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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stand by Science: Creationism Crowds the Curriculum

As goes high school biology, so goes American leadership in sciences.
By Christopher Scott
Credit: Thomas Reis

Ideology masquerading as scientific legitimacy is sweeping into American classrooms. There, it intimidates teachers and tries to unwind nearly a century of proven biological principles. If it succeeds, it will jeopardize our leadership in the life sciences, and, critics fear, we will matriculate students uncurious about biology and uninterested in careers in science and medicine.

The ideology is creationism. The target, not surprisingly, is evolution.

The battle is escalating: A recent study by the National Science Teachers Association reported that three of ten teachers feel pressure from students and parents to include nonscientific alternatives to evolution in the classroom. These educators are fighting religious and conservative-leaning school boards that want creationism and antievolutionary theories established as a regular feature in biology courses.

In addition to the strict creationists are people who support the concept of intelligent design (ID). These believers, led by Michael Behe, a senior fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, espouse a mix of doctrine and science to explain human creation and the breathtaking complexity of many biological processes. They believe the universe has some kind of overarching "designer," though they don't answer the question of who the designer is. Both groups -- the traditional creationists and the ID believers -- are putting pressure on the schools to spend the same amount of time teaching evolution as creation "science."

What Controversy?

There is no scientific debate about evolution. Evolution is about cumulative change over time. Genetic mutations, as few as one in a million, exist in any population of organisms, and changes in the environment favor those creatures with the rare genetic advantage. Such an individual can resist changed conditions -- perhaps a hotter climate -- and has more offspring than its less fortunate peers. After many, many generations, the result is a new species. This mechanism is called natural selection. The fossil record, comparative embryology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, and population biology all confirm this process -- the survival of the fittest.

In spite of more than one-hundred years of solid evidence, however, scientists now worry that the evolutionary research of Charles Darwin will become a footnote. "Every year, we have 4 million high school students who take general biology, and it may be the last biology course they ever take," says Robin Heyden, a coauthor of Biology: Exploring Life, a best-selling high school textbook. "If half of them get a contorted or watered-down version of evolution, then that's a big number. These students will go on to sit on school boards and vote in elections."

She's not being paranoid. According to a Gallup poll conducted last November, fewer than one-third of Americans believe evolution is supported by hard evidence, and almost half believe God created humankind in its present form. In March, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives introduced a bill that would allow school boards to add instruction on ID to any curriculum. A recent article in the Washington Post reported that the teaching of evolution is being challenged in nineteen states. Though the Kansas State Board of Education approved new evolution-based science standards in early 2005, the state's ID chapter authored twenty-three pages of revisions with the intent to introduce the concept into the science curriculum.

Teachers aren't the only ones feeling the pressure. In March, a dozen Southern IMAX theaters, fearing backlash from conservative Christian moviegoers, refused to show Volcanoes of the Deep Sea because of a brief mention of evolution. And in Kentucky, a creation-education group called Answers in Genesis is building a $25 million museum depicting dioramas of humans who amble amiably alongside dinosaurs. In one exhibit, a triceratops with a blanket and saddle stands ready for a romp.

Why Worry?

Presidents come and go, and so do groundswells of religiosity. It wasn't until 1968, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court not only struck down the 1925 antievolutionary law under which Tennessee teacher John Scopes was tried but also ruled that a 1929 Arkansas statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. Only since then has it been against the law for a school official to order a teacher not to teach evolution.

But attempts to put "creation science" on equal footing with evolution in public schools have routinely failed. If a discipline doesn't use the scientific method, it can't be taught as a science. By law, schools must be "religion neutral" and must not advance beliefs that a supernatural being created humans. A teacher can teach about religion but cannot be compelled to give evolution and creationism equal time.

Then there are the robust ramparts of colleges and universities. Many feel that higher education will serve as an antidote to the problems in secondary schools. Teenagers who get interested in science in high school, they say, will have no problem training to become scientists in a university.

However, something about this spasm of conservatism runs deeper than a dusty debate about whether "we come from monkeys." The problem of watered-down science instruction doesn't stop at high school commencement ceremonies. College graduates unsympathetic to the benefit of a good science education are entering the workforce. They go on to influence public policy. Some decide early against science careers. Both effects threaten American leadership in the biological sciences.

Credit: Eugenie Scott

Ideology Scales the Ivory Tower

It is easy to forget that caught in the middle of the evolution ruckus are our students -- the next generation of scientists and science teachers. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), knows this. The author of the gold-standard college biology textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell and a former professor at the University of California-San Francisco, Alberts has made a career out of fighting for the continuity of science education. He knows that blossoming interests nurtured in secondary school can fuel scientific and educational careers later in life. But he's afraid the virtuous cycle will be broken.

In a 2004 article for the journal Cell Biology Education, he writes, "As scientists, we also should make it our responsibility to present the evidence for biological evolution to all of our students, especially in introductory courses. Most students who enroll in our introductory courses will use them as their terminal courses in science. At least some of those students will go on to careers as teachers or as public servants who will be asked to make decisions about whether to allow nonscientific approaches to teaching evolution to appear in science curricula."

Eugenie Scott (no relation to the author), executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization defending the teaching of evolution, agrees. She sees a dwindling pool of future researchers. "Evolution is one of the most powerful explanations of 'connectedness' we have -- it provides logic and sense to so much of biology," she says. "High school students who carry a poor, or no, understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences. The result is fewer scientists." Scott notes that countries like Japan, Israel, and the United Kingdom, where religion isn't taught as a science, turn out more students who pursue science careers.

Even more troubling is that some of the brightest high school students will never be exposed to evolution in college. Most high schools offer Advanced Placement, or AP, biology, a college course taught by high school teachers. By passing the College Board's AP biology exam, a student can be exempted from taking the college introductory course. But the AP texts aren't exempt from meddling: In Oklahoma, a state Senate amendment allowed the state's textbook committee to insert a disclaimer into biology books that said, among other things, that evolution is "controversial" and that "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

High school educators aren't the only ones responsible for exposing students to a thorough reckoning of evolution. Alberts has appointed Jay Labov, a biologist and senior adviser for education and communication for the Center for Education at the NAS's National Research Council, to lead the organization's efforts at improving teaching standards. Like Scott, Labov sees a marginalization of evolution in high school science classes. But inconsistencies in college biology courses exist, too. Teaching evolution one week and genetics three weeks later leaves students unable to connect the dots. "Too often, evolution is taught just as a topic, not as a repeating theme of biology," Labov says. "Students believe that just because they can't see evolution in action, it doesn't exist. Look, the actors on CSI [a popular television series about solving gruesome murders] use evidence to solve an unseen crime. There is evidence of evolution all over science."

History Repeating

Attacking evolution. Rewriting science textbooks. Government pressure on educators. It's a disturbing American vision. But it's not unique to America.

In the '20s, scientists worldwide vigorously debated the mechanisms of evolution. On one side were the Darwinians; on the other were supporters of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, an eighteenth-century French scientist who believed that new physical traits could be willed into existence. According to Lamarck, a change in the environment causes a change in an animal's behavior that leads to greater or lesser use of a given appendage or organ. Those changes are passed on to the creature's offspring. Lamarck could not prove his theory, and by the '30s most geneticists had discarded the idea.

Lamarck's ideas were useless to geneticists but very handy for Joseph Stalin, who rejected any doctrine -- like Darwinism -- that challenged socialism. Willful ideology, not genetic determinism, was the key to his Soviet revolution. Stalin named a crop biologist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, to champion Lamarckism. Lysenko and his ilk linked "the survival of the fittest" to fascism and accused Soviet geneticists of sabotage, espionage, and terrorism. Supporters of evolution were jailed or shot. Scientific publishing was censored. According to historians, no genetics textbooks were published in the USSR between 1938 and the early 1960s and no evolution at all was taught to several generations of students. Stalin's political solution choked off scientific progress, modern genetics never reached the Soviet Union, and today Russia and the Balkans lag behind other countries in scientific and medical advances.

To be fair, an oppressive Soviet regime isn't the same as a modern America. Stickers placed inside Georgia biology textbooks by local school officials stating that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" were ordered removed in January by a federal court. In April, when the Kansas school board asked to hear pro and con "arguments" about evolution from experts, not a single evolutionary biologist agreed to testify. Authors and publishers have refused school board requests to mention ID and creationism in introductory biology textbooks.

Stalin squelched modern genetics in the Soviet Union, but the United States benefited from his actions. Theodosius Dobzhansky escaped the USSR and joined fellow geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan at the California Institute of Technology in 1936. Together, Morgan and Dobzhansky laid the foundations for modern genetics, including recombinant DNA technology, which revolutionized modern biology. After gaining his freedom, Dobzhansky wrote, "Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light, it becomes a pile of sundry facts, some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."

We can only hope our young scientists see evolution as the inspiration for their own discoveries. Keeping science in the classroom ensures that we will have interested students who will support and fuel future generations of teachers and researchers.

Christopher Scott is an author, a biologist, and former assistant vice chancellor of the University of California-San Francisco. His book, The Stem Cell: Science, Ethics, and Politics, will be published in September 2006.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael Zito's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach biology. IMHO the controversy over evolution is really a controversy about the origins of life. As I enter my unit on evolution I often give my students 3 or 4 different creations stories... Hindu, Native American, Greek... I purposely leave out Genesis. I then ask which is correct? This is a great lead in to discussion about what evolutionary theory explains (change over time) and what it does not (the origin of life). We then jump into the scientific hypotheses about how life might have originated on the planet followed by a study of how life, once established, has changed over time.

B. Ferguson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Andy Batten, you are making (and propagating) a statement which is more pedantic than factual. The process underlying evolution is natural selection and this process IS, in fact, scientifically demonstrable. The only reason that the argument will never be won based on scientific principles is because creationists must save their argument at all costs.

While there are countless independent instances of corroborating evidence supporting natural selection, there are no legitimate instances of evidence (no, the bible does not count) supporting creationism. Even if we assume that the best people living thousands of years ago were very intelligent, the fact remains that they were vastly more ignorant about the world around them than even a young child is today. Whatever we do know about our place in the universe today is due to the work of scientists. The best answers to the questions about the origin and succession on life on Earth come evolutionary biology. Peer reviewed research by the best and brightest human minds says that this is the best explanation so far. This doesn't mean it is right, but it is highly improbable that it is entirely wrong.

Those who claim that the creationist stories offer us anything other than comforting ignorance are virtually without peer in the degree of their delusion.

Peter Shand's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

An hypothesis is something you can test. Evolution cannot therefore be an hypothesis. You cannot go back to the beginning and start again. It has to be a theory but if true experimental hypotheses can be formulated to determine if there is evidence for the theory. To date any evidence tends to support the theory or at least not give evidence to show that it is wrong (there will always be unanswered questions). Darwin and Wallace came up with the theory from careful examination of evidence. If they knew what we know now they would be thrilled.
Creationism and Intelligent Design are based on religious belief and fear that Evolution, being a mechanistic process does not need an explanation of why? Thus biologists who are evangelical christians will probably always fight for Intelligent Design rather than Darwinian Evolution. Science is not about philosophy and personal motives. It is about seeking the truth about how the Universe came into being as a process. If that threatens peoples religious beliefs it is not meant to. I do not know of any evidence that supports Intelligent Design except that it fits with an interpretation of a religous book. That is not evidence and I cannot see why there is any justification in teaching it in the Science classroom alongside a theory that is accumulating more and more convincing evidence to support the explanation of Natural Selection proposed by Darwin and Wallace. The argument can be won by science only if people put EVERY preconception aside. It is not scientists trying to prove that they are correct. I would gladly put aside Evolution if I believed it was wrong

Tom Hayden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach High School Biology and this is my first year as a teacher. I am about to teach the concept of Evolution and I am concerned about how to approach the idea of creationism. I strongly feel that working in a public school, religion should not be brought into the curriculum and should only be mentioned in private schools. I know it is a good idea to briefly mention creationism, but that is it. A science curriculum is designed to teach science concepts and theory and not much outside that realm. I believe that if parents want their child to know more about creationism, then they should speak to them more about it or enroll them in religion classes, but it should not be forced upon public school teachers. If science teachers are eventually forced to spend equal time on creationism in comparison to evolution, then are we not moving more toward a religion class instead of a science class?

Andy Batten's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can see your point about my "arguement", but I was not making a statement of my belief or my stand on the issue. Just an observation that both sides are out of touch and unwilling to be resonable. There is plenty of evidence in either camp to argue for or against the other. The presupposition that folks bring to this debate are obvious on both sides. The religious folks that see through the eyes of faith, and those in the scientifice field opperate on their own set of "facts" and for reasons unknown seem fearful of an open discussion.

From an outside observers point of view, both are unable to be objective. The fact is that when someone asks questions of either side, you be blasted. You are either a heritic or a fool.

In many ways science and religion have gone down the same path, kill the voice of reason. Why do both feel so threatened and get so angry when a question is posted. Part of the point i was trying to make.

A Writing Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Jr. High student in Ohio and I am currently working on a paper for English class. It is a persuasion paper and my topic is "Should creationism be taught in schools along with evolution". I am writing my paper from a Christian point of view and therefore, I am writing to have creation in schools. However, I am not looking for teachers to be getting in trouble for teaching religion, so I am suggesting that all theories of the origin of life not be taught, but rather mentioned. This way, people are not being left out, people no longer have to debate over the topic, they can just listen, take their notes, and consider the thought that there are several theories to this topic. My English teacher is also my science teacher (ironic, right?) and we have not covered Evolution, and I have no idea if we will. IF we do, I would hope that my teacher takes into consideration what I write on my paper for English. If not, that is okay, but I just hope my ideas can go into affect somewhere, or someone will hear my thoughts and take them into consideration.
Thanks.

Ferzen R Midyat's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Soviets were opposing genetics. Opposing Mendel, communists sent out even his statute out of public visibility, in times of Lysenkoism.

Soviets were materialist to the teeth. Tweedledum vs tweedledee. Perhaps, they were looking for a relatively socialist evolutionism, rather than the British-aristocracy-justifying (classful-society-justifying) Darwinish evolutionism.

Besides, Dobzhansky is a (trickily profane) evolutionistic bigot. See the review I wrote, slamming his paper "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense .... by Dobzhansky

You should be concerned about the third of the U.S. population, if they believe in Dobzhansky's theory (like the rest of the evolutionist "thought").
http://www.i-slam.info/debunk-Dobzhansky.htm

Tanner's picture

Throughout this article I was wondering when you were going to bring up the Dover Pa trail where a a GW Bush appointed, conservative, federal juge, (self proclaimed born again Christianand Boy Scout Leader), Ruled in the Dover Pa trail that ID is nothing more than creationism and is not science. He also riped into the DI people saying they were fundamentally dishonest.
Judge Jones said...
"The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. [...]
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom."

Sounds very definitive to me.

Tanner's picture

Throughout this article I was wondering when you were going to bring up the Dover Pa trail where a GW Bush appointed, conservative, federal juge, (self proclaimed born again Christianand Boy Scout Leader), Ruled in the Dover Pa trail that ID is nothing more than creationism and is not science. He also riped into the DI people saying they were fundamentally dishonest.

Judge Jones said...
"The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. [...]
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom."

Sounds very definitive to me.

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