British GCSE biology exam: evolution FAIL

I’m not all that familiar with the complex of exams given to British students: A-levels, O-levels, and so on, but Matthew Cobb sent me a specimen of another one, a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam that is taken by 14- to 16-year-olds in the UK.  These exams rate people in subjects that they want to study further.  You can download a biology exam that was actually given at this link.

Let’s look at page 17.  Here’s some information to be used in a following question (click to enlarge):

Well, you can quarrel with this information if you’re picky.  Do all of these alternatives really qualify as competing “theories,” as is implied by the presentation? More important, the Intelligent Design definition implies that the Darwinian alternative claims that everything evolved “by chance.”  That’s clearly wrong, because Darwinian evolution—when natural selection is involved—involves a unique combination of chance (random mutations) and determinism (the sorting out of those mutations by differential reproduction).  The “everything happens by chance” is a canard spread by willfully ignorant creationists.

But (forgive me an Andy Rooney moment) you know what really bothers me?  It’s the question that students are given based on this information:

Now clearly the answers are, in order, C, D, B, and A, but look how those statements are phrased.  “The observation that fossils. . . appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors, supports [creationism].  That is wrong on so many levels, the most serious being that that is not the way the fossils appear in the rocks.  The Cambrian explosion was not a “sudden” appearance: it lasted millions of years.  And there were creatures in the rocks before this. Granted, some groups appear without obvious prior ancestors, but that could be a matter of fossilization rather than god.  The whole question implies that the Cambrian explosion (or the sudden appearance of any new group) is evidence for creationism.  An alternative Darwinian theory is, of course, a poor fossil record combined with rapid evolutionary change!  This question is FAIL.

And so is this one: “The complicated way in which cells work can be used to support [intelligent design].”  Another fail.  Yes, cells work in a complicated fashion, and yes, we don’t yet understand how all that machinery evolved, but complication itself is no evidence for the action of a celestial being.

What IDers really maintain is that complicated features that are irreducibly complex (i.e., no adaptive intermediate stages were possible) imply the action of a designer, but of course that’s wrong too, as biologists have repeatedly pointed out.  We have no example of a feature that really is irreducibly complex and so could not have evolved by natural selection.  The IDer’s favorite example of the bacterial flagellum, for example, can plausibly be explained by normal evolutionary processes (see the Pallen and Matzke reference below).

Both of these questions give students the erroneous idea that biological phenomena observed in the real world constitute evidence for creationism.  In other words, the exam enables creationism. Can we have some biologists vet these questions, folks?

I’ll be sending this to Dawkins.

UPDATE:  This question was given in 2009.  Over at New Humanist, Paul Sims reports that the AQA, who set this exam, recognizes the problems with this question and “will be addressing the issue for any future questions.”  Apparently the 2010 exam, which you can download at Sims’s article, isn’t polluted by creationism.

________________________

Pallen, M. J. and N. J. Matzke (2006). From The Origin of Species to the origin of bacterial flagella. Nature Reviews Microbiology 4(10): 784-790.

103 Comments

  1. miss texas kitty
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    There is a clear and ongoing effort to indoctrinate for the eventual return to christian theocracy. Once actual science is compromised by these silly “wish it was true” ideas, we can not hope that the general population will think their way out of the mire.

  2. Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I hope this exam does not reflect the curriculum: is half the class time spent on Creationism and ID, another quarter on an old, completely discredited theory and only one quarter on actual biology?

    It pisses me off to see the influence of religion on science classes, even here in (almost) secular UK.

    • Morgan
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      No, if I remember my biology GCSE of four years ago aright, none of the time is spent on ID or Creationism, and Lamarckism is not mentioned – hence why they have to define all the terms in the paper and it reads more like a reading comprehension test than a science exam. Unfortunately, very little quality time is spent on Darwin either.

      Basically, you learn sweet FA in GCSE Biology. I don’t think I learned anything in that class I didn’t already know in more detail from just reading stuff and picking things up off the internet.

      The only reason the science curriculum isn’t misleading students is that it isn’t leading them anywhere much.

      • Morgan
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        …okay, my teacher was really bad, I’ll admit, so probably the syllabus can be taught in a much more useful way than she did.

        But the fact remains that my A* in Biology GCSE had a lot more to do with The Selfish Gene and The Science of Discworld than it did with the national curriculum.

    • s
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      No it does not reflect the curriculum, it is much too subtle.
      At school my kids go to the religious indoctrination is far more direct. In first year 50% of their time was on bible studies and being taught bible stories as if they are all literally true (yes old testament and new.)

      Note it is officially secular state funded non religious school, but I am in Northern Ireland, and it reality no such thing as non religious school here. They use the part in the curriculum that Christian religious worship is required to justify it all.

      In school’s official description, teaching religion and religious values is given as the first and most important goal of the school, ahead of more minor things like reading, writing and general education. (Remember officially this is not a religious school.)

      And re the opt out, yeah like I want to paint a target on my childs back by being the only opt out in the school and don’t claim it wouldn’t affect how the very religious teachers would treat my child. This country isn’t exactly known for its tolerance. – Notice from local youth club to those wanting to join “We welcome people from all backgrounds, cultures and faiths, as long as you willing to acknowledge Christ exists and engage in Christian worship.”.
      Religion should always be opt in not opt out. Though I don’t see any need for religion in school at all, they can pray at church/home/own time if they want, no need for it at school. Worship has no overlap with education.

      So question here does not over surprise me, but it is depressing to see it.

  3. James Robinson
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I’m very disappointed with this. I’m sure others will be too.

  4. Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Ouch.

    I also did not care for “Only the organisms best suited to a habitat survive.” (emph. mine) It implies a determinism in natural selection that simply does not exist.

    But as you say, that is small potatoes compared to the follow-up questions. Those are just wrong on so many levels…

  5. Alex
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I think the wording here is unfortunate and the fact that ID and Creationism are even being mentioned is silly, but this is much more a question involving reading comprehension and logic than it is about biology. The “outline of theories” is clearly an inadequate representation of any of those “theories” and any student who was basing their answers on their prior knowledge of Darwinian evolution or even ID is likely to get tripped up. Particularly since ID and Creationism are virtually identical and you can use complicated cells to support Darwinian evolution if you understand its details.

    It’s just a poorly framed question and these are fairly common in just about every standardized test. Although this one sticks out as being particularly egregious.

    • Frank
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I think we are partly to blame for this juxtaposition of these ‘ism’ terms in such a silly question because, even as professional biologists, we continue to refer to evolutionary biology as “Darwinism.” This serves as fodder for those who would like evolution to be no more than an arbitary ideology or social construct (Marxism, Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.). To the poorly educated, the use of Darwinism puts evolution on the same intellectual plane as Creationism.

      Is genetics Mendelism? Of course not, and we have gone far beyond Mendel’s puny understanding of genetics. The same can be said for evolution. Darwin deserves all the credit he receives, but the use of Darwinism or Darwinian evolution (a needless redundancy if we are talking about the evolution of life) and the incessant coupling of modern evolutionary biology with Darwin do more harm than good. Furthermore, if Darwin were alive today, even an average student in my senior class could give him a tutorial on the detailed mechanisms of evolution.

  6. Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Whoever is responsible for this mess-up should be fired. This is inexcusable.

  7. McWaffle
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this is really nefarious, I think it’s just a rather poorly thought out attempt at a critical thinking question. This is the sort of thing students SHOULD be good at, though the content here is more than questionable.

    • Justin
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I disagree. I think these types of thing are carefully thought out to legitimize the other “theories” through language by ignoring the discussion of which are supported by evidence, and presuming each are supported by some evidence, hence putting them on unwarranted equal footing.

  8. gfvegheads
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Wow. Kind of shocking. And we just gave them permission to use imagery from our lab for future exams. Can’t wait to hear how they get that one wrong!

  9. daveau
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I can’t get past the misuse of the word ‘theory’ at the beginning of the question. Once you grant them that much, it’s all over.

    I might have liked it better if they had used complete nonsense as their alternate theories. Yes, I know they did, but I was thinking flying saucers or wizards or something.

    • K.D. O'Brien
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      I was thinking the same thing. This question is in the science section of the exam? There’s only on actual theory in the batch. I don’t know if the others even qualify as hypothesizes. Maybe Lamarckism…?

  10. Phil Harrison
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Why is this even in a biology exam at all? I can understand that creationism and intelligent design might have a place in a religious studies course, but they have nothing at all to do with the science of biology.

  11. Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    There is one, and only one, way in which this series of test questions could be use in an educational manner.

    Present them as-is to students. Students who merely answer the questions automatically fail, regardless of the answers they give. Those who ask for clarification pass. Those who rip the test to shreds pass with honors.

    Cheers,

    b&

  12. Posted February 15, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    No. This gives science teachers the chance to explain why the question is bad, and for example, why the complexity of cells is perfectly explainable by evolution.

    It’s a mistake to think if kids don’t learn about creationism they’ll automatically accept evolution. Much better to have a science teacher explain why, for example, the complexity of cells is easily explained by evolution, than have the first time they hear the argument be from Ray Comfort.

    Sure, there will be IDiots who point to this as proof that ID/creationism is an accepted theory; but they’re doing that one way or another anyway. The question has to be taken in the context of the rest of the syllabus.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      The exam is taken after the teaching has taken place.

      • Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Lol, you don’t understand the UK education system.

        The exams are rearranged questions taken directly from the syllabus. If you’re still not clear, there is a ‘mock’ exam taken before the real one. There will be nothing on the exam that has not been covered, probably in that exact wording, in class.

        It is entirely possible for teachers to coach students through the exams while explaining some real knowledge on the side.

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

          I am well aware of how the UK education system works.

          Now please do explain how a teacher is going to be able to use an exam that has not been set as an example in the classroom.

          • Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

            Because to be on the exam, that material will have been previously covered in the syllabus. Probably in that exact wording.

            Think about it: it if the question is available to view online, it is either an example question, or it has already been used in a previous exam and is now study material.

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted February 16, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

              No, the material was not in the syllabus.

              The syllabus mentions evolution but not ID, creationism or larmarckism.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Sadly, in the U.S., that biology teacher is most likely a chuchgoing basketball coach with zero knowledge of evolutionary biology (much less paleontology).

      I spent 6-7 years teaching high school earth science in the U.S. I heard the “biology” teacher in the next room explaining to the kids that dinosaurs are extinct because they were too big to fit on the Ark. I wish I were making this up.

      • Frank
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        How is it that such people cannot be fired forthwith for such obvious incompetence? What if the history teacher said that Ben Franklin was a Chinese philosopher? How much effort would need to be expended to overcome the collective stupidity or apathy of the community in which this teacher resides?

      • Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        “I heard the “biology” teacher in the next room explaining to the kids that dinosaurs are extinct because they were too big to fit on the Ark.” Isn’t that actually illegal – teaching religion in a public school? Silent prayer pales in comparison.

        • Kirth Gersen
          Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          We had a “minute of silence” (of which I was actually a proponent — it was the only 60 seconds of quiet I got all day). Some time after I resigned, I learned that another teacher who had proselytizing posters as classroom “decoration” was told by the principal to take them down, refused, and filed a lawsuit — which I understand he lost, thankfully. One step at a time is how these things improve — some zealot overreaches, is rebuffed, and everyone else thinks twice thereafter.

      • Fred Mundell
        Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

        “explaining to the kids that dinosaurs are extinct because they were too big to fit on the Ark”..

        OMG! ;-)

        ROFLMAO!!

  13. Libratheist
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    AQA…I’m surprised and disappointed. I took my GCSEs using their materials and I definitely don’t remember nonsense like that being on them. This is indeed a worrying sign for UK education. The fact that this exam claims that complexity ‘supports’ ID is deeply concerning. Who authorised this exam I wonder, and how many schools are using it?

    • J
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Same here. ID & creationism were certainly not reported as “theories” when I was taking my GCSEs in ~2003.
      For most people taking those exams there will be no further discussion as they will not continue with biology as a subject, so the impression they may be left with is that ID & creationism are indeed theories which, when presented in a science exam, is bullshit.

      Now to find out who to complain to…

  14. Kevin
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    The major failure here is the clear implication that all of these “theories” are taught in British schools.

    So, one can forgive the UK school kids from just choosing whatever “theory” they happen to like the best.

    This is what happens when there is no such thing as separation of church and state.

    • Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure this is just an example of sloppy wording/reasoning on the part of the person setting the question: the GCSE syllabus does not teach creationism as a viable alternative theory.

      While we do have a state religion in name, in practice its level of effect on things like state school syllabuses is basically nil. And even if that weren’t the case, the Church of England does not in any way condone creationism.

      • Fred Mundell
        Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        “I’m pretty sure this is just an example of sloppy wording/reasoning on the part of the person setting the question”

        Sadly, this is not likely. I know “from the inside” (having once been a christian evangelical) that every chance to distort issues related to evolution is vigourously sought and deliberately exploited – particularly in education.

        IMHO, the ONLY way to ‘break through’ is to play them at their own game.. Use their book .. Genesis says that man was created within 48 hours of the sun, moon and stars being created.. It also implies that man has been on earth for 6k years.. Much easier to show this flaw (there would be a lot fewer visible stars – LOL) than to explain evolution!

  15. Doonhamer
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Please note that this is an exam in England & Wales, Scotland has a different system…

    • Stuart Ritchie
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Haha, you beat me to it by 1 minute. Blast!

  16. Stuart Ritchie
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Just a slight correction – the GCSE exam isn’t a UK thing, but an England, Wales, and Northern Ireland thing. My own country, Scotland, thankfully has a different set of exams altogether…

  17. Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    How is it possible for the rot to have gone this deep? This is simply bizarre — and this in the nation that produced Darwin!

    Notice, by the way, that creationism gets two theories! In what sense is either of them a theory? Do they make predictions? Have the British found telltale signs of god’s doings somewhere, and not let anyone else know? Perhaps it is a New Renaissance of Religious “Knowledge”!!

    • Hempenstein
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      And not only produced Darwin but has him on the back of the 10-pound note, to boot!

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        I like having Darwin on the back of the £10 note (note: The Scots have their own notes).

        The fact it pisses off creationist Americans on holiday is an added bonus.

        • bric
          Posted February 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          By a strange coincidence there were two large Southern Americans (they slightly overlapped a 3-person seat) declaiming loudly on this very subject on the Victoria – Orpington train the other night. They also had some opinions on ‘allowing all them immigrants in’ they wished to share.

  18. Matt Penfold
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I had a look at the rest of the paper.

    Although it has a biology theme it requires very little knowledge of biology in order to answer the questions. Most of them just require the candidate have moderately well developed critical thinking skills.

    I had thought there was a move away from such questions. They have cropped up in English as well, where questions on Shakespeare did not require having any knowledge of the set play to answer. I can recall the last Labour Government saying that standards would be tightened. Clearly that had not happened by 2009.

    • J
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Actually I quite liked the need for critical thinking, I think that needs to be developed more! A biological theme for the critical thinking is necessary in this exam, but it seemed enough for me (you may be able to tell I’m not a biologist :P though scored highest in my biology GCSE of all the sciences!)

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        I have no problem with requiring critical thinking skills to be able to pass an exam, since education should be more than just learning facts and regurgitating them at exam time.

        However you should know the facts as well.

  19. Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    There is a tendency in the UK to be excessively politically correct. In a philosophy class it would be acceptable to discuss Creationism, ID and Evolution (and even Lamarck). The former two, in my opinion, are non scientific theories, and by their own nature will always be so.
    Lamarck is defunct and mainly of historical interest.
    What disturbs most, in the examples given, is that there is little distinction between the validity of actual scientific evidence for each ‘theory’. Having looked at the pseudoscience that is ventured by ID proponents, I have to say that I cannot think of a single ‘fact’ that supports ID. They proposed the ‘eye’ and then the ‘flagellum’ as not being explainable by evolution. They do not test or stress their own hypothesis as most serious scientists would do. This is most indicative. Instead they wait for evolutionary scientists to chop their theories into shreds, upon which they look to some other organelle in oredr to repeat the cycle. Their thinking is based on trying to disprove evolution as though this would be valid proof of ID: not a logical thread in itself. They need to seek positive proof of ID. Unfortunately they seem to be convincing people who have no scientific background.

    Someone I spoke to recently told me that they had just read an article which disproved evolution. My uncle watched a TV show by an Evangelical and then insisted that the world is 6000 years old. He says that everyone is entitled to his own opinion. When I disagreed he said “Oh yes you know it all”. I have a degree in biology and have studied the subject for forty years, so a TV Evangelical ‘saved’ from drug dependency and with an evident bipolar disorder presents the most convincing argument to some (many?) and is accepted because his argument suits.

    What I find disturbing in the exam described is the fuzzy logic implied in the persons formulating the questions and the content of the teaching syllabus. There is little distinction between theories that are scientifically based on observation and those which are really only conceptual (hypotheses really).

  20. Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I’m embarrassed to be English.

    • Andrew
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Don’t feel embarrassed by something done by others just because you share the same nationality!

  21. Ian Fogg
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Another disturbing aspect of this, how are these questions marked? Does the candidate only get full marks for a fully correct answer? hat ddoes the examining board consider a ‘mark’ scoring answer? Can the candidate express dissatisfaction with any of the answers or definitions as being inappropriate. The question is phrased more like an opinion poll than a test of scientific knowledge

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Well since the paper in question is essentially a multiple choice paper, then candidates can hardly be given credit when they have shown their working.

    • Morgan
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      You only get marks for a ‘correct’ answer. I had several questions of this type come up in my GCSEs and my usual strategy was to give the answer they obviously wanted and then write irritable notes about what was wrong with it on the blank spaces around the question.

      Relieves frustration even if you don’t get any more marks for it…

  22. Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I just read through the entire test. It’s bad, bad, bad. It’s a perfect example of “push polling” — that is, the author has a set of conclusions that he wants the test-takers to reach, and wrote the test to push that agenda.

    Politicians often do this. John Doe will commission a poll ostensibly to gauge public opinion on him and his opponent, but instead the questions will be along the lines of, “If Jim Smith were to be found in bed with an underaged prostitute, how much would that affect your decision to vote for him?”

    The test Jerry linked to tells me that the students, even in the classroom, aren’t being taught; they’re being indoctrinated.

    It’s child abuse, plain and simple.

    Sure, they’re being indoctrinated into believing some things which just happen to be true…but the ends in no way justify the means.

    This is a serious problem with far-reaching consequences.

    Cheers,

    b&

  23. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    How embarrassing to come from a country that puts that forward as a question. That really is poor.

  24. Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why the tests even consider Creationism & Intelligent Design. Can’t all the supporters of these ideas be deported to Australia where they would feel completely at home staning upside down. These folks are social criminals and we all know the history down there as a great place to send folks with sticky fingers and mental diseases.

    • Dominic
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Yes! makes me very angry – I will write to my MP.

  25. Dominic
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    It is PATHETIC! Nothing like the biology O-Level I took in 1976. Not only kiddy questions appropriate to babbling babe level, but also wrong! :'(

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      I did my O-Levels in ’83.

      Want to play old fogies and talk about how exams were so much harder in our day ?

      That said, they do seem to have been harder.

      • Dominic
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        Yes – I failed to get an O-level grade at A-Level largely because I had only done one year of chemistry due to my stupid ‘grammar school’ not entering me for chemistry as I didn’t do well in that one year (same for physics). I was a late developer – only went to uni when I was 36… though philological rather than biological alas! Keep considering an Open University course.

        • Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          The science courses at OU are pretty good. I’ve done a couple of biology courses and an astronomy/cosmology one so far.

          • Dominic
            Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            Thanks! I really should do it this year!

  26. Peter R
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I’ve just talked to my son who completed his GCSEs last summer.

    First, he did not have his exams through AQA, his exams were from OCR ( Oxford, Cambridge & RSA – but I don’t think the actual Oxford & Cambridge universities have a lot to do with it these days ).

    At no time did creationism or ID ever come up in his syllabus. In fact they didn’t even touch on Lamarckism.

    So this is not a general thing, just AQA at this time.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      It is that Lamarckism is in the syllabus, as isn’t, but that it was introduced into a question that is incredibly poorly designed.

  27. John Edwards
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I am an English “Oldie” who took ‘O’ level Biology in 1967. We were taught Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s theory was explained in its historical context,and we learnt how genetics came to provide further evidence in support of natural selection. Creationism and ID were never discussed. Even among Christians Creationism was considered a crack-pot idea confined to the Bible belt of America! But that has all changed as we have become more of a multicultural society. I was astonished to read the exam paper for myself, as Matt Penfold and Alex have said – it is pure comprehension and logic, not biology. There has been some debate in recent years about exams getting easier in the UK I think this is borne out by this example of a paper. The exams I took in ’67 involved writing paragraphs and annotated diagrams as short answers, as well as several full essays.

  28. Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    The whole exam is absolutely pathetic. Most of the questions are just basic reading comprehension exercises. I could have passed at the age of ten. In fact, I would probably have regarded it as absolutely pathetic, even then.

    The definition given of “Darwinism” is clumsy and inadequate. It is not exactly false, but has clearly been written by someone with a marginal understanding of the subject. It implies that selection advantage is absolute, rather than probabilistic. It also seems unaware of the fact that an advantageous mutation could be heterozygotic, and so would not be passed onto all offspring. Neither point is essential to the definition of evolution, but any competent definition would be constructed to avoid implying otherwise.

    The whole thing is worthless, incompetent drivel. It’s absolutely disgusting that this is used in schools.

  29. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    More important, the Intelligent Design definition implies that the Darwinian alternative claims that everything evolved “by chance.” That’s clearly wrong, because Darwinian evolution—when natural selection is involved—involves a unique combination of chance (random mutations) and determinism (the sorting out of those mutations by differential reproduction).

    I think I learned, from JC (in Seeing and Believing?), to avoid reference to random mutation because it leaves out too much of the genetic variation (recombination, HGT, etc) on which evolution acts. It’s used this way in the CSC’s Dissent text:

    We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.

    which, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out in an AEI debate, anybody could sign on to.

    I think the better phrase (again, thinking it came from Jerry) is indifferent genetic variation.

  30. John Birch
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Well, Biology O Level was not that hard – I had a severe hangover when I took mine in 1977, and I still passed :)

    Seriously, though, this would seem to be an example of the “Science in Society” type of paper that was introduced to try to make science “interesting” for children forced to take the subject, but who in the past had no hope of passing (and/or were disruptive in class because it was “boring”). So now they talk about “issues”. Its science GCSE made “interesting” and “relevant” by removing all the science.

    But that is what you get when you replace a competitive exam system with a “they shall all have prizes” criterion referenced system…

    • Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      I passed my biology ‘O’ level in 1977 too! JMB.

      • John Birch
        Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Mine was JMB as well! How many pints had you had on the Sunday evening before the Monday morning exam?

        (It was the cricket league’s cup final, I was the scorer, we were only a Division 3 team and we WON. Didn’t get home until around 1am, I’m told)

        • Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          Actually, none.

          But I couldn’t have told you that I sat a biology paper on a Monday morning.

  31. John Birch
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    BTW – as this is an AQA exam, how about everyone writing to the AQA about it? eos@aqa.org.uk

  32. Fergus Howell
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Wow, that exam really surprised me, it being all multiple choice. Certainly my GCSE Science exams (OCR board, 2004) were mostly writing, a mixture of long and short answers.

    I don’t know whether this is a recent thing or an AQA thing, or if this is just a sample test.

    Those criticising how easy it is, bear in mind the first half is the foundation paper, which only allows you to get up to a C. Yes the second half doesn’t seem too challenging, but they are GCSEs, not A levels.

    • Morgan
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      I took mine in 2007, and there were written questions and some where you had to annotate/complete diagrams etc., but there were also quite a few multiple choice ones, especially in the first bit of the paper.

      I think they have been steadily dumbing the papers down for a while.
      (Although to be fair, the 2007 Chemistry paper was a bitch…)

  33. Luke
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    This is very surprising. I’m American, but I was at Oxford for an interview in Biology in December and evolution was threaded into every single bit of the conversation! If you look at the advice for interviewees in Biological Sciences at Oxford, they also emphasize an evolutionary way of thinking about “why” an organism has a particular feature (or maybe there is no “why” in the conventional sense).

    Anyway, that certainly is a horrible GCSE question.

  34. bric
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “The Royal Society is calling for A-levels to be overhauled to tackle the declining numbers of teenagers studying sciences.

    Across the UK, just 17% of 16- to 18-year-olds took one or more science A-levels in 2009, a report by the society says, and British universities produce fewer than 10,000 science graduates each year.

    It calls for a broader qualification that would give more teenagers the chance to pursue science and maths as part of a wider course of study.

    An increasing number of schools do not enter any candidates at all in physics or maths, the report finds. In 2009, nearly 500 schools and colleges in England did not enter a single candidate in A-level physics, the least popular of the three core sciences. The picture is different in Scotland, where 90% of schools and colleges put candidates forward for physics.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/15/a-level-overhaul-science-decline

    Maybe if the pupils got better teaching at GCSE level this might help?

  35. Jessica
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I worry that what’s going on here is that the gap between scientists and educators is growing. I would guess that most British biology teachers will tell you and their students that they “believe” in evolution, and would probably be able to give a few arguments to support their case. I suspect, though, that far fewer would be able to explain why evolution is a theory, but creationism, larmarckism, and intelligent design are not. I would also guess that even fewer would understand what’s wrong with this question (it was almost certainly NOT intended as an exercise in critical thinking).

    • six45ive
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Oh Jessica, the stories I could tell about misuse of terminology and the need to teach in a ‘culturally relativistic’ way so as not to ‘offend’ any minority groups which simply ‘muddies the water’ when it comes to understanding what is, for some, a confusing theory to be able to grasp.
      I work as classroom support in a Secondary (High) School in the UK btw.

  36. RJ
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    and the Brits are always slamming the U.S. for being overly religioius. We never discussed religion based “theories” in any of my science classes…ever. If any questions regarding silly religious ideas had turned up in any of my classes or tests you can bet there would have been repercussions. I guess the public school system in Florida isn’t so bad after all.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted February 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Contrast that sharply with the stories my wife tells about “biology” class in South Carolina, in which — if I understand her correctly — a show of hands (“People who believe in Evolutionism? No one? Now how about people who believe in God?”) supposedly “proved” that Creationism was correct.

  37. John Birch
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Well, give it its due Jessica, Lamarckism is a theory – it predicts and explains. It is based on a hypothesis, and comes up with predictions that are testable. Okay, these “predictions” are incorrect and the explanations wrong, so it is a flawed theory – but its still a theory.

    OTOH Creationism and ID may “explain”, but they predict nothing. And even then they only explain by saying something cannot be explained any other way, which is no explanation at all.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Well, Lamarck is not entirely discredited.

  38. Posted February 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This is the UK? Really the UK? Not the bible belt?

    Who the heck wrote this? I knew better in middle school!

  39. six45ive
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just been commenting on this on RDF. My username there is also six45ive and I can send people an example of how creationism is taught alongside evolution in science classes.
    Email me at this address andrewmstringer@yahoo.co.uk and I can send you a link of a photocopied page from an English textbook.

  40. six45ive
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if this is available over in the USA but this is how evolution can be taught in faith schools in the UK.

    http://www.teachers.tv/videos/ks3-ks4-science-teaching-evolution

    It’s OK up to about the 10 minute mark.

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      AAAARGHHH! That was going well until the school chaplain butted in. Bringing creationism into a science class is not on. That last bit made me so angry.

      • six45ive
        Posted February 16, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

        Yes, the ignorance and deception is frightening.
        Can you tell me if you’re a UK or US resident please?

  41. Davey D
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    As an English Father with a daughter in this age group; I am appalled at the unscientific, accommodationist,- and lets face it – post-modernist, mindset behind the way these questions were constructed.

    One wonders how these were marked?

  42. Tim Harris
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Appalled! From Appalled in Tokyo. No, those questions genuinely are appalling; and what contempt they show for the students… How could one possibly develop an interest in anything from such a tired, pointless approach? No wonder so many children loathe education (as I mostly did). And this from the country of those Blackawton bees, which showed that children genuinely enjoy doing challenging things.

  43. Peeved Scientist
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Since religious scholars have been allowed to write a religious examination paper in order to slow the inevitable demise of their discipline, may I suggest that evangelical atheist biologists, geologists and physicists write the coming year’s Religious Education GCSE examination papers. I provide below a sample question.

    QUESTION TWO

    There are various approaches to establishing undeniable fact.
    The statements below outline two of these approaches.

    * Faith: A perverse belief in traditional religious dogma despite a total lack supporting evidence and substantial evidence to the contrary. This dogma has been compiled, edited and re-interpreted over the course of human history to further the interests of individual factions of the religious elite.

    * Science: A fully rational approach to critically examining the world around us, in an unprejudiced way requiring independently verified reproducible empirical data.

    Use the above information and your own knowledge to answer this question.
    Match the two philosophical approached A & B, with the numbers 1-4 in the sentences:

    A Faith
    B Science

    The willingness to believe in the literal truth of a document where the is a prevalence of conflicting contemporaneous texts, glaring internal inconsistencies within the accepted texts, based on and the majority of independently verifiable facts have all been conclusively disproved…1…

    An open minded approach encouraging self-criticism and reassessment in the light of new information and accepted theories…2…

    The interpretation of a document based on multiple erroneous translations by an organisation with significant conflicts of interest is used to establish a legal requirement to commit heinous acts that fly in the face of the fundamental underlying message of the document…3…

    Rational examination of observable natural phenomena and the use of the resulting understanding to create technologies to the enduring benefit of humanity…4…

  44. Sigmund
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Come on people, it only mentioned Creationism and ID as “theories”, not as facts ;)

  45. Posted February 16, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I’m gradually growing accustomed to seeing the fucktardry that is creationism and anti-intellectualism, but when they start talking about cells and/or genomes as if they know shit, I can’t help but seethe with frothing-at-the-mouth rage. Keep your grimy moronic little hands off my subjects, asshats!

    PS: You creotards know NOTHING about cellular complexity. And as someone who actually has some idea thereof, let me tell you that there is no alternative explanation even close to competing with evolutionary theory to explain it. Fuck off and stop talking about shit you don’t even remotely understand. Oh, would that imply you should just slice off your vocal cords and go mute? Sowwie.

    Signed,
    A random cell biologist.

  46. Maple
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    From page 62

    http://store.aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-4411-W-SP-12.PDF

    Quote:
    “15.1 Spiritual, Moral, Ethical,
    Social and Cultural Issues

    The study of science can contribute to an understanding of spiritual,
    moral, ethical, social and cultural issues. The following are examples
    of opportunities to promote candidates’ development through the teaching of science.”

    Okay… getting a little weird here.

  47. wanderer
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Q1) Please describe Darwinian evolution in 5 sentences or less.

    Q2) Does a giraffe stretching it’s neck for the topmost leaves for a lifetime give rise to longer necked offspring?

    Q3) Some people think each species was made by a higher being a really, really long time ago, like 6000 years. Discuss.

    Q4) The same people think some parts of some species must have been designed by a higher being because those bits are wicked complicated. Discuss.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted February 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      The answer to Q2 is “no apostrophe.”

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted February 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        ;)

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          You obviously have not gotten the memo on punctuational relativism.

  48. TheVirginian
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    My first negative thought was about the use of “Darwinism.” Creationists prefer that usage to “evolution” because it has the not-so-subtle implication that evolution is some kind of religion or ideology, therefore just another subjective belief, not a scientific fact. Also, as has been pointed out, Darwin could not pass a college-level exam on evolution and biology today because of the many advances made upon his original idea. As brilliant as insight was, like Copernicus’ original idea, subject to significant improvement. (Copernicus retained the old belief that the orbits of the planets were perfect circles; Kepler corrected that.)

    • TheVirginian
      Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      Darned typos. “As brilliant as HIS insight was … it was subject to …”

  49. Posted February 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I retweeted this when it was published and @myorangecrush informs me that he/she left AQA because of the inclusion of creationism. Also informed me that it is now officially out of the curriculum and kindly attached a new sample paper http://t.co/wmx7Xm4 and referred me to P29. Good to know. Peace.

  50. chrisl62
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi everyone,
    I’m not trying to undermine a fair point but you ought to know that there is no such thing as a ‘British’ exam system.
    The exam paper referred to (a GCSE) is applicable to England and Wales only.
    I live in Scotland where we have an entirely different exam system and (so far) I have yet to see such a dreadful example of misplaced respect for creationism.


9 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. [...] I am quite disturbed by the news going around the net regarding the UK GCSEs in Biology. Dawkins mentioned it but it comes up originally from J Coynes blog. [...]

  3. [...] British GCSE biology exam: evolution FAIL I’m not all that familiar with the complex of exams given to British students: A-levels, O-levels, and so on, but [...] [...]

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  6. [...] looks like a GCSE biology exam from the UK is loading questions with misleading terms favorable to Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationis…. Unlike the recent hubbub about ACARA supposedly putting creationism and dreaming stories alongside [...]

  7. [...] the older GCSE exam I mentioned in a previous post, this book is being used now.  Have a look at this part (click to [...]

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  9. [...] the post below, and the one on the 2009 GCSE exam that contained creationism-friendly material: Paul Sims, news editor at New Humanist, has contacted [...]

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