Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Concern Goes Beyond the Textbook

A controversy is brewing over a biology textbook used at Virginia Commonwealth University. Or perhaps it is better said that an adjunct biology professor is intent on creating a controversy. Part of the article referenced at the following URL is included along with my identified comments.

http://www.styleweekly.com/article.asp?idarticle=12429

'June 7, 2006

A Textbook Case

'When teaching evolution in college classrooms, where does creationism fit in? Some VCU professors are wondering.'

by Brandon Walters

"When biology professor Jim Sparks lectures at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, he’ll spend plenty of time on the missing link. In this case, however, it’s his new textbook.

The 35-year-old adjunct professor is upset about the new text his peers at VCU have chosen for him to use in teaching Biology 101. Sparks says it omits critical chapters in evolutionary theory and is biased toward creationism and intelligent design, which argues life is too complex to have evolved over millions of years solely through Darwin’s theory of natural selection and must have come at the direction of a supreme being or a supernatural force.

The book Sparks faults is “Essentials of Biology” by prolific science writer Sylvia S. Mader and published by the mainstream McGraw-Hill press.

“The text is confusing and minimalist,” Sparks says. “I can’t teach a lecture based on this book.” Describing most introductory biology texts as uniform, Sparks says he first thought the book was just weak. In the beginning, he even gave his blessing when the department allowed his input. But then he actually read the text.

He also soon learned that one of his colleagues who pushed for the book has strong creationist ties and that the text has also been picked up by Oral Roberts University. And in the chapter called “Darwin and Evolution” on page 230, he found a direct reference to the California-based Institute for Creation Research, stating that the organization “advocates that students be taught an ‘intelligent-design theory.’”

[Bradford]: This smacks of academic McCarthyism. A text was "picked up by Oral Roberts University" and a colleague "who pushed for the book has strong creationist ties" is meant to do what- discredit the book? It may have that effect but if it does it runs counter to the spirit of academic freedom that should pervade Sparks's world. One's "creationist ties" should be utterly irrelevant but sadly that is not the case.

Even though the book clearly states that intelligent-design theory does not meet the test of scientific theory, despite that nearly half of all Americans believe the Old Testament account of creation, Sparks says the mention of the institute is disturbing. “It’s product placement,” he says, “like when Tom Cruise drinks Pepsi in the ‘War of the Worlds.’”

[Bradford]: Sparks's product placement charge is not backed by anything disclosed in this article. There is missing context. Evidently Sparks would like nothing better than to censor mention of the Institute for Creation Research. That's consistent with policing thought.

Some of his colleagues say he’s paranoid and making much ado about nothing. But Sparks may have a point, according to some people following the debate over how evolution is taught nationwide in grade schools and institutions of higher ed."

[Bradford]: If Sparks would confine his objections to the information contained or not contained in the book he might have a point worth listening to but he conveys an unhealthy interest in ideology when he goes beyond this.

"Sparks insists VCU and its students are getting ripped off. When he tried to use his previous syllabus to create a new one for the Mader text, he says he couldn’t because critical elements of evolution were missing from the book.

For example, the Mader book doesn’t mention a concept called abiogenesis or the Miller-Urey experiment, which posits that life may have originated from simple amino acids and nucleotides being synthesized by exposing the earth’s early gaseous atmosphere to electric charge and UV radiation. The hypothesis, now contested, remains a standard part of biology curricula."'

[Bradford]: We are better off for the absence of this unscientific belief. There is more evidence that proteins and nucleic acids do not arise outside a cellular environment than there is scientific evidence for life arising. The fact that this would be raised as an objection only reinforces the impression that Sparks's interests in the textbook go beyond legitimate scientific concerns.

2 Comments:

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Jim Sparks said...

This whole process has been very trying personally. I took great personal risks to bring this to the public's attention because the administration was blinded by the soft language of the reference to ICR in the text. It is now, finally, being taken seriously.

Please refrain from belittling the risks I took. I had the least to loose of everyone that was aware of the situation, so it fell on me to take action. There were three other faculty members who complained to the administration about creationism on campus before me, and at least one student. Nothing substantial was done and this lead to a climate of fear on campus. An anonymous students posted his fear of reprisal if he reported creationism in class on a web forum. We are breaking free of this thanks to the brilliant leadership of our chairman, but someone had to be the point-man for this to happen.

These situations can be made worse when careless comments about an individual's motivations are made. I am not a publicity hound. I'm not making any money from this. Initially, I asked Style to refrain from publishing the photo, but it was neccessry to draw the reader in. I did what I did for the greater good of the University and to expose a ruse that would have damaged VCU much more severly if it had taken root. Read the Dover ID decision for clarification regarding ID's subversive intent. They really are a conspiratorial threat.

I realize that you don't have the full story, and I don't think your intent was malicious, but maybe now you will consider the courage it takes to challenge creationism in the neo-conservative political age.

We need each others support.

Sincerely,
Jim Sparks
VCU Biology

BTW just so there is no confusion about who we took on here, this is the ICR's mission statement:

We believe God has raised up ICR to spearhead Biblical Christianity's defense against the godless and compromising dogma of evolutionary humanism. Only by showing the scientific bankruptcy of evolution, while exalting Christ and the Bible, will Christians be successful in “the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:4,5).

 
At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A reply to Mr. Sparks:

Very trying personally? Great personal risks? The risks you took are being belittled?

So. Three faculty members and one student have complained to the administration about creationism? One "anonymous student" posted his feear of reprisal?

And in the next breath you state that the Dover ID decision clarifies ID's "subversive intent," that "they really are a conspiratorial threat.?

What's your gripe re: the ICR's mission statement?

Really, Mr. Sparks, the blog post you find objectionable does not in any way belittle you. You, on the other hand, indulge in some pretty egregious belittling of your own.

Aleph Wilton

 

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