Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Creationism in GCSE biology exams

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Yesterday, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins both alerted their readers to the inclusion of a somewhat bizarre question about the development of life on an AQA GCSE biology paper (the full paper can be viewed here [PDF]):

There are several theories of how new species of plants and animals have developed.

The statements below outline four of these theories.
  • Creationism: Each organism is made independently.
    Evolution does not occur.
    Gaps in the fossil record support this idea.
  • Intelligent Design: Living things work in too complex a way for them to have evolved by chance.
    A higher being has designed all living things.
  • Lamarckism: Changes occur during the lifetime of an individual.
    These changes can be passed on to offspring.
  •  Darwinism: Variation exists between members of a population.
    Only the organisms best suited to a habitat survive.
    Survivors pass on their advantages to their offspring.
Use the above information and your own knowledge and understanding to answer this question.

Match the theories, A, B, C and D, with the numbers 1– 4 in the sentences.

A Creationism
B Intelligent Design
C Lamarckism
D Darwinism

The idea that Manx cats, which have no tails, are the offspring of a cat which originally lost its tail in an accident could be used to support . . . 1 . . . .

Unsuccessful competitors die and so do not reproduce, is part of the theory of . . . 2 . . . .

The complicated way in which cells work can be used to support . . . 3 . . . .

The observation that fossils of all the different kinds of animals appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors, supports . . . 4 . . . .
It's fairly damning, really – the clear implication of the question is that creationism and Intelligent Design are genuine theories (as in proper scientific theories, rather than, to borrow a joke of Robin Ince's, theories in the sense of "my mate Dave's theory..."). As the Dawkins site points out, it clearly contradicts education secretary Michael Gove's assertion that "you cannot have a school which teaches creationism". If this question is appearing on GCSE papers, then it must be receiving attention in biology lessons. Which, even if we leave aside the more serious possibility that children will be coming away actually believing this nonsense, begs the question of why time is being wasted on pseudoscience when it could be better spent helping pupils to develop a deeper understanding of biology that falls within the scientific mainstream (i.e. actual science).

I must say, however, that I knew when I read the story this morning that it felt familiar, and then I realised why. It was actually reported in the Daily Telegraph in July 2009, and I blogged about it then. The question appeared on a paper in June 2009, making it a little unfair to apportion any blame to Michael Gove, who only became education secretary in May 2010. The AQA responded at the time, telling the Telegraph:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific.

In the examination question, information was given to candidates and they were asked to relate evidence to conclusions. The use of the term 'theory' was intended in its common, everyday sense. However, we accept that in the context of a science examination this could be misleading and we will be addressing this issue for any future questions."
You have to be fair and accept that this statement still stands. The 2010 paper (PDF) didn't contain any reference to creationism, which suggests, hopefully, that the AQA have learned from their mistake and excised pseudoscience from their examinations.
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