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.