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Evolution in Texas Textbooks
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So I read this on Matthew Yglesias' blog, and my first reaction is to get my gander up:


It appears that Holt, Rinehart and Winston have caved to pressure from anti-science forces on the Texas Board of Education and agreed to alter their biology textbooks in order to make them more friendly to "intelligent design" pseudo-science.


So I follow a link to another link to a somewhat vague Houston Chronicle article about the matter. Then I come across Brian Leiter's blog.

Here, according to Leiter, is what was actually changed in the textbook:


In the textbook ‘Biology’ by Johnson and Raven, the chapter review question on p. 271 was changed from:

20. Finding and Communicating Information. Use the media center or Internet resources to learn about the condition on Earth that scientist think existed before life formed. Identify which compounds Miller and Urey formed in their experiment.

to:

20. Finding and Communicating Information. Use the media center or Internet resources to study hypotheses for the origin of life that are alternatives to the hypotheses proposed by Oparin and Lerman. Analyze, review, and critique either Oparin’s or Lerman’s hypothesis as presented in your textbook along with one alternative hypothesis that you discover in your research."


Leiter responds:


What will be next? Medical textbooks that recommend students search the Internet for alternate cures?


Maybe I'm underreacting, but I don't see the big deal here. I don't see how this particular change makes the textbooks "more friendly to 'intelligent design' pseudo-science", as Yglesias says.

In fact, I think the revised question, on the face of it, is actually a superior question. The first version simply asks students to "learn about the condition on Earth that scientist think existed before life formed" and "identify the compounds" used in early experiments.

But the revised question actually asks them to find an alternative hypothesis to Oparin, who hypothesized that ultraviolet light was a catalyst in the formation of organic molecules, and Lerman, who was a proponent of the "bubble theory":


Under Lerman's proposed scenario, organic material, either from extraterrestrial objects or volcanic eruptions, was dispersed in the sea and air, then adsorbed and concentrated during the formation of underwater bubbles and atmospheric aerosols and droplets. When the bubbles rose to the surface and burst, this organic material was ejected into the atmosphere and carried upward by winds. Atmospheric chemistry, triggered by lightning or ultraviolet radiation, then altered the material into complex organic molecules that precipitated back down to earth as rain and snow, creating more bubbles and starting the cycle all over again.


Now the question of the origin of life is one of the least understood and most fascinating questions in science, and unlike cosmological origin hypotheses (like the "Big Bang"), the question and its hypotheses have received very little popular attention.

In fact, there are a number of alternate hypotheses to those proposed by Oparin and Lerman, including the "Crystal" or "Clay" hypothesis proposed by A. G. Cairns-Smith in 1966.

Hell, a quick Google search also turned up this page, which offers students two alternative hypotheses to Oparin and Lerman:


Thermal Vents

One current theory is that life originated deep beneath the surface of the ocean at deep sea hydrothermal vents. These hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1979. Soon after, scientists made an exciting discovery. These vents release hot gaseous substances from the center of the earth at temperatures in excess of 572oF. Previously scientists were sure that life could not exist, deep beneath the surface of the ocean. After the discovery of hydrothermal vents, they found ecosystems thriving in the depths of the ocean. These ecosystems contained various types of fish, worms, crabs, bacteria and other organisms which had found a way to survive in a cold, hostile environment without energy input from sunlight. Because life had been found to exist where it previously was thought unable to, many scientists began to ask questions as to whether or not this was where life may have originated on the earth.


and...


Extra Terrestrial Sources

Panspermia
In the early twentieth century, a Swedish chemist named Svente Arrhenius developed a theory called panspermia. Arrhenius' theory accounted for life's origins by simply stating that life did not originate on the Earth, but originated elsewhere in the universe. He believed that cellular life reached the Earth hiding inside a meteor which hit the Earth long ago.


I personally find the thermal vent hypothesis particularly compelling, especially after reading the book Aquagenesis by Richard Ellis.

Now then, if a student turns in a paper proposing the "Adam and Eve" hypothesis, or another mythological origin, I think a decent follow-up discussion could occur in which the relative merits of hypotheses are discussed. The hypothesis that an almighty being created life, either in its current state or at the molecular level, is a lousy scientific one, since it can't be tested, measured, simulated, or evaluated in any meaningful way.

So it depends, like many subjects in many disciplines, on the teacher you have in the classroom. But the question doesn't pander to ID or creationism.

If anything, ironically, it's a better overall question.


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