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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1995

Alabama Will Use Schoolbooks
to Spread Lies and Foster Creationism

Biology textbooks in Alabama's public schools will have to carry a list of religious slogans and prevarications prescribed by the State Board of Education. The Board's falsehoods have been shaped by events that occurred, more than a decade ago, in the nearby state of Arkansas.

William J. Bennetta

On 9 November, Alabama's Board of Education decided to disseminate a litany of lies and religious cant to all the young people who study biology in Alabama's public schools. Biology textbooks used in Alabama classrooms are to be decked with "A Message from the Alabama State Board of Education" that seeks to deceive students, undermine science education, instill false notions about organic evolution, and promote creationism.

The Board's "Message" demands close examination and analysis, because it incorporates some innovative tricks and falsehoods that creationists are employing nowadays, not only in Alabama but throughout the United States.

Creationism is a fundamentalist political movement. The creationists seek to impose onto the population at large, by political means, a religion that revolves around the creation myths of the ancient Israelites, as retold in the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The creationists' ultimate goal is to abolish natural science and to replace it with a system of pseudoscience devoted to affirming the narratives in the Bible's first section, the Book of Genesis.

In working toward that goal, the creationists try to corrupt the public's understanding of scientific knowledge and of science itself. Their most conspicuous efforts are aimed at eroding the teaching of science in public schools. They promote curricula that misrepresent science, they demand that teachers present scientific findings and biblical myths as equivalent alternatives, they try to prevent the teaching of any science that contravenes biblical lore, and they try to force the schools to disseminate Bible stories that have been cloaked in "scientific" disguises.

In all of these efforts, the creationists make abundant use of a simple tactic: They lie. They lie continually, they lie prodigiously, and they lie because they must. The idea that the Bible could serve to explain nature collapsed in the 1800s, under an overwhelming mass of scientific information that discredited any naive, literal reading of Genesis, but the creationists have to deny that this ever happened. They also must deny all that science has learned since then about the history of Earth and Earth's organisms -- and the only way to do this is to tell lies. They tell lies about nature, lies about science and lies about their own doctrines and aims, and they change the lies, from time to time, to fit prevailing circumstances. This is an important part of the story behind the Alabama Board's "Message," and to understand it we must look back to some things that happened, more than a decade ago, in the nearby state of Arkansas. Those events in Arkansas did much to shape the falsehoods that now are to be used on students in Alabama.

Transparent Deceptions

In 1981 creationists in Arkansas secured the passage of a statute that promoted the teaching of "creation-science" in public schools. "Creation-science" was a collection of pseudoscientific claims and fabrications that creationists had been using as a strategic device since the early 1970s. The creationists said that it gave "scientific" validation for prominent episodes in the Bible, and that it refuted evolutionary views of the universe, Earth, and living things.

The Arkansas statute required the public schools to accord "balanced treatment" to "creation-science" and "evolution-science," and the statute's Section 4(a) defined "creation-science" in this way:

"Creation-science" means the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those evidences. Creation-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate (1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing; (2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism; (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals; (4) Separate ancestry for man and apes; (5) Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and (6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.

It was all a lie, and this was obvious. The six notions for which "creation-science" allegedly offered "scientific evidences" were not scientific at all. They were easily recognizable as fundamentalist religious doctrines, even though the creationists had sanitized them in the hope of evading the First Amendment's establishment clause, which forbids any law that would establish an official religion. "Creation-science" proffered creation without a Creator, and a lower-case flood instead of the great biblical Flood, but these little deceptions were transparent. So were the references to "living kinds" and "created kinds" of organisms; the word kinds, which has no biological meaning, had been adopted from the King James rendering of Genesis. And the item about a "relatively recent inception" of Earth was an unmistakable restatement of the fundamentalist belief that Earth's age is only 6,000 years or so -- a belief derived from calculations involving the lifespans of biblical patriarchs. (The most famous of these calculations was published in 1650 by the Irish churchman James Ussher. He concluded that Earth had been created in 4004 BC, and his result has been printed as a margin-note in many editions of the Bible.)

The Arkansas statute was immediately challenged in a lawsuit filed by an array of plaintiffs, including officials of various religious organizations, parents of schoolchildren, and the National Association of Biology Teachers. The case was tried before Judge William R. Overton in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas; and in January 1982, Overton ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because it tried to establish a state religion.

Overton issued a long, analytical opinion in which he showed that "creation-science" was simply biblical literalism in disguise, and one of his points was especially potent:

Creation science as described in Section 4(a) fails to meet [the essential characteristics of science]. First, the section revolves around 4(a)(1), which asserts a sudden creation "from nothing." Such a concept is not science because it depends on a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law. . . .

If the unifying idea of supernatural creation by God is removed from Section 4, the remaining parts of the section explain nothing and are meaningless assertions . . . .

That declaration -- the declaration, by a federal court, that the concept of creation is necessarily entwined with supernaturalism and is not science -- produced a rapid and profound change in the creationists' tactics. As quickly as they could, the creationists got rid of creation! They didn't alter their doctrines or their political aims, of course, but they radically revised their rhetoric. Leaders of the effort to thrust biblical beliefs into public schools purged the word creation from their public pronouncements and writings, and they revised their old lies to produce new ones which were creation-free. And though they continued to peddle much of the same rubbish that they once had called "creation-science," they did away with its name: The expression creation-science was dumped.

In revising their claims about organisms and the history of life on Earth, shrewd creationists and their spokesmen have replaced the word creation with several alternative terms. One of these is intelligent design. Instead of contending that organisms have been divinely created, the creationists say that organisms are products of "intelligent design" or "an intelligent designer." That the design and the designer are supernatural is clearly suggested but never stated.

Two other terms that the creationists have enlisted as code-words for creation are the phrases sudden appearance and abrupt appearance. Instead of saying that organisms have been created, creationists now say that organisms "appeared abruptly" or "suddenly appeared" on Earth. That sudden appearance bespeaks creation by Yahweh, the god of Genesis, is left as an implication.

Sudden-appearance stuff plays a role in the religious devotions of the Alabama State Board of Education, as we shall see when we look at the text of the Board's "Message." First, though, we must understand the full significance of such stuff. It transcends the mere use of obfuscatory code-words, because the notion of sudden appearance -- which at first was just a rhetorical substitute for the concept of creation -- has now become something more than that. The creationists have elaborated it into their preferred way of dealing with the fossil record.

The fossil record of life on Earth is clearly a record of organic evolution. The creationists have always found this infuriating and embarrassing (to say the least), and their efforts to deny it have given rise to some of their wildest falsehoods. For example, the original proponents of "creation-science" fashioned a network of bizarre lies about the occurrence and distribution of fossils, and they presented these lies as "evidences" that the entire fossil record had been laid down during a single event: Fossils, they announced, were the remains of organisms that had died in the biblical Flood.

Today, of course, most creationist leaders refuse to be associated (in public, at least) with any such invocation of miracles and supernaturalism. Instead, they offer a mixture of lies and meaningless assertions that have been designed to convey three false ideas. First: The fossil record is full of sudden appearances -- cases in which new organisms show up suddenly, without any precursors or ancestors. Second: This means that the organisms actually came into existence suddenly and without any precursors. Third: Because the organisms came into existence suddenly without precursors, they could not have originated through evolution.

This is one of the daffiest constructs that the creationists have ever put forward, and it makes the fossils-from-the-Flood story seem tame. If you look again at the ideas that are involved here, you'll see that the first two, taken together, amount to a claim that the fossil record is literally perfect! The creationists are saying that the record contains, and we have unearthed, the remains of every organism that ever lived! Only if that were true would an organism's "sudden appearance," without any known precursor, mean that no precursor existed. Needless to say, however, it isn't true. It is patently false and patently asinine -- but it suits the purposes of the Alabama State Board of Education.

Mechanisms of Deceit

The Alabama Board's "Message" to students is to be printed on adhesive labels, and such labels are to be applied to all the biology textbooks used in Alabama's public schools. In the text of the "Message," the Board tries to deceive and confuse students by using three major mechanisms, all of which are creationist favorites. The Board dispenses plain lies (some in the form of statements, some disguised as questions); the Board makes statements which convey false implications; and the Board presents claims or questions which appear to carry information but which are, in fact, quite meaningless.

Here is the entire "Message," followed by my comments. The numerals shown in square brackets, within the "Message," refer to the comments:

A Message from the Alabama State Board of Education

This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory [1] some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things,[2] such as plants, animals and humans.[3]

No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact.[4]

The word "evolution" may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species.[5] (White moths, for example, may "evolve" into gray moths.)[6] This process is microevolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing to another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macroevolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory.[7] Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.[8]

There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including:

  • Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record (known as the "Cambrian Explosion")? [9]

  • Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record for a long time? [10]

  • Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record? [11]

  • How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of "instructions" for building a living body? [12]

Study hard and keep an open mind. Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth. [13]

  1. This is the first of several instances in which the Board uses the word theory in false and deceptive ways. Creationists invariably do this, seeking to promote and exploit the common notion that a theory is a mere speculation and that the word theory is an antonym of fact. In the lexicon of science, however, theory has quite a different meaning: Scientists use theory to denote a structure of ideas, confirmed by preponderant evidence, that explains a body of observations and thus explains some aspect of nature.

    The Board's statement that organic evolution is a "theory" is false. Evolution isn't a theory but a phenomenon of nature. There is a theory of evolution, which explains how and why evolution occurs, but the theory and the phenomenon are two different things.

    Evolution isn't "controversial," either. Evolution is (and has been for many decades) the grand, unifying principle of all biology, and there is no controversy about this. By falsely branding evolution as "controversial," the Board evidently hopes to make evolution seem marginal, scary or both.

  2. False. Evolution accounts not for "the origin of living things" but for the transformation of populations and the origin of new species. The Board is deliberately confusing the origin of life with the subsequent diversification of living things. This is another classic trick of the creationists, dating from the days of "creation-science."

  3. Humans are animals, even if Bible-thumpers deny this. By separating "animals" from "humans," the Board shows that it is dealing in atavistic religious fancies, not science.

  4. As I've said, creationists like to promote the misconception that theory is an antonym of fact -- that theories and facts are mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic. In truth, however, theories and facts are not antagonistic but complementary: Theories explain facts, and facts support theories. Students have to grasp this point if they are to understand how science works and how scientific knowledge is organized, but the Board is seeking not to promote understanding but to sow confusion.

    The Board's claim that "any statement about life's origins" should be considered a "theory" is nonsensical. As we know, a theory is a structure of explanatory ideas confirmed by preponderant evidence -- but there are plenty of statements "about life's origins" that explain nothing and aren't supported by anything.

  5. At the top of the "Message," evolution was a "controversial theory." Now it is a description of "changes that occur within a species." Does this mean that a description is a controversial theory? Again, the Board is sowing confusion.

  6. That inscrutable stuff seems to be an addled allusion to the work of H.B.D. Kettlewell, who studied some effects of selection on populations of the moth Biston betularia. The effects that Kettlewell described, however, were changes in the frequencies of light and dark morphs -- not the evolution of white moths into gray moths. The Board's notions about biology seem to be based on Bible-camp rumors, rather than on any reading of scientific literature. This complies with creationist tradition.

  7. Those two claims about "microevolution" and "macroevolution," taken together, seem clearly intended to convey three notions: that fact means something which has been directly observed; that theory means something which has not; and (once again) that fact and theory are antonyms. All those notions are false and will keep students from understanding what scientific facts are and how scientific facts are developed.

  8. That is the third claim about the meaning of "evolution," and it is an outright lie. There is no scientific context -- none -- in which "evolution" refers to any "belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things."

  9. There it is: sudden appearance! But before we can analyze the Board's sudden-appearance stuff, we must sort out that rubbish about the "Cambrian Explosion." Contrary to the Board's belief, Cambrian explosion isn't a synonym for fossil record, and the fossil record isn't "known as" the Cambrian Explosion. The term Cambrian explosion denotes the rapid diversification of animal life, as seen in the fossil record, during the Cambrian Period. This diversification was very fast, in terms of geological time, but it wasn't "sudden" in any ordinary sense. It spanned several million years.

    The Board's ostensible question about sudden appearances and the Cambrian explosion is nothing but drivel. Without a definition of "the major groups of animals," it is completely meaningless -- and if we supply a definition, the drivel becomes a lie. Let me demonstrate this:

    Suppose that we invoke conventional classification and define "the major groups of animals" as the broadest groups in the animal kingdom -- the phyla. Now, did all of the animal phyla "suddenly appear" in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion? No, they did not. Fossils show that the cnidarians, for example, were prospering in the oceans before the Cambrian Period began. Conversely, some phyla -- such as the bryozoans and the loriciferans -- are not represented in the Cambrian record at all. (The earliest fossils of bryozoans date from the Ordovician Period, the one that followed the Cambrian.) In short, there is no truth in any claim that all the animal phyla appeared in the fossil record, suddenly and simultaneously, during the Cambrian explosion.

    But maybe the Board's "major groups" are not phyla. Maybe they are classes. If we adopt that definition, then the Board is claiming that such things as birds, spiders, insects and mammals suddenly showed up in the Cambrian seas! Enough said. No matter what meaning we assign to "major groups," the Alabama Board's claim turns into a lie.

  10. This too is completely meaningless. What are "major groups"? What is "a long time"? The Board is serving up some more drivel, though its purpose isn't clear to me. Maybe it is meant to imply that the fossil record confirms the biblical account of creation. (According to that account, Yahweh quickly fashioned all living things and then retired.) Or maybe it is meant to imply that there is no such thing as evolution, because evolution would have to produce "major groups" continually and frequently. In fact, however, nothing in our theory of evolution requires a steady, unending parade of new "major groups."

  11. Here again, an ostensible question conveys an empty and deceptive claim. Indeed, the Board is simply restating its drivel about sudden appearances. The claim that unidentified, undefined "major groups" have "no transitional forms" is another way of saying that they appeared suddenly, with no precursors to connect them to any other unidentified, undefined "major groups."

    Denying the existence of transitional forms was a favorite activity of the luminaries who cooked up "creation-science." Today's creationists are sustaining that tradition and are using the traditional devices: lies and double-talk. But even as the lies persist, so do the fossils that discredit the liars. Look at Archaeopteryx. Look at Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, two transitional forms on the path that led to tetrapods. Look at the beautiful series of transitional fossils that show how the mammalian jaw articulation, in which the dentary bone is joined to the squamosal, arose from an earlier arrangement in which the articular bone rotated on the quadrate.

    Maybe the Board would reply that those cases don't count, because tetrapods, birds, and mammals aren't "major groups." Well, that might work at a Bible camp in Dogpatch or Rednecktown, but it won't work here. The Board had its chance to define what it meant by "major groups" but it refused, so I shall take care of that matter right now. I declare that the tetrapods, the birds, and the mammals are all major groups, and I declare that the Board is a group of liars.

  12. The origin of the instructions (by continual, open-ended elaboration and modification of nucleic acids) is not the mystery that the Board makes it out to be. And the notion that the instructions are "complete," in any sense of that word, could occur only to people who are utterly ignorant of biology.

  13. That this Board should offer advice about scholarship, or should speak about keeping an "open mind," strikes me as grotesque, but I can't disagree with the idea that the students in Alabama's schools should study hard. I wish those students well, and I hope that they will resist being conned and abused by the Alabama State Board of Education.

I thank Kevin Padian, Peter U. Rodda and Michael T. Ghiselin for providing information that I have used in writing this article. Padian is a paleontologist and a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Rodda, a geologist and paleontologist, is a staff scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. Ghiselin is a biologist, a senior research fellow at the California Academy of Sciences, and chairman of the Academy's Center for the History and Philosophy of Science.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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