In a recent North Carolina court decision about the constitutionality of state-funded private school vouchers, Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that it is unconstitutional to use state funds to support schools in which the curricula are not subject to any requirements or standards. A clear implication is that in the absence of review by a state educational agency, state funds might be inappropriately directed to the teaching of subject matter that is not clearly presented, not up to date or even incorrect.
A high school biology text used by a number of private schools that would be eligible for voucher support is the A Beka Book publishing company’s book: Biology, God’s Living Creation.
It would seem relevant to the court decision to compare the material included in the A Beka book with material covered in a standard high school biology text, for example, Miller and Levine, Biology. Because the A Beka book is used in schools with a Christian orientation, I chose the Miller and Levine text for comparison as one of the authors has publically stated that he is a Christian.
The A Beka book has some strengths. It is professionally assembled with attention to detail and is attractively packaged. There are several sections in the A Beka text that compare favorably with the Miller and Levine book. For sections related to functions of the human body (except the reproductive systems – inexplicably not covered in the A Beka text), most biologists could use the book to teach high school students.
However, the A Beka book suffers dramatically in the presentation of current material. Much of the text is devoted to old-fashioned descriptions of different kinds of plants and animals.
In contrast the Miller and Levine emphasizes material about cells, genetics and DNA.
Recent advances in sequencing of the human genome, regulation of gene expression, and bioinformatics are carefully presented in the Miller and Levine book, but not mentioned in the A Beka book.
The A Beka chapter on evolution, rather than explaining evolution, is an attack on the theory as a “retreat from science.” In the preface the authors state: “Since the day that Darwinism invaded the classroom, God’s glory has been hidden from students.” The chapter is a major disservice to biology students for many reasons:
• The first problem is not clearly stating the theory of evolution (thus setting up a “straw man”). In much of the chapter it is stated or implied that the theory of evolution fails because it doesn’t explain the origin of the earliest living things. The central tenets of the theory of evolution do not deal with the origin of life.
• Religious commentary is mixed in throughout. Statements that “Many varieties of canines have developed from a single pair of canines that left the ark,” and that “All the diversity we see in the human race today comes from an original couple” are not arguments that can be used against evolutionary theory, nor do they teach students biology.
• There is misinformation on multiple points. The book claims that the earth is “relatively young” when scientists approximate the age of the earth as 4.5 billion years. It also plainly misstates the science related to fossil records.
• A final issue is not pointing out the ways that evolutionary theory is central to modern biology. A theory that proposes a mechanism for how species can change over time and how new species can appear, and that is strongly validated by the discovery of DNA and commonality among genome sequences is a powerful organizing principle.
There is a reason that DNA is given primary emphasis in the Miller and Levine book. No one has more clearly pointed this out than Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, who has written eloquently about his personal Christian faith. In an interview posted on the website beliefnet, Collins stated: “It's also now been possible to compare our DNA with that of many other species. The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming. I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.”
In sum, the A Beka text as a central component of a high school biology curriculum would be suspect if evaluated by the State Board of Education. It would fail because of confusing science and religion, for misstating the theory of evolution, and for not fully presenting modern advances in cell biology and genetics. Students using the A Beka book are deprived of the opportunity to learn what biology students (and potential competitors for future jobs) all over the world are learning.
Professor William D. Snider, MD is the Director of the Neuroscience Center at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. The views expressed in this essay are his own, and he does not speak for the university.