I’ve been writing at Coyote Crossing/Creek Running North for nearly a decade, and in the decade’s worth of archives there are a handful of posts that really seem like they ought to live here. So every month or two I’ll dust one of them off, if it’s not too horribly outdated, and put it here for your delectation or dissection.
This one is a 2006 review of the abysmal “biology” “textbook” Biology: God’s Living Creation, published by the creationists at A Beka Books.
“The sequence of study found in all other current biology texts can implant a subtle evolutionary philosophy in the students’ minds. The Christian teacher will find that the unique A Beka Book approach to biology eliminates the conflict which results when evolutionary philosophy is combined with truth. Students and teachers alike will feel more comfortable when they realize that it is not biology that is in conflict with Scripture, but rather the ungodly philosophy of some biologists.
So reads the prologue of Biology: God’s Living Creation, sent to me as a gift by a friend with a disturbing sense of humor. The controversial textbook — and here I use “textbook” to mean “cruel practical joke played on unsuspecting high school biology students” and “controversial” to mean “filled with lies” — made the news recently when a group of Southern California fundamentalists sued the University of California over UC’s refusal to credit biology classes for which the book served as text. The UC regents were right to so decide: the book is garbage.
Much of the public attention to the book focused on what I will call for lack of a suitable expletive the paleontology section, and for good reason. The second paragraph of that section begins:
“The Bible, the oldest record of man’s past, reveals to us the close working association between created man (Adam) and other living things.”
Anthropology comes under direct attack in the next para, which starts out
“After the days of Noah, when God dispersed mankind throughout the world…”
The text is the usual creationist assortment of misrepresentations (“Supporters of the punctuated equilibrium concept argue that most ‘missing links’ are missing from the fossil record because they never existed,” page 368), non-sequiturs and arguments from authority (page 349 holds a table of prominent historical scientists who were Christian creationists, the most recent being electrical engineer John Ambrose Fleming, who died a very old man in 1945) and flat out lies (“No true ‘missing links’ have ever been found to bridge the gaps between different kinds of organisms,” page 367).
Of that last category, perhaps the most damaging example can be found on page 352:
When a hypothesis has passed the test of many well-designed experiments and has the support of other scientists, it is referred to as a theory.
Despite the colloquial use of the word to mean “wild-assed guess,” a theory in this context is a framework on which the results of tests of hypotheses are related one to the other. A theory is a higher order of truth, above “fact.” It’s provisional, but so, in science, are facts. But leave the quote-mining to the creationists. There’s too much funny stuff in the book, and we’d be here all day.
OK, just one more, question 7 from Section Review 13.1, on page 343:
In a paragraph, explain why the Bible is completely true and accurate when it speaks of scientific matters, although it is not a scientific textbook or treatise. Give examples of truths recorded in the Scriptures many years before they were recognized by scientists.
But to tell the truth, the odious lies in the “paleontology” section weren’t the thing that bothered me the most about the book. They’re so blatant, and easily refuted by any student that has both a questioning mind and Internet access. They’re almost a burlesque of creationist thought, and besides, I’ve become jaded in that respect.
No, the statement that bugs me most in this book is in the section on human physiology.
We are fortunate to live in an age when scientific dogma is overturned at a startling clip. When I first studied geology, Plate Tectonics was an intriguing idea with not a few skeptics. Now it’s consensus. When I was taking high school biology back then in the Pleistocene, living things were no longer divided into three parts like Gaul. In 1894, Ernst Haeckel had added the Kingdom Protista to Linnaeus’ Plantae and Animalia, and you can still find textbooks in used book stores that follow this tripartite division, Protista consisting of single-celled organisms that aren’t clearly plants nor animals. During the late 1930s, increasing knowledge of bacterial anatomy prompted the addition of a fourth kingdom, Monera (or, straightforwardly, “Bacteria.”)
In nineteen-sixty-mumble, my bio teacher taught his classes Robert Whittaker’s five-kingdom version of things, with Fungi given their own kingdom. Not long after, the two-empires system came into use, with the kingdoms divided between the “empires” Prokaryota, simple single-celled organisms, and Eukaryota, which included both singlecelled and multicellular organisms, all of which differed from prokaryotes in that their cells had organelles: nuclei at the very least, with some also having mitochondria, Golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticula, and — if the cells were very lucky — chloroplasts.
The point of all this ancient history? None of these revisions were suggested on a whim, as one might decide to reorganize one’s record collection from alphabetical to chronological. Each revision was proposed to reflect increasing knowledge of the awe-inspiring diversity of single-celled life, and the realization that the truly profound differences among living things had less to do with being green and sedentary or brown with teeth than with microscopic details of construction.
That learning continues. In 1990 Carl Woese, who had spent some years studying differences in ribosomal RNA among a wide variety of prokaryotes, split that empire in two based in part on those differences. One section was given an old name, “Bacteria.” The other Woese dubbed “Archaea.” Together with Eukaryota, Bacteria and Archaea became, in Woese’s view, the newest high-order taxa, which he called “domains.” His view is gaining adherents, though some still stick to the five-kingdoms notion. It’s likely that Woese’s idea won’t be the last refinement. Most biologists agree — after another one a them there paradigmatic shifts in the sciences that’s happened in the last forty years — that Eukaryotes arose from symbiotic partnerships among Bacterial and Archaeal organisms, with Archaean organisms becoming nuclei, blue-green algae becoming chloroplasts, smaller bacteria becoming mitochondria, and so forth.
Either way, the old Animal Kingdom has suffered significant demotion. Not only is it subordinate to the new domain Eukaryota, but an increasing number of taxonomists relegate us Animals to a subcategory of a subcategory. A common and almost certainly temporary view of Eukaryotes breaks that domain down into the groups Stramenopiles (including diatoms, kelp, and the pathogen that causes sudden oak death) Alveolates (dinoflagellates and similar organisms), Rhodophyta (red algae), Green Plants, a grab-bag category of various not-yet-assigned single-celled organisms, and Opisthokonts.
Opisthokonts are distinguished from other eukaryotes by a number of cellular and molecular features, the easiest to explain of which is that when opisthokonts form cells that move by way of the whip-like organelles known as flagella, those flagella grow on the posterior end of the cell, and there’s usually only one flagellum per cell.
About half the readers of this blog are producing one particular type of such cells right now, and a significant proportion of the other half is shouldered with the responsibility of killing them. Animals are a sub-subgroup of opisthokonts, along with fungi and some single-celled organisms.
“Animals,” despite a conflation in the common mind with “mammals” (“we saw plenty of animals, birds, and fish!”) refers to any multicellular animals, from rotifers to right whales. The vast majority of animals, by sheer numbers, are microscopic. Of those that aren’t, the vast majority are arthropods, which comprise three quarters of all known living and fossil species. Head deliberately along the evolutionary branches toward people, and be careful: there are thousands of wrong turns for each correct one. The majority of vertebrates are fish. Five sixths of terrestrial vertebrate species are birds, reptiles or amphibians. Almost half of all mammal species are rodents. Almost half the remainder are bats. Of primate species more than half are monkeys, with almost all of the rest lemurs or lorises.
We are one species among millions, one flimsy twig in a forest. The whole history of the biological sciences has been confirmation and reconfirmation of this fact. Copernicus and Galileo took us from the center of the universe. Thousands of biologists still work to dethrone us from the seat we had long usurped at the head of the table of life. This is a planet of bats and rats, of sparrows, of beetles and ants, but mainly — to a first approximation — this is a planet of bacteria. One could call us an afterthought, if one granted that thought played a role in our stepping onto life’s stage, which I do not. I find this point of view exhilarating, like looking at a starry sky and imagining the impossible distances. To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.
Which is why the first sentence of Chapter Six in Biology: God’s Living Creation angered me so badly:
Man is the most magnificent part of God’s creation — far more complex in structure and design than the earth or any heavenly body.
Ignore the untruth in the subordinate clause for the moment. It is the first part that is so dangerous, seductive even to non-fundamentalists. The devotee of Teilhard’s noösphere, the extropian with his imagined Manifest Evolutionary Destiny, the well-intentioned Marxist with his inevitability of change, all fall to the same teleological demon, shackled to the Great Chain of Being. And once we set ourselves apart from the rest of “creation,” we begin to resent our ties to the earth. Of what importance is a snail, a rotifer, a tiger? We begin to imagine — and to implement — a world in which we are alone.
It is called hubris. It goeth before a fall, already in progress.
The most dangerous part of the Crown of Creation notion, of course, is its ring of truth. We each of us are cooperative projects of a quadrillion or two prokaryotes, and those single cells conspire to create consciousness. It is as if pond scum, piled and shaped a certain way, began to discuss its purpose.
Shakespeare had it backwards, I think. That foul and pestilential congregation of vapors Hamlet loathed is far more sublime than any gaudy overhanging painted firmament. We are the quintessence of dust and yet we are as gods in apprehension, and that’s the whole point, and that’s the whole problem.
[Sep/10: This piece has been edited to reflect corrections offered in comments, below. –CC]