The Teaching of Evolution in the Science Curriculum

Controversy in Science

Controversy has not been uncommon in the history of the scientific enterprise. Generally the controversies among scientists have centered around questions of the interpretation of scientific data and the validity of theories old or new. It is central to the scientific method that all hypotheses must be so constituted as to be subject to rejection on the basis of empirical evidence. Therefore, when a new hypothesis has been put forward it is immediately a potential object of controversy, of a process of “natural selection,” so to speak. The hypothesis, in order to survive and become established as an accepted scientific theory, must survive numerous empirical tests. It may be a candidate to replace another long accepted theory, a theory in which some or many scientists have vested interests of one kind or another. Or other new hypotheses may be in competition with it. Controversy may well result, with more or less heated disagreement between two or more parties. Empirical science provides the means by which such a controversy can be moved toward resolution, and this involves the objective examination of all pertinent data and all logical implications of the data, with willingness to discuss all sides of the controversy in a logical, rational way. Professional scientists are bound to conduct themselves under such circumstances in a manner which reflects respect for those with whom they disagree. In scientific circles it is commonly assumed that all parties are motivated as professional members of the scientific community by a commitment to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Controversial Issues in the Science Classroom: the Creation / Evolution Controversy

Controversy should not be excluded from the science classroom, but should be one of the means used to give students a correct understanding of the processes of science. It is necessary that controversial issues which arise in connection with the science curriculum be handled in the classroom in a way which helps all students, without compromising their personal beliefs, to mature in their understanding of how to relate to and work with others with whom they may have important differences, even strongly conflicting convictions. The procedures in the public schools for handling some controversial issues in the science curriculum have already been established by state legislation and actions by state boards of education. In California, for example, the correct procedure for teaching about reproductive biology and special accommodation for the laboratory dissection of animals are mandated in the California Education Code sections 51550 and 32255.1 [Chapter 65, Statutes of 1988], respectively. There has been, however, no definitive policy adopted for the treatment in the science classroom of theories of origins, i.e., the evolution/creation controversy. Private secular and religious schools have up to now enjoyed complete freedom to teach about theories of origins in any manner they may choose, without state influence or intervention.

All subjects included in the science curriculum must be taught in a manner which is at once scientifically, pedagogically, and legally and constitutionally correct. On each of these aspects much controversy has arisen in recent decades, between factions of the general public, in the ranks of scientists, and among educators. Often more heat than light has been generated, and as a result many teachers are fearful in their treatment of the subject of theories of origins, often compromising science and correct pedagogy, as well as the constitutional rights of students. Therefore, it is important that this Science Framework delineate unambiguously the fundamental principles and guidelines for the correct treatment of the origins issue in the science curriculum materials and classrooms. For this purpose the following is provided:

Erroneous Past Handling of Theories of Origins in the Classroom

In the public controversy, legislation, and legal actions characterizing the past two decades of creation/evolution issue in the tax-funded educational system there have been numerous errors on the part of virtually all parties involved. Principal errors include the following:

1. Many secular scientists and educators who are personally committed to an evolutionary view of nature have insisted that all science education, especially biological science must be taught by indoctrination in evolution as a fact of earth history. They have also insisted that students be taught that belief in divine creation can have no part in their interpretation of the observed data of science or in their classroom discussions of the data and theories of science.

2. Conversely, many parents and other citizens, some active in science or science oriented professions, have insisted that creation, “creation science,” or “scientific creationism” should be included in the science curriculum. Some have even attempted to convert this into a totally secular scientific subject, devoid of any religious content.

3. Most science textbooks and other curriculum materials in the past have offered no critical evaluation of evolutionary concepts, nor informed students of the problems, weaknesses and failures of evolutionary theories.

4. Boards of education, administrators, and teachers have sometimes attempted to muzzle students in the classroom by forbidding them to discuss their reasons for believing in creation and rejecting evolution.

5. There continue to be many reports by students of science teachers’ ridiculing the concept of divine creation and those who believe in it.

The above cited actions are errors for the following reasons:

1. There is no place in science and, therefore, no place in science education for indoctrination, dogmatism or authoritarianism.

2. There is no place in science and, therefore, no place in science education for the protection of concepts and theories from criticism.

3. Science properly defined offers no justification for tying science exclusively to a materialistic philosophy or world view, making it by definition opposed to religious faith which holds to divine special creation. Thus, there is no justification for teaching that the evolutionary view of nature is the only one which is admissible for scientists.

4. Dogmatism, protectionism and exclusivism in the teaching of evolutionary ideas put the State, through its agents, the public school teachers, in the position of attempting to change the religious faith of students who believe in divine special creation. But the State has no compelling interest in changing the religious beliefs of students. By attempting to do so, the State violates the rights guaranteed to all students by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

When the State teaches students who hold to special divine creation as a part of their sincerely held religious faith, in effect, “You were not created, but you evolved from ancient ape-like animals,” the State is really saying to them, “Your religious faith in the God of creation is a falsehood, and you cannot be `scientific’ until you change your faith.” This is a gross violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise guarantee. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to all students equal treatment under the law and, therefore, a quality science education which is devoid of gratuitous insult to their religious faith or to them as religious believers.

It is obvious that the above cited errors must be corrected in the California public schools.

The Teaching of Evolution

The following policies are to be implemented in all curriculum materials and classroom teaching of science:

1. References to concepts, interpretations and theories relating to evolution must be properly qualified to reflect both the support and lack of support for them. Until such time as this is effected in the adoption of new curriculum materials, all dogmatism in current curriculum materials is to be identified and properly qualified by the teacher.

2. Students are to be given, in curriculum materials in the classroom, adequate access to scientific evidence and opinion, from the secular scientific literature and other qualified scientific literature, which reveal the problems, weaknesses and failures of evolutionary concepts as well as their successes and strengths.

3. Students are to be given the correct understanding of the relation of evolution to science, specifically, that although a majority of scientists may espouse an evolutionary view of the universe, life, species and man, their belief is not required by the definition of science for people to be scientists, teachers, or students of science. It is not acceptable to teach that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” other than as the opinion expressed by one scientist, Theodosius Dobzhansky.

4. Students may not be forbidden to question or criticize any scientific theory or interpretation in the classroom. When evolutionary concepts are discussed in the curriculum materials or in the classroom, students should be given appropriate opportunity to introduce alternative, anti-evolutionary interpretations for discussion of the pertinent scientific evidence in the classroom. Differences of opinion, discussion and debate are proper in the teaching of science, because they help develop the critical thinking of students. The discussion of theological doctrines, however, is not appropriate in the science classroom. On the other hand, it is also wrong to advocate or promote a materialistic philosophical world view in the name of science.

5. The principal goal of science instruction is to produce students who know how to examine and evaluate all evidence pertinent to a question, dispassionately and logically, and who have a commitment to practice this process consistently in the search for knowledge and truth. Able to distinguish opinion from scientific fact, these students will understand that the final authority in science is the observable, reproducible scientific data. They will understand the relationship between the hypotheses, theories and laws of science. They will appreciate the place and importance in science of creative imagination or inspiration. And, finally, they will understand the freedom of all practitioners of science to espouse their own personal belief systems and to draw on them for inspiration, motivation and goals in their professional endeavors.

6. A correct, philosophically neutral definition of science is to be taught. This means that students are to understand that science is essentially a method for studying and understanding the working of the natural world and for testing all ideas about the natural world, and that neither the definition of science or the rules of its methodology restrict what a scientist, teacher or student of science may or may not believe. The students are to understand that all have freedom to function in science, provided simply that they with integrity perform in accord with the rules of the method of empirical research.

7. The public schools and teachers cannot be mandated to teach about creation in the science classroom, since creation is basically a theological concept. However, it is not allowable to ignore the fact that the concept of divine special creation is one that has been held historically and at present by many scientists. Nor is it permissible to teach or imply that a person in any way violates the canons of science by believing in creation and even conducting his or her scientific thought and research guided by that belief.

8. It is proper, even necessary, for the teacher to identify the two competing explanations of origins and to outline the fundamental assumptions of each perspective. This prepares students to make their own personal examinations of the controversy. Some of the basic assumptions are as follows:

Evolution

1) All basic biological designs and systems are the products of purely spontaneous materialistic processes, devoid of any intelligently directed plan, purpose or goal.

2) All species living and extinct are related by common descent from one or a few original simple organisms.

3) Biological variation has been effectively unlimited, in the sense that some original protist could evolve into the human species in three or four billion years.

Creation

1) All basic biological designs and systems are, indeed, the products of intelligent, purposeful design and special creation.

2) All species living and extinct have existed in groups or “kinds” which have always been separate from each other, separated by uncrossable genetic boundaries.

3) Biological variation is limited within the boundaries of the originally created kinds.

A science teacher is not “teaching religion in the science class” by outlining for the students the basic assumptions of organic evolution and the creation perspective for biology. This simply identifies the two alternative views in a rational way so that students can then pursue the controversy by further personal study, if they so desire. It also lays a proper groundwork for any classroom discussion of scientific evidence related to that controversy. And, finally, it gives students a correct basis for understanding that both perspectives involve certain faith propositions. This, in turn, helps engender in the students mutual respect for others with whom they may have very fundamental disagreements on matters both scientific and philosophical.

9. Since this Science Framework mandates a science curriculum which is empirical and encompasses a sequence of intermediate objectives and final objectives which stand related in a hierarchy of dependent facts, concepts and theories, it is in accord with the historical and logical process by which scientific knowledge has advanced. In this context, theories of origins are high level concepts which, for their understanding and critical evaluation, require much underlying knowledge of science and a degree of intellectual sophistication. Therefore, the concept of organic evolution should not be presented in textbooks or studied in the classroom until the high school level science courses. To present evolutionary concepts in elementary and junior high school courses without a thorough discussion of their empirical basis, is only to indoctrinate the students with authoritarian ideas. This is not in accord with either the method of empirical science or proper pedagogy, especially in a pluralistic society in which the creation/evolution issue is so controversial.