In this case, however, it's his new textbook.
The 35-year-old adjunct professor is upset about the new text his peers at VCU have chosen for him to use in teaching Biology 101. Sparks says it omits critical chapters in evolutionary theory and is biased toward creationism and intelligent design, which argues life is too complex to have evolved over millions of years solely through Darwin's theory of natural selection and must have come at the direction of a supreme being or a supernatural force.
The book Sparks faults is "Essentials of Biology" by prolific science writer Sylvia S. Mader and published by the mainstream McGraw-Hill press.
"The text is confusing and minimalist," Sparks says. "I can't teach a lecture based on this book." Describing most introductory biology texts as uniform, Sparks says he first thought the book was just weak. In the beginning, he even gave his blessing when the department allowed his input. But then he actually read the text.
He also soon learned that one of his colleagues who pushed for the book has strong creationist ties and that the text has also been picked up by Oral Roberts University. And in the chapter called "Darwin and Evolution" on page 230, he found a direct reference to the California-based Institute for Creation Research, stating that the organization "advocates that students be taught an 'intelligent-design theory.'"
Even though the book clearly states that intelligent-design theory does not meet the test of scientific theory, despite that nearly half of all Americans believe the Old Testament account of creation, Sparks says the mention of the institute is disturbing. "It's product placement," he says, "like when Tom Cruise drinks Pepsi in the 'War of the Worlds.'"
Some of his colleagues say he's paranoid and making much ado about nothing. But Sparks may have a point, according to some people following the debate over how evolution is taught nationwide in grade schools and institutions of higher ed.
There have been recent strides for those who support the theory of evolution, including a landmark federal court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, wherein the court ruled that intelligent design couldn't be taught in public schools in Dover, Pa. and fossil findings of a fish-animal hybrid dating back 375 million years, which evolutionists hold up as a long-lost missing link.
In the wake of such developments, Sparks' denunciation of the book is raising a question within VCU's biology department: How should intelligent design/evolution discussion fit within standard biology curricula?
Enter Mader's "Essentials of Biology." A VCU team of four full-time faculty adopted the book for all introductory biology classes beginning this fall, making the book mandatory.
Professors don't have to use it solely. A representative for McGraw-Hill says via e-mail that the publisher's happy to offer supplemental materials to accommodate an individual teacher's requests. In the case of "Essentials," a first edition text, professors also have a chance to review the book and offer feedback to the publishers in exchange for cash an honorarium that can range from $500 to $1,500. Sparks says he's turned down the offer, maintaining the text is not worth its salt.
VCU switched biology books because teachers deemed the previous text too complex for the approximately 1,000 students who take the course each semester, professors say. In an effort to curb the failure-dropout-withdrawal rate and to make science more accessible and relevant to students, VCU approved Mader's book, which included attractive supplemental online content and a smaller price tag, says Jill Reid, a VCU biology professor who was on the textbook team. The book costs $102.25, about $30 less than a typical hardcover biology text.
Sparks insists VCU and its students are getting ripped off. When he tried to use his previous syllabus to create a new one for the Mader text, he says he couldn't because critical elements of evolution were missing from the book.
For example, the Mader book doesn't mention a concept called abiogenesis or the Miller-Urey experiment, which posits that life may have originated from simple amino acids and nucleotides being synthesized by exposing the earth's early gaseous atmosphere to electric charge and UV radiation. The hypothesis, now contested, remains a standard part of biology curricula.
The closer Sparks says he looked, the more he found missing. So he began a series of e-mail exchanges with his colleagues and the head of the department, Len Smock, expressing how dubious he is of the text's content.
"We got pushed into making this decision [to adopt the text], and we chose the wrong book," Sparks says, invoking everything from fraud to violation of church and state to evolutionary biologists fearing that biblical creationists could successfully propagandize science.
"Mader is not trying to slip in creationism," Reid assures. "Jim's basing his ideas on very weak circumstantial evidence that's not adding up to what he's claiming."
Reid says she knows firsthand how passionate people become when their personal beliefs intersect with science. A self-described "former creationist," Reid witnessed a pro-creationism lecture on campus by a VCU Medical Center professor who managed to rally students. Reid was so infuriated by the misrepresentation of what is considered scientific theory she says she put together an entire lecture on why intelligent design is not science. Still, she says, while most scientists and biologists "accept evolution as fact," a reluctance to bring it up in the classroom outside of a textbook context persists.
Of the Mader book, Reid says it allows students and teachers more flexibility. VCU's official stance on Sparks' concerns is that it's a nonissue, says Reid, relaying a message from department-chair Smock, who was out of town.
Frank Sherwin, a spokesperson for the Institute for Creation Research describes Mader as an "evolutionist," and says she isn't affiliated with the organization in any way.
Mader's dozen or more biology books are considered "mainstream" and "perfectly scientific," says Steven Shafersman, a biology teacher of 22 years and president of Texas Citizens for Science.
Once at the heart of Texas' science textbook battle in 2003, Shafersman is a leading expert on the debate about how evolution is taught in schools. "The book is not promoting creationism," he says. Still, he agrees with Sparks that the Miller-Urey experiment should be included in any introductory text, and that any mention of the creation institute "touches on cultural issues" that are outside the realm of science.
Meanwhile, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the Oakland-based, nonprofit National Center for Science Education, faults VCU's biology faculty for adopting a book "that skimps on evolution." While much of the debate about science curricula has centered on elementary, middle and high schools, Scott expects colleges to become the new testing ground for how evolution is discussed.
She scoffs that VCU does not have an entire course dedicated to evolution. The concerns that Sparks raises about the Mader text and the discourse that follows at VCU "is going to become more the case in the future," Scott says. "Evolution is not a controversy at the college level. We argue about the details, not the whether."
Rodney Dyer, a VCU biology professor, says the details are critical. Just hours after returning from a trip to Baja for field work, he perused the new Mader text. He agrees with Sparks that the creation institute mention is inappropriate, however oblique.
He also questions why Mader's credentials don't include affiliations with any particular research institution and why other, possibly better textbooks were dismissed. He then corrects a reporter who calls the controversy over evolution and creationism a debate. "[I]t is not a debate at all," Dyer says. "It is a propaganda machine driven by motives that have nothing at all to do with science and the pursuit of truth." S