a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 33 No. 3
The Contexts: Why Evolution Should Be Taught As An Argument and How it Might be
A. Campbell and Taz Daughtrey
central problem with our cultural-educational debate over evolution is its
framing. All too often, this dispute is framed as a conflict in which one side
seeks to defend its prerogatives against encroachments by the other side.
Science educators rightfully resist attempts by parents and school boards
to introduce into the science curriculum ideas that are not scientific but which
support values and perspectives held passionately in other communities.
Parents, on the other hand, have legitimate interests in knowing and to
some extent controlling what and how their children are being taught.
That conflicts should occur in an education system that seeks to combine
the perspectives of educators professionally trained in specialized disciplines
with active parental participation and support is hardly surprising.
Caught in the middle are students, who deserve not only valid content but
also appropriate pedagogy, and who may be torn between what is presented in the
classroom and what they hear at home and in their places of worship. The broader
but less visible set of stakeholders include the employers of the future – and
a democratic culture which demands its citizens be well grounded in the content
and processes of modern science.
In a sense the worst outcome of our ongoing cultural dispute over
evolution would be the wrong kind of victory for either side.
However desirable might be a decisive court decision favoring the
perspective and values of professional educators, any legal victory sending a
clear message that the substantive concerns of parents for the content and form
of their children’s education were unwelcome would be unfortunate, as would a
victory that compromised the integrity of science and the educational process.
Public education no doubt works best when teachers can bring to our
children their best professional knowledge coupled with sensitivity to what is
also happening outside the classroom. To
do this, particularly on topics that are controversial, requires teachers not
only cultivate good relations with students and parents but also employ
inventive pedagogical thinking.
We are now in the eighty-second year since the Scopes trial in Dayton,
Tennessee in the summer of 1925 made opposition to evolution an embarrassing
icon of the distinctiveness of American education.[i]
Indeed, subsequent self-censorship in biology textbooks across the next
four decades meant that the evolutionists who thought they had won at that trial
had instead lost as far as teaching Darwin’s theory in the high schools was
concerned and they “did not even know they had lost.[ii]
Readers of this essay are no doubt familiar with the statistics of how little
has changed since the events recalled by seemingly endless replays of Inherit
the Wind. Surveys have indicated
that only about a third of Americans agreed that Darwin's theory of evolution
has been well supported by evidence; 45% agreed with the statement that
"God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time
within the last 10,000 years or so;" and more than half the American public
thinks that early humans lived at the time of the dinosaurs. Sadly, these
numbers have been virtually unchanged across the last quarter-century that these
survey questions have been asked.[iii]
A recent study published in Science magazine surveying acceptance
of evolution over the past twenty years in 34 industrialized countries placed
America next-to-last, just above Turkey, the only other nation in the sample
with a significant population of religious fundamentalists.[iv]
court decisions, however welcome in turning back unwise local initiatives, do
not address the roots of our problem. The calls of thoughtful science educators
for new approaches in science education and the efforts of the National Academy
of Sciences to provide resource materials for the teaching of evolution are all
helpful and timely. Probably no
single approach will address all needs. Our
proposal is less a single plan developed in detail but a perspective which might
inform a variety of different lesson plans and teaching strategies.
The idea of “teaching the controversy,” while not without advocates,
has met with great skepticism on the part of science educators and many
There are three central objections.
There is no serious controversy
among professional biologists on whether evolution has occurred or of its
fundamental significance as the unifying principle of modern biology.
The idea that one should give equal
time to ideas that are not scientific out of a sense of “fairness” is not
fair to serious science, is impractical in its implementation, and is without
While there are arguments or
controversies in contemporary science, these are too specialized and arcane for
high school students to understand.[vi]
Each of these objections has merit. One
should not teach as controversial ideas that are not controversial and which, to
the contrary, enjoy consensus among the widest range of professional scientists.
Particularly in a science class, where there is much content for which the
educational system is being increasingly held accountable, one should not give
“equal time” to ideas that are not a recognized part of science just because
that would be “fair” to those who reject the ideas.
Finally every teacher knows there are limits to what can be taught to
beginners—or at any level--and this realization must be part of any serious
On the other hand, one must meet the students where they are. If the
majority of the adult population believes humans coexisted with dinosaurs, then
the reality of “deep time” must be conveyed before much more can be
profitably done in handling astronomical, geological, or biological timelines.
If students hear harsh, although misinformed, objections to foundational
concepts and techniques of science, then they must be introduced to and practice
skills for examining evidences offered outside as well as within the classroom.
Put the objections to the idea of teaching science as a set of arguments
over great scientific questions as strongly as one will, the bare idea that
science is based not only on facts, techniques of measurement, hypotheses and
experiments but on argument is itself as uncontroversial and well confirmed an
idea as one can find in science—or in educational theory.[vii]
Unacceptable versions of the proposal to teach the controversies should
be rejected. Versions of the proposal that serve valid educational ends should
be encouraged, tested, critiqued and improved.
Given the host of dismal statistics about our national science literacy
in general, and our laughing-stock status as a nation on the issue of evolution,
it is clear that some kind of reformation in science education is called for.
In that spirit we contend, with apologies to an earlier reformer in
another field, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes?”[viii]
our proposal will be detailed beyond what a high school teacher could
realistically do in any one course we hope it will provide an inventional
perspective from which lesson plans, smaller teaching units and new, locally
appropriate, course ideas could be developed. Indeed, this approach to science
education can and should be incorporated from the earliest grades and woven
through the progression of age levels and subjects. Compartmentalization is
arbitrary and unrealistic, both in the small – such as segmenting out a
standalone evolution unit within a biology course – and in the large – such
as singling any particular topic for “critical analysis” or special