible for the petition, wrote on its web site that its minimum aim was to have evolution listed as “a hypothesis, not a rule,” based on a “focused analysis of the flaws in evolutionary theory, which obfuscates the truth by taking an evolutionary world view on the origins of life, matter, and the universe.”

The group also submitted a petition on Mar. 26 of this year titled “The evolutionary lineage of the horse is a figment of the imagination.”

In its December petition, STR said some of the seven high school textbooks stated conclusively that the archaeopteryx was an intermediate species in the evolution of birds from reptiles. The organization argued that point should be deleted because it was not reflective of the most recent academic trends.

“No intermediate species have been found in the fossil record, the archaeopteryx included,” the group said. “Eminent scholars such as Stephen Jay Gould have agreed on this.”

It added that if the deletions could not be made, the content should also include information about the animal officially being declared an “extinct bird” at the 1984 International Archaeopteryx Conference, as well as the ongoing controversy over archaeopteryx fossils being forgeries.

Upon receiving word of the petition from the MEST, the textbook publishers answered that they could delete or modify the content and illustrations on the archaeopteryx. Evolutionary scientists then submitted a number of petitions protesting the deletion, calling the petition itself a distortion of academic arguments and trends in the field and offering item-by-item refutations of STR‘s claims.

The objections noted that when the International Archaeopteryx Conference declared that the animal could not be called a direct ancestor of the modern bird, it did so to dispute claims that birds originated from theropods, a form of dinosaur that walked on two legs. Its intention was not to argue that it could not explain the origins of modern birds.

The work of influential evolutionary biologist Gould was also apparently misrepresented. In his theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” the Harvard professor argued that evolution did not occur incrementally, but could be divided into periods of rapid change and relative stasis.

The argument is that Gould’s reference to species stasis was twisted into a refutation of intermediate species, when it was intended to describe the periods of stability in this theory.

As evidence of the controversy over fossil doctoring, STR cited the arguments of the English astronomer Fred Hoyle. Evolutionary scientists countered that this conclusion was reached based solely on photographic evidence, and that a reanalysis by paleontologists showed the fossils to be authentic.

In its March petition, STR wrote, “The account of the horse evolving toward a larger body and smaller toes that you find in some textbooks, as well as illustrations of the fossil lineage, has been deleted from American textbooks and taken down from the National Museum of Natural History.”

“We are concerned that the evolutionary lineage for the horse, with its basis in Neo-Darwinism, an atheistic naturalism with materialist underpinnings, will have a negative impact on the shaping of student values,” the petition said.

The group added that Gould and other scholars criticized this evolutionary model as “scientifically impossible” and “a figment of the imagination.”


What scientists have to say


Evolutionary scientists responded by saying that what Gould and the others called imaginary was actually an illustration showing a direct evolution from four hoofs to one, and that this was being presented by creationists as repudiating the very premises of evolution.

“There is nothing problematic about viewing the archaeopteryx and the lineage of the horse as evidence for evolution,” said Jeon Jung-hwan, a professor at Kyung Hee University.

“It is not logical for STR to present the debate within the evolutionary science community as though it were evidence against evolution,” Jeon argued.

Incoming high school students last year began their classes with a “convergence” science textbook drafted according the 2009 amended curriculum. The science curriculum, drafted by the Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (KOFAC), states that textbooks should be divided into a first section on the universe and life and a second section on science and human civilization, and that the first section should include a treatment on the “evolution of life.”

Sogang University chemistry professor Lee Duck-hwan said the curriculum only presents an overall framework for what should be presented on evolution, while leaving the examples and description up to the publisher.

“The problem started when the publishers brought in all this old data for the new curriculum, even though evolution itself was to be taught appropriately,” Lee explained.

Some observers say the flap over the archaeopteryx stems from the looser textbook revision procedures and lax attitude from the MEST that accompanies the shift from a “standardized” high school textbook publishing system to a “recognized” one.

In contrast with textbooks written and published by the government or authorized textbooks that are drafted by a publishing company through a writing staff and scrutinized by an authorization committee, recognized textbooks are written by a publishing company, which then requests a review from a metropolitan or provincial office of education. Approval is granted based on an examination of major issues such as “national views,” without scrutiny of the method of explanation or content.

The system was introduced in response to claims that the authorization system complicated the revision process and resulted in standardization that hurt textbook quality. Indeed, a total of seven high school science textbooks were compiled and now compete on the market. The publishers can make changes based on the revisions posted on their internal bulletin boards, or make yearly modifications to the textbooks upon approval from the office of education to reflect any new hypotheses that emerge.

Jang Dae-ik, a professor of genomics in the Seoul National University College of Liberal Studies, said STR “exploited this kind of loophole when it submitted its petition to ‘amend evolutionary theory.’”

Yun Gyeong-suk, head of the METS’s mathematics education policy team, explained that when a petition is received through the government’s complaint site, the agency in question must respond within one to two weeks, and that this is why a response was sent through the publisher.

Some publishing companies, including the Mirae-N Culture Group, said, “We can‘t authoritatively say STR’s claims are 100% false, but neither can we completely change the textbooks until there is an official conclusion that is agreed upon internationally.” But Kyohak publishing removed an illustration of the archaeopteryx from the science textbook it released in March.

Choi Jae-chun, an Ewha Womans University chair professor in behavioral ecology, said, “I can’t fathom how the METS, the agency in charge of education and scholarship, would ignite a social controversy by handling this matter without one word of inquiry to experts.”

Kim Dong-won, head of the KOFAC curriculum development office, explained that the organization asked evolutionary biologists for their opinions on a petition against the STR petition, rather than leaving the examination to the publishing company’s writing staff. Kim also said KOFAC requested expert recommendations from a related academic association.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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