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Origin of Life & Evolution in Biology Textbooks - A Critique

Gordon C. Mills, Professor of Biochemistry, University of Texas Medical Branch,
Galveston, TX
Malcolm Lancaster, Professor, Dept. of Family Practice, University of Texas
Health Science Center, San Antonio, TX
Walter L. Bradley, Professor and Head, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Texas
A&M University, College Station, TX

The American Biology Teacher
February 1993


It has been noted by others that the states of Texas and California set textbook
standards for the nation as a whole, primarily because of the large numbers of
textbooks sold in those two states. The guidelines for textbook publishers in
those states are Proclamation 66 (Texas) and the California Framework. Because
of many differences in the two documents and because of the authors'
participation in Texas adoptions, this critique will be limited to a comparison
of Biology I textbooks with standards of Proclamation 66. However, it is
believed that these criticisms should be pertinent to textbook evaluations
nationwide. Criticisms are limited to chapters dealing with the Origin of Life
and Evolution. It should be noted that we are not critical of all portions of
these chapters. For example, descriptions of the experiments of Pasteur and
others regarding spontaneous generation are generally well written. Also,
portions on paleontology and classification of species are in most cases to be
commended.

The books critiqued are limited to 1991 editions of Biology I textbooks adopted
by the state of Texas as listed under References. The authors of this article
recognize that textbook authors were given a mandate from the Texas State Board
of Education to deal with the topics of Origin of Life and Evolution. Pertinent
excerpts from Proclamation 66 that relate to these topics follow:

1. Scientific methods: under content: 1.4 scientific theories and laws based
on existing evidence as well as new evidence; 1.6 problem solving (data
collection and analysis, conclusion).
2. Important scientific discoveries and theories of the past. . .under
content: 2.2 Pasteur's discoveries (non-spontaneous generation, rabies
vaccine, experiments with anthrax); 2.6 Darwin's theory of evolution.
4. Specialization and functions of cells and cellular organelles: under
content: 4.2 theory of chemical origin of life.
6. Drawing logical inferences, predicting outcomes and forming generalized
statements: under process skills: 6.2 deducing a biological hypothesis from
experimental data; 6.3 examining alternative scientific evidence and ideas to
test, modify, verify or refute scientific theories.
9. Theories of evolution: under content: 9.1 scientific theories of evolution;
9.2 scientific evidence of evolution and other reliable scientific theories,
if any; 9.3 mechanisms of evolution; 9.4 patterns of evolution.

Have the textbook authors and editors clearly followed the above guidelines such
as item 6.3: "examining alternative scientific evidence and ideas to test,
modify, verify or refute scientific theories"? This quotation is certainly an
excellent expression of what constitutes valid science. Whether or not this
guideline is followed is an important question for all biology teachers.
Origin Of Life Hypotheses: Credible Or Beyond Credibility?

Despite the abundant use of leading questions and tentative terminology in their
origin of life discussions, the majority of textbooks exude confidence that
confirmation of a naturalistic model of life's origin is inevitable. The
treatment in these textbooks stands in marked contrast to a recent review
article by Klaus Dose summarizing origin of life research. In this thorough
review, a strikingly different picture emerges of the current state of affairs
regarding the origin of life. Dose, one of the best known origin of life
researchers for the past 20 years, in The Origin of Life: More Questions than
Answers (Dose 1988, p. 348) provides the following summary:

More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of
chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the
immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its
solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in
the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.
First, we will consider the validity of the atmospheric models used for origin
of life experiments, followed by whether data from these experiments are
properly evaluated and interpreted.

Clinging to Outdated Atmospheric Models

Comments like that quoted above and the objective tone of the entire review
article by Dose stand in sharp contrast to the optimism that colors the
treatment of life's origin in most of the biology textbooks. The latter
generally give the impression that the origin of life problem is nearly solved,
since amino acids and other small building blocks have been produced using
simulated atmospheres. In regard to composition of the early atmosphere, the
following statements illustrate inaccuracies or overstatements in some texts.
The atmosphere had no free oxygen as it does today. Instead, the air was
probably made up of water vapor, hydrogen, methane and ammonia" (Biggs et al.
1991, p. 227). "The Earth's first atmosphere most likely contained water vapor
(H20), carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2 ), hydrogen
sulfide (H25) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN)" (Miller & Levine 1991, p. 343). It is
unfortunate that only a few of the books acknowledge that it is not likely that
the earth ever contained an atmosphere comparable to those used in simulation
experiments (Dose 1988, p. 351). The assumption that there was no oxygen in the
early atmosphere is of crucial importance to the success of simulation
experiments, yet there is no proof that oxygen was absent from that atmosphere.

Overstating the Experimental Results

In several of the textbooks, inconsistencies and overstatements regarding the
nature of compounds produced in simulation experiments pose a second problem. In
some cases false impressions are given because of what students are not told.
Most texts fail to note that the compounds produced are markedly dependent upon
starting materials and experimental conditions. Some quotes follow: "They found
amino acids, sugars and other compounds just as Oparin had predicted" (Biggs et
al. 1991, p. 228). "Nucleic acids and ATP also have been formed" (Biggs et al.
1991, p. 228). "Their experiments have produced a variety of compounds,
including various amino acids, ATP and the nucleic acids in DNA" (Towle 1991, p.
210). "Similar mechanisms might have led to the formation of carbohydrates,
lipids and nucleic acids." (Towle 1991, p. 210). "Thus, over the course of
millions of years, at least some of the basic building blocks of life could have
been produced in great quantities on early Earth" (Miller &: Levine 1991, p.
344). The texts fail to note that most of the compounds produced in Miller and
Urey's original simulation experiment have no relevance to compounds found in
living cells; that amino adds produced are always racemic (that is, D-, L-)
mixtures; that carbohydrates and amino acids are never produced in the same
experiment (they require different starting materials and different conditions);
or that no one has produced any ATP or true nucleic acids using reasonable
starting materials. As Dose (1988, p. 352) notes:

Substantial amounts of biologically relevant sugars, including D, L-ribose,
have never been produced in realistic prebiotic simulation experiments.
They also neglect entirely the fact that compounds in cells have specific
intramolecular bonds. Amino acids, carbohydrates, purines and pyrimidines all
have many possible isomers, and in most cases only one, or at most very few of
these isomers are found in living cells. In simulation experiments mixtures of
isomers would usually be produced.

In regard to formation of proteins from amino acids, several quotations follow:
"Other scientists have shown that amino acids will link up when heated in the
absence of oxygen gas" (Towle 1991, p. 210). Also, ". . . amino acids tend to
link together spontaneously to form short chains" (Miller & Levine 1991, p.
344). Neither of these texts notes that linkages occur only when amino acids are
heated in the dry state; amino acids do not link together spontaneously in
aqueous solution. Nor do these texts note that heating in the dry state produces
some linkages that are not found in protein molecules, linkages that would
prevent the formation of useful amino add sequences.

Several quotations from the texts relating to membrane enclosures and/or cell
formation are alive with expectation: "One process that must have occurred on
the earth was the enclosure of nucleic acids in membranes. Once DNA was
separated from the environment by some kind of boundary, it would be protected,
and might be able to carry out the precise reactions of replication" (Towle
1991, p. 211). "Some of these droplets grow all by themselves, and others even
reproduce" (Miller & Levine 1991, p. 344). These statements are pure
speculation. Cell membranes usually contain lipids of various types, but they
also contain proteins and carbohydrates. More importantly, membranes have very
little to do with precise reactions of replication. Students are in no position
to know it, but growth and division of coacervate droplets have no similarity to
growth and reproduction of living cells.

The effect of the discussions in most of these texts is to make the emergence of
life on Earth by chance appear to be highly probable. The following summary
statement illustrates this:

If we just said that life did arise from nonlife billions of years ago, why
couldn't it happen again? The answer is simple: Today's Earth is a very
different planet from the one that existed billions of years ago. On primitive
Earth, there were no bacteria to break down organic compounds. Nor was there
any oxygen to react with the organic compounds. As a result, organic
compounds could accumulate over millions of years, forming that original
organic soup. Today. However, such compounds cannot remain intact in the
natural world for a long enough period of time to give life another start
{Miller &: Levine 1991. p. 346).

It is not mentioned that degradation of organic compounds would occur in an
early atmosphere as a result of electrical discharges, heat, ultraviolet light,
etc.. opposing any accumulations of relevant organic compounds. Nor is it
mentioned that no geological evidence of an organic soup has ever been found.
Coal, oil and natural gas are all considered to be produced from ancient trees
or organisms. For a critical evaluation of origin of life hypotheses, the reader
is referred to two recent books that deal extensively with this topic [Thaxton
et al. (1984) and Shapiro (1986)].

In closing this section, it should be noted that not all of the texts are
equally careless in their statements regarding life's origin. Although all of
the biology texts give the dear impression that the spontaneous origin of life
on the early Earth is very plausible, the degree to which erroneous statements
are made in support of that view varies widely.

Neglect of the Central Problem, Genetic Information

Although most of the texts deal with complex biochemical processes quite well in
other chapters, none mention the problem of the origin and transfer of genetic
information in dealing with origin of life studies. Moreover, the texts fail
entirely to note that even if some complicated molecules were formed by chance,
all of the machinery required to exactly reproduce these molecules must also be
present in order for cells to survive and reproduce. Indeed, Harold Klein,
chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee which recently reviewed
origin of life research, notes that the simplest bacterium is so complicated
from the point of view of a chemist that it is almost impossible to imagine how
it happened (Horgan 1991, p. 120).

Instead, the textbooks origin of life chapters uniformly disregard recent
studies related to the complexity of origin of life requirements. Proteins in
cells are made up of 20 different L-amino acids. The texts fail to note that
unique linear sequences of these L-amino acids are required in protein molecules
in order for those proteins to function. These unique amino acid sequences are
required whether the protein is an enzyme, a structural component, or is used
for some other function. The unique sequence, in turn, is responsible for the
three-dimensional structure of the protein, which is also essential to its
function. Even though there may be some variability in amino acid sequence in
some positions of a protein molecule, calculations with cytochrome c, a protein
104 amino acids long, indicate that the probability of achieving the linear
structure of this one protein by chance is 2 x 10-65 (Yockey 1977).

Consequently, it is not surprising that the means of assembling such unique
sequences during the process of protein synthesis in living cells is extremely
complex. The genetic information for these unique linear sequences is initially
carried in sequences of nucleotides in DNA of a gene in the nucleus of the cell.
From there it is transferred to a nucleotide sequence in messenger RNA (a
process called transcription) and from the mRNA to the sequence of amino acids
in the final product, a protein molecule (a process called translation). The
latter process is so complex that even in the simplest organisms, as many as 200
different protein molecules are required. Altogether, the result of these
different processes is an amazingly accurate transfer of information from the
nucleotide sequence in DNA to the amino acid sequence in the protein.

In addition, the texts fail to note that most of the more complex biochemical
reactions of cells require not only a protein enzyme, they also require an
additional component (coenzyme, prosthetic group, etc.). Examples of these
groups are heme of various heme proteins and also the different vitamin
coenzymes. These groups, which are often complex molecules, may be an integral
part of the enzyme molecule (covalently bound), or they may freely dissociate
from the protein. In the majority of cases, these organic components are
absolutely essential to the catalytic function of the protein molecule. As a
consequence, postulated scenarios for the origin of life must provide for the
simultaneous formation of the essential coenzyme or prosthetic group and
assembly of a specific linear amino acid sequence in the enzyme protein. They
must, of course, also provide for the formation of many other complex
macromolecules (nucleic acids, carbohydrates, lipids, etc.) that are essential
to the function and reproduction of the living cell. The failure to address
these requirements shows even more fully the implausibility of the origin of
life scenarios presented in the texts.

Of the important problems for origin of life models, Dose (1988, p. 355)
discusses the source of genetic information last, closing with a summary of few
words: "The difficulties that must be overcome are at present beyond our
imagination." In regard to the chance hypothesis for the origin of genetic
information, Kuppers (1990, p. 60) notes:

The expectation probability for the nucleotide sequence of a bacterium is thus
so slight that not even the entire space of the universe would be enough to
make the random synthesis of a bacterial genome probable.
Compare these statements with the easy confidence noted in the textbooks that a
naturalistic explanation of life's origin is soon to be found. It is this
confident tone, coupled with what students are not told, that makes origin of
life chapters in the texts fall short of the guidelines "examining alternative
scientific evidence and ideas to test, modify, verify or refute scientific
theories."

Definitions of Evolution

It should be apparent that terms, such as the word "evolution" need to be
clearly defined in high school biology textbooks. Such is not the case, however,
as the books use the term in several senses without indication that the meaning
is changed. Keith Thomson (1982), professor of biology at Yale University,
indicates three commonly employed meanings of evolution:

Change over time

Relationships of organisms by descent through common ancestry
A particular explanatory mechanism for the pattern and process of (1.) and
(2.), such as natural selection.

Thomson notes that factual patterns of change over time, particularly as seen in
the fossil record, can be studied in the absence of theories of how these
patterns came to be. Thomson also emphasizes that the second meaning, descent
through common ancestry, is a hypothesis, not a fact, and that it is derived
from the twin premises that life arose only once on Earth and that all life
proceeds from preexisting life. Cladistic analysis, championed currently by a
number of biologists, has sought to eva1uate relationships among organisms
without regard to the twin premises cited above. In regard to the third meaning,
a particular explanatory mechanism, there are currently many alternative
hypotheses. Darwin insisted that changes had to be small and gradual. However,
Gould and his associates (1980) have proposed static intervals (stasis),
followed by periods of rapid change (punctuated equilibrium). The biology texts,
in general, do a poor job of distinguishing between these three different
meanings of evolution. They generally fail to note that it is possible to accept
the factual evidence for change over time, while having a more restricted view
of descent through common ancestry. For example, to speak of ancestral descent
in regard to the relationship of an ancestral horse to a modern horse would be a
very restricted use when compared to the relationship of an ancestral one-celled
organism to a modern mammal. Likewise, accepting the factual evidence for change
over time does not require the acceptance of a particular explanatory mechanism
for these changes.

On another level, many scientists prefer to differentiate between microevolution
and macroevolution: the former being the relatively small changes noted in the
diversification of species, and the latter being the changes required in the
development of new phyla, or possibly of new orders or classes. The term
macroevolution has also been used in regard to development of new functions,
such as vision or hearing. Many proponents of Darwinian natural selection have
argued that processes demonstrated for microevolution may be extrapolated to
account for macroevolution as well. When this type of extrapolation is used in
an attempt to validate a theory, we have moved beyond the reasonable bounds of
science. Scientifically, we should simply state that at present, there is no
satisfactory scientific explanation for macroevolutionary events. Those
explanations that have been presented lie in the realm of philosophy.

Arguments for Biological Evolution

When we examine the arguments for biological evolution in the different texts,
we find that marked differences exist between them and mainstream medical and
biologjcal science texts. The topics of structural homology (six texts),
embryology (four texts) and vestigial organs (five texts) are treated with
obsolete and erroneous discussions in the high school biology texts.

Structural Homology

All of the high school textbooks confidently offer classic examples of
structural homology, such as the similarity of bony structures of the five-digit
forelimb in a variety of animals, as evidence of common ancestry. Comments
asserting or implying the common embryonic and genetic origin of homologous
structures or their common ways of developing appear repeatedly in the
discussions. Such an interpretation is clearly out of date and ignores a growing
body of scientific data coming from prominent scientists. Sir Gavin de Beer
(1971), for example, poses some important questions in his monograph titled
Homology, an Unsolved Problem. For example, homologous structures do not
necessarily derive from similar positions in the embryo or parts of the egg, nor
do they share the same organizer-induction processes, nor are they even
necessarily controlled by corresponding genes (de Beer 1971, pp. 13-15). The
textbook authors should at least express the fact that this apparent argument
for evolution, as attractive as it sounds, is not without very significant
questions and problems that remain to be answered. At least one of the textbooks
points to Darwin's explanation of homology as the best one. Yet de Beer and
others (Goodwin 1982, p. 51; Webster 1984, p. 193) fault Darwin's concept of
homology as "just what homology is not." Goodwin (p. 51) also adds that "...
homological equivalence is independent of history." It is clear that there are
important questions about the very notion of homology, but there is no
suggestion of these questions in the textbooks.

Vestigial Structures

One would think that knowledgeable scientists would be extremely cautious about
referring to vestigial structures in view of the fact that dozens of them were
once thought to be present, but time and new scientific knowledge have removed
almost every one from the list. A vestigial structure can be defined as a part
or organ which was well developed in ancestral forms, but the size and structure
of which have diminished until it currently has no function. Identification of a
genuine vestigial structure requires that the part in question serve no
contemporary useful purpose. The textbooks cite the coccyx (four texts),
appendix (five texts), muscles that move the ears (three texts), canine tooth
root structure (one text), wisdom teeth (one text) and the remnant of the third
eyelid (one text) as vestigial organs. Space will not permit us to consider all
of these, but two, the coccyx or tailbone, and the appendix, will be examined in
some detail to demonstrate the fallacy of the textbook arguments.

The coccyx. It is absolutely clear that the coccyx or tailbone is a functional
unit and has been recognized as functional for many years. Examination of Gray's
Anatomy (Goss 1948) will serve to indicate that the coccyx is one of four major
points of attachment of the support of the perineal floor. Also attached to the
coccyx is the coccygeus muscle and a portion of sacrotuberous ligament, thus
forming a significant portion of the posterior perineal support and adding
stability to the pelvis via the interossical ligaments. The sequence of
ossification of the coccygeal segments permits mobility of the coccyx during
child- bearing years and thus allows enlargement of the bony outlet of the birth
canal during delivery of the baby. However, the expansion of the pelvic floor is
minimized in other circumstances.

The appendix. Today there is little doubt that the appendix is involved as a
contributor to human immune function. To its credit, one text (Biggs et al.
1991) gives at least a qualified acknowledgment of this role. A recent journal
discussion by Bjerke et al. (1986, pp. 672-3) notes the abundant content of
organized lymphoid tissue in the appendix. The authors add;

It seems justified to assume that the lymphoid follicles of the appendix are
analogous to the Peyer's patches in having the capacity to generate IgA-cell
precursors that migrate via lymph and blood to the distant gastrointestinal
lamina propia. . . We have found that normal human appendix mucosa contains
relatively more IgG-producing cells than the colonic counterpart. This
difference can be ascribed to preferential accumulation of IgG immunocytes
adjacent to the numerous lymphoid follicles in the appendix.

Kawanishi (1987, p. 19) shares the view of the above authors regarding
functionality of the appendix when he writes:

The human appendix, long considered only an accessory rudimentary organ, could
possess a similar antigen uptake role prior to replacement by fibrosed tissue
after repetitive subclinical infections, or at least in early childhood when
it is most prominent.

The appendix is clearly a functional organ in humans and therefore cannot be
considered as vestigial.

Sequence Similarities & Ancestral Descent

One of the major points made in many of the texts is that similarities of
protein sequence provide strong support for evolution. These similarities are
often used to indicate lines of ancestral descent of organisms. Protein sequence
similarities can be used to indicate relationships among organisms, but whether
these relationships indicate molecular homology (that is, ancestral descent), or
whether there may be some other cause of the relationship is not always clear.
To give a specific example, rat and mouse cytochrome c molecules are identical
in amino acid sequence and the nucleotide sequences in the coding region of the
cytochrome c genes differ in nine positions. With these very minor differences,
the evidence is strong that a common rodent cytochrome c gene of the past is
ancestrally related to the cytochrome c genes found at present in rats and mice.
However, if one compares mouse cytochrome c with cytochrome c of yeast (a
unicellular eukaryotic organism), there are 37 differences in amino acid
sequences of the two proteins and 118 differences in nucleotide sequences of the
coding regions of the two genes (Mills 1991). There is clearly similarity
between the mouse and yeast genes, but is there an ancestral relationship of the
yeast cytochrome c (or more properly of an earlier eukaryotic cytochrome c) to
the mouse cytochrome c gene? Scientifically, we must say that there is
insufficient evidence at present to make a firm statement. The obstacles to a
step by step (i.e. one nucleotide at a time conversion in 100 or more different
nucleotide positions of an archetypal gene to form the present mouse gene, are
very great, since every intermediate would have to code for a functional
cytochrome c molecule. Is this possible? If one postulates only chance
conversions as a consequence of mutations, this conversion would seem to be
beyond the realm of possibility. If one postulates that these nucleotide
changes are under some type of control, the conversion might be more likely. But
what is that control? Is it something built into the nature of molecules, or is
it a consequence of an intelligent cause? In seeking an answer to this question,
we have moved to the border of science and philosophy, where premises and
presuppositions are of primary importance. Honest scientists and students should
recognize that there is room for differing opinions at this point.

Conclusion

The practice of teaching evolution to high school students is not disputed.
However, it should be made clear that certain aspects of the theory of evolution
are philosophical in nature. Evidence for the origin and evolution of life
should be presented fairly and without distortion; but evidence that is not in
accord with natural processes as an explanation should be clearly presented as
well. When there are gaps or limitations in the data, these must be
acknowledged. One of the outstanding biologists of the 19th century, Claude
Bernard (1865, p. 40), noted:

...when we have put forward an idea or a theory in science, our object must
not be to preserve it by seeking everything that may support it and setting
aside everything that may weaken it. On the contrary, we ought to examine with
greatest care the facts that would overthrow it. . .

From reading this critique, it should be apparent that the errors,
overstatements and omissions that we have noted in these biology texts, all tend
to enhance the plausibility of hypotheses that are presented. More importantly,
the inclusion of outdated material and erroneous discussions is not trivial. The
items noted mislead students and impede their acquisition of critical thinking
skills. If we fail to teach students to examine data critically, looking for
points both favoring and opposing hypotheses, we are selling our youth short and
mortgaging the future of scientific inquiry itself. We concur with the
requirement that biology texts examine "alternative scientific evidence and
ideas to test, modify, verify or refute scientific theories," but we feel that
the Origin of Life and Evolution chapters in most of these Biology I textbooks
discussed here fall far short of meeting that requirement.

References

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F. (1991). Biology: The dynamics of life. Columbus, OH; Merrill Publishing Co.
Bjerke, K., Brandtzaeg, P. & Rognum, T.O. (1986). Distribution of immunoglobin
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Promoting an Understanding of the Intelligent Design of the Universe