science: 1; society for textbook revise: 0

From Nature (& via a commenter at Silly Beliefs): science wins over creationism.

In South Korea, the Society for Textbook Revise, STR [sic] – associated with the Korea Association for Creation Research – has apparently been pushing textbook publishers to remove two examples of evolution from school textbooks. You may be surprised to hear that we’re not in Texas any more, Dorothy, given how similar this sounds to calls in the US for students to learn about the ‘theories’ around the development of life on earth. The STR argued that because scientists were ‘debating’ the two textbook examples (Archaeopteryx, and the evolutionary history of horses), the examples were ‘flawed’ & so shouldn’t be taught. (Which, at the very least, shows a misunderstanding of how science operates.)

Soo Bin Park reports in Nature that, initially, the textbook publishers were going to do as STR wanted; however, following an outcry from scientists, the South Korean government set up an expert panel to look into the issue. The outcome? 

A reaffirmation that 

the theory of evolution is an essential part of modern science that all students must learn in school

and that Archaeopteryx should be retained in the texts.  Regarding the horse example, the panel commented that the textbooks presented it in ‘too simplistic’ a manner and that it should be revised or replaced, perhaps with an explanation of cetaceans’ evolutionary history. This did make me wonder if perhaps the books’ authors had gone down the route of what the late, great Stephen Jay Gould described as the ‘fox terrier problem’ and the ‘creeping fox terrier clone’.

In other words, had they used the ‘traditional’ iconography where the evolutionary history of modern horses is presented in a fairly linear fashion, from the little Hyracotherium (I still prefer the lovely name Eohippus!) to modern Equus, with only 2-3 intermediaries? We now know that the horse phylogeny is more complex than that. And, had they described Hyracotherium as ‘about the size of a fox terrier’, something that Gould found to be repeated in just about every book he (well, his research assistant) looked at? It turns out that the fox terrier would have been a rather large one: Eohippus/Hyracotherium was about 60cm long & 20cm at the shoulder, and weighed around 22kg – more like a small labrador! 

Incidentally, those two names reflect the way this species was named. Hyracotherium was first described – on the basis of an incomplete specimen – by the English anatomist and palaeontologist, Richard Owen. Subsequently the American palaeontologist Othniel Marsh found a complete skeleton and named it Eohippus. Subsequent comparison found the two specimens belonged to the same species, and Owen’s name was applied to both under the rule of priority used in scientific taxonomy. (Brontosaurus went the same way, replaced by the older – but, to me anyway, less euphonious Apatosaurus.)

S.B.Park (2012) Science wins over creationism in South Korea. Nature published on-line): doi: 10.1038/nature.2012.11377


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