Science education and scientific progress are increasingly cited as vital to the prosperity of the United States. In his memorandum on scientific integrity, President Obama stated, “Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”1 Indeed, the President’s inaugural address even pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.”2 A less noteworthy but nonetheless highly acclaimed authority on science, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” has stated, “The future of our species probably depends on science education and our understanding of the natural world.”3
Perhaps nowhere is the debate over science education more vigorous or spirited than it is over the question of how to teach evolution. As this article will discuss, an influential coalition of certain scientists, educators, textbook publishers, activists, and jurists feel that the best way to teach evolution is to only permit pro-evolution scientific viewpoints to be learned and discussed in the classroom. This contingency, collectively termed the “evolution lobby,” seeks to impose nothing less than the one-sided teaching of evolution in public schools, where any scientific evidence that challenges the prevailing consensus of neo-Darwinian evolution is effectively censored from students.
The approach of the evolution lobby is to paper over conflicts within modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, and instead teach students a dumbed-down and oversimplified version of neo-Darwinism. This style of evolution-education is inaccurate and does a great disservice to students. This article will show that this stranglehold on science education is not only unnecessary, but fundamentally inimical to solving many problems faced by science education today, such as a lack of student and societal interest in, and understanding of, modern scientific knowledge. Not only is it perfectly legal to teach scientific criticisms of the prevailing scientific theory of evolution as taught in textbooks, but such scientific criticisms are grounded in credible scientific publications emanating from the mainstream scientific literature.
II. What Does it Mean to Teach Evolution Scientifically?
Virtually all participants in the debate over how to teach evolution are motivated by concerns that U.S. science education suffers serious deficiencies, and that the U.S. is losing its edge as the world’s leader in science.4 As a 2006 report from the National Research Council warned, “[p]olicy makers, scientists, and educators have expressed growing concern about the nation’s scientific literacy and the international competitiveness of its science and technology workforce.”5
A. Science Education in Peril
Science education theorists today warn of two primary deficiencies in science education. First, insufficient numbers of students are being inspired to pursue careers and complete studies in science.6 As the National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in 2004, there is a “troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers.”7 And second, as a 2006 report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) cautioned, most Americans are not scientifically literate:
Most people in this country lack the basic understanding of science that they need to make informed decisions about the many scientific issues affecting their lives. Neither this basic understanding—often referred to as scientific literacy—nor an appreciation for how science has shaped the society and culture is being cultivated during the high school years.8
On top of this, “results from large-scale national and international tests indicate that U.S. high school students have made little or no progress in mastery of science subject matter”9 in recent years. In the view of the NSF, the inability of science education to produce a new generation of scientists and a scientifically literate population could “threaten the economic welfare and security of our country.”10 Indeed, in 2001 the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century offered a stark warning that “[s]econd only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good over the next quarter century.”11
B. SCIENTIFIC LITERACY AND INQUIRY-BASED LEARNING
In response to concerns about science education in the United States, scientific literacy is increasingly discussed among policymakers. At its base, the term implies an understanding of “the methods and processes of scientific research (scientific process) and the knowledge derived from this process (scientific content).”12 Thus, scientific literacy requires not only that students learn scientific content, but also understand the methods of science — that science is “a way of knowing.”13 This “scientific process” component of scientific literacy is reflected in a strong trend within science education to teach students about how scientific knowledge is generated — to wit, not just what to think, but how to think. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggests, “a science literate person” is, in part, one who, “has a capacity for scientific ways of thinking” and “is able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes.”14 Called the “inquiry” method of teaching students, it is a vital component of science education which recognizes that students learn best by investigating science and developing scientific critical thinking skills rather than by mere rote memorization of facts.15 As the National Science Education Standards (NSES) emphasize:
Inquiry is a critical component of a science program at all grade levels and in every domain of science, and designers of curricula and programs must be sure that the approach to content, as well as the teaching and assessment strategies, reflect the acquisition of scientific understanding through inquiry.16
To ensure that teachers understand the importance of conveying the processes of science through inquiry-based science education, in 2000 the National Research Council published a guidebook for teachers titled, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Former NAS president, Bruce Alberts, explains in the Foreword to the guidebook that “[t]eaching science through inquiry allows students to conceptualize a question and then seek possible explanations that respond to that question.”17 This approach is different from many traditional methods of teaching science, which according to Alberts, “remai[n] depressingly common today—teachers provide their students with sets of scientific facts and with technical words to describe those facts.”18 Alberts explains that this pedagogical philosophy is detrimental to sparking student interest in science, because “if adults dismiss [students’] incessant questions as silly and uninteresting, students can lose this gift of curiosity.”19 The guidebook goes on to explain how teachers should implement the inquiry method of teaching science:
Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.20
The guidebook further suggests that students learn how to “formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence” and “recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.”21
As would be expected, such values are interwoven throughout the NSES, which recommends that students engage in “identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.”22 More specifically, the standards suggest that students use scientific inquiry to develop “the critical abilities of analyzing an argument by reviewing current scientific understanding, weighing the evidence, and examining the logic so as to decide which explanations and models are best.”23 The NSES also recognizes the importance of studying the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific claims:
At each of the steps involved in inquiry, students and teachers ought to ask[:] “[W]hat counts?” What data do we keep? What data do we discard? What patterns exist in the data? Are these patterns appropriate for this inquiry? What explanations account for the patterns? Is one explanation better than another?
In justifying their decisions, students ought to draw on evidence and analytical tools to derive a scientific claim. In turn, students should be able to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of their claims.24
The NSES similarly stresses that “[t]hroughout the process of inquiry” students should “constantly evaluate and reevaluate the nature and strength of evidence and share and then critique their explanations and those of others.”25
Other science education authorities concur with the NSES. In 2001, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and AAAS co-published the Atlas of Scientific Literacy, which emphasizes that students should “[i]nsist that the critical assumptions behind any line of reasoning be made explicit so that the validity of the position being taken — whether one’s own or that of others — can be judged.”26 The Atlas further suggests that students “[n]otice and criticize the reasoning in arguments in which fact and opinion are intermingled or the conclusions do not logically follow from the evidence given.”27 The Atlas is intended to implement the AAAS’s Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, produced by its Project 2061, an ambitious program aiming to dramatically improve American science education by the next return of Halley’s Comet in the year 2061. The Benchmarks also contain strong proscriptions for implementing the inquiry method when teaching science, such as found in its section on “Habits of Mind:”
View science and technology thoughtfully, being neither categorically antagonistic nor uncritically positive.28 Know why curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism are so highly regarded in science and how they are incorporated into the way science is carried out; exhibit those traits in their own lives and value them in others.29
Likewise, in 2009 the College Board, which issues the SAT exam and Advanced Placement course curricula, released recommended science education standards which strongly emphasize the importance of inquirybased science learning:
In the course of learning to construct testable explanations and predictions, students will have opportunities to identify assumptions, to use critical thinking, to engage in problem solving, to determine what constitutes evidence, and to consider alternative explanations of observations.30
The standards go on to recommend that “[b]oth the evidence that supports the claim and the evidence that refutes the claim should be accounted for in the explanation. Alternative explanations should also be taken into consideration.”31 Likewise, “The reasoning that supports an explanation . . . . should allude to supporting evidence and counterevidence, include an interpretation of data as it relates to the claim, and consider multiple alternative explanations.”32 Teachers and students should understand that “scientific discourse” requires students to justify “not just what they know, but how they know it—claims are made; evidence is produced; and explanations are formulated, revised and extended through science discourse during which claims, evidence and reasoning are discussed and critiqued.”33 In this regard, “students should also be able to recognize and refute claims that do not reflect the use of scientific evidence and reasoning.”34 The College Board thus recommends that “[c]riteria for the evaluation of a scientific explanation include”35 the following tenets:
- Integration of fact and opinion is avoided.
- Making conclusions that do not follow logically from the evidence is avoided.
- Explanation includes an explicit statement about the critical assumptions of the explanation.
- The claim is appropriately aligned to the scientific question or the prediction it is intended to address.
- The quality and quantity of the evidence used to support the explanation is appropriate.
- All of the evidence is used, not just selected portions of the evidence.
- The reasoning linking the claim to the evidence is strong. The reasoning is considered strong if it includes well-established, accurate scientific principles and if the steps of reasoning form a logical progression.36
Mirroring the NSES, the College Board’s definition of “scientific investigation” agrees that “[s]cientific investigations require identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.”37
C. THE IMPORTANCE OF SKEPTICISM, TENTATIVENESS, DEBATE, AND DISAGREEMENT WITHIN SCIENCE
One oft-cited source among science education authorities is a book copublished by the AAAS titled Science for All Americans, which “defines science literacy and lays out some principles for effective learning and teaching.”38 The book is intended to encapsulate the goals of Project 2061, and explains why citizens require an understanding of the scientific process to function in society:
Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.39 Science for All Americans emphasizes — and historian of science David C. Lindberg agrees — that students need to understand that a scientist’s “beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic.”40
Science for All Americans stresses the importance of inculcating scientific values of skepticism and openmindedness into students through science education:
Science education is in a particularly strong position to foster three of these attitudes and values — curiosity, openness to new ideas, and skepticism. . . . . . . .
People with closed minds miss the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of intellectual growth throughout life. Because, as this report makes clear, the purpose of science education is not exclusively to produce scientists, it should help all students understand the great importance of carefully considering ideas that at first may seem disquieting to them or at odds with what they generally believe. The competition among ideas is a major source of tensions within science, between science and society, and within society. Science education should document the nature of such tensions from the history of science—and it should help students see the value to themselves and society of participating in the push and pull of conflicting ideas.
Science is characterized as much by skepticism as by openness . … Science education can help students to see the social value of systematic skepticism and to develop a healthy balance in their own minds between openness and skepticism.41
Ernst Mayr similarly writes in the NAS’s Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science that “[a]nother feature of science that distinguishes [it] from theology is its openness” and “[o]ne of the most characteristic features of science is this openness to challenge.”42 In fact Mayr emphasizes that “[t]he willingness to abandon a currently accepted belief when a new, better one is proposed is an important demarcation between science and religious dogma.”43 Dan Wivagg, former associate editor of the journal American Biology Teacher, likewise explains the importance of skepticism in science:
Skepticism is the essence of science. A good biologist is continually questioning what he or she ‘knows’ and examining skeptically the results of other biologists’ research. It is therefore important for us to teach our biology students to become skeptical of what they read and hear. They will then understand the process of science and have an appreciation for the dynamic nature of biological ‘facts.’44
Thus, as the NAS acknowledges, scientific knowledge is tentative, for “[t]ruth in science . . . is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.”45 In the words of Lindberg, “Bertrand Russell has argued that ‘it is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.’”46
According to the AAAS’s Science for All Americans, the result of such pedagogical emphases is that: “Education should prepare people to read or listen to such assertions critically, deciding what evidence to pay attention to and what to dismiss, and distinguishing careful arguments from shoddy ones.”47
These educational authorities hold that science cannot progress when views are held dogmatically and are not subject to future discoveries. In this regard, courts have agreed with science educators that science is more than just a body of knowledge, but also a process of obtaining knowledge that often entails debate, critique, and disagreement. In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, the Supreme Court rejected the “general acceptance” test for admitting scientific evidence, and explained that under the Federal Rules of Evidence, “scientific knowledge” must be grounded in the methods of science:
The adjective “scientific” implies a grounding in the methods and procedures of science . . . . [I]n order to qualify as “scientific knowledge,” an inference or assertion must be derived by the scientific method. 48
In a brief submitted to the Court in Daubert, the AAAS and the NAS likewise observed that “[s]cience is not an encyclopedic body of knowledge about the universe. Instead, it represents a process for proposing and refining theoretical explanations about the world that are subject to further testing and refinement.”49 Similarly, Science for All Americans argues that “[s]cience is more than a body of knowledge and a way of accumulating and validating that knowledge” but is also “a social activity that incorporates certain human values.”50 These values include “skepticism and a distaste for dogmatism” which are “highly characteristic of the scientific endeavor.”51 Indeed, the AAAS authors state that “[s]cience, mathematics, and engineering prosper because of the institutionalized skepticism of their practitioners.”52 The authors thus offer proscriptions for inculcating these values in students:
In science classrooms, it should be the normal practice for teachers to raise such questions as: How do we know? What is the evidence? What is the argument that interprets the evidence? Are there alternative explanations or other ways of solving the problem that could be better? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such questions and framing answers. Students should experience science as a process for extending understanding, not as unalterable truth. This means that teachers take care not to convey the impression that they themselves or the textbooks are absolute authorities whose conclusions are always correct. By dealing with the credibility of scientific claims, the overturn of accepted scientific beliefs, and what to make out of disagreement among scientists, science teachers can help students to balance the necessity for accepting a great deal of science on faith against the importance of keeping an open mind.53
Science for All Americans observes that, “[s]cientists may often disagree about the value of a particular piece of evidence or about the appropriateness of particular assumptions that are made — and therefore disagree about what conclusions are justified.”54 Indeed, scientists often vigorously disagree with new ideas:
In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas may encounter vigorous criticism, and scientists investigating such ideas may have difficulty obtaining support for their research. Indeed, challenges to new ideas are the legitimate business of science in building valid knowledge. Even the most prestigious scientists have occasionally refused to accept new theories despite there being enough accumulated evidence to convince others.55
Such explanations of the scientific process corroborate the theories of Thomas Kuhn, the influential sociologist of science who contended that “[n]o part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.”56 Kuhn even notes that defenders of scientific orthodoxy “will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict [with data that contradicts the hypothesis].”57
This attitude, however, can be dangerous to the progress of science when it prevents scientists from considering new ideas. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade warns of the dangers when scientific dissent is stifled:
Conformity and group-think are attitudes of particular danger in science, an endeavor that is inherently revolutionary because progress often depends on overturning established wisdom . . . . . . . [A]cademic monocultures . . . are the kind of thing that sabotages scientific creativity . …
What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics.58
Wade further observes that scientists are often pressured to conform and not speak out against the prevailing view:
The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”59
While many would like to believe that scientists always follow the evidence where it leads, Stephen Jay Gould cautions that scientists’ “ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective ‘scientific method,’ with individual scientists as logical and interchangeable robots, is self-serving mythology.”60 The importance of allowing dissent — even unpopular dissent — within the scientific community was made emphatically and eloquently by Gould writing with other scientists in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Daubert:
Judgments based on scientific evidence, whether made in a laboratory or a courtroom, are undermined by a categorical refusal even to consider research or views that contradict someone’s notion of the prevailing “consensus” of scientific opinion. Science progresses as much or more by the replacement of old views as by the gradual accumulation of incremental knowledge. Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a courtroom, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth. …
… The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists.61
Unfortunately, some scientific researchers have reported that the mainstream scientific community is closed off to viewpoints that dissent from prevailing theories of evolution. As biologist Günter Theißen wrote in the journal Theory in Biosciences:
It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution. One easily becomes a target of orthodox evolutionary biology and a false friend of proponents of non-scientific concepts.62
Similarly, Oregon State University zoologist John Ruben reports that his dissent from the predominant view that birds evolved from dinosaurs has fallen prey to “museum politics”:
But old theories die hard, Ruben said, especially when it comes to some of the most distinctive and romanticized animal species in world history.
“Frankly, there’s a lot of museum politics involved in this, a lot of careers committed to a particular point of view even if new scientific evidence raises questions,” Ruben said. In some museum displays, he said, the birds-descended-from-dinosaurs evolutionary theory has been portrayed as a largely accepted fact, with an asterisk pointing out in small type that “some scientists disagree.”
“Our work at OSU used to be pretty much the only asterisk they were talking about,” Ruben said. “But now there are more asterisks all the time. That’s part of the process of science.”63
Indeed, there are many other well-documented examples of scientists and academics that have faced intolerance and persecution due to their scientific skepticism of neo-Darwinian evolution.64 This trend is dangerous to the progress of science, making it all the more important to educate students about the importance of open-mindedness, skepticism, and rigorous scientific debate to the scientific method.
D. INQUIRY, AND FAUX-INQUIRY BASED APPROACHES TO TEACHING EVOLUTION
The many authorities cited above suggest that in addition to teaching scientific content, science education ought to, at the very least, instill the following in students:
- An understanding of the methods used by science;
- The ability to practice the habits of mind employed by scientists;
- Critical and logical thinking skills;
- The ability to identify assumptions, evaluate arguments, and consider counter-arguments and alternative explanations;
- An understanding of the ways that scientists challenge scientific hypotheses; • An appreciation for the tentative nature of scientific knowledge;
- A willingness to keep an open mind;
- A skeptical mindset that can evaluate and reject false claims; and
- A distaste for dogmatism.
With such a weight of authorities recommending inquiry-based science education, one would expect that evolution would be routinely taught using the inquiry method — to wit, it would be taught scientifically. Policies that advocate teaching evolution scientifically (TES) would thereby require that students apply inquiry-based learning when studying evolution. Such an approach would encourage students to:
- Learn more about the science pertaining to evolution;
- Approach evolution skeptically, with an open mind about the accuracy or falsity of neo-Darwinian evolution;
- Avoid a dogmatic mindset, one way or the other, when investigating evolution;
- Logically and critically evaluate the evidence regarding evolution;
- Identify assumptions inherent in the arguments for evolution;
- Understand the ways that scientists support or challenge evolution;
- Learn about scientific disagreement about prevailing theories of evolution; and
- Consider alternative hypotheses to prevailing neo-Darwinian explanations of evolution.
Regrettably, many opponents of TES policies appear to not want students to seriously engage in such inquiry-based reasoning when studying evolution.
Thus, there is no small measure of hypocrisy that most of the science education authorities cited above laud the importance of inquiry-based science education — with all of its critical thinking, skepticism, and consideration of alternative explanations — but then effectively jettison such pedagogical philosophies when recommending methods of teaching evolution. As the NAS boldly declared in a 2008 booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism, “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,” and evolution is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter [it].”65 They even assert “there are no viable alternatives to evolution in the scientific literature” and “scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred.”66 Such a perspective does not instill in students the scientific values of skepticism or open mindedness, but instead instills in students an attitude inimical to the scientific method: dogmatism. Moreover, such pedagogical philosophies do not allow students to learn about evolution by critically investigating the evidence.
As would be expected, various educational authorities recommend one sided and dogmatic standards for students studying evolution. In its recommended standards for learning about evolution, the College Board suggests that students learn about evidence for evolution, but make no proscriptions for learning about scientific challenges to evolution:
The fossil record, particularly in invertebrates, provides evidence of biological evolution.67
Provide evidence — reported in print and electronic resources, and regarding similarities and differences between organisms from the fossil record and preserved DNA — that supports the idea of descent with modification. Explain how similarities and differences among organisms support the idea of descent with modification.68
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a dramatic effect on biology because of his use of clear and understandable argument and the inclusion of a massive array of evidence to support the argument.69
Likewise, the AAAS’s Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy expect students to see neo-Darwinism as a fully adequate scientific explanation, but make no requirements that students learn about scientific challenges to evolution:
By the end of the 12th grade, students should know that . . . [t]he theory of natural selection provides a scientific explanation or the history of life on earth as depicted in the fossil record and in the similarities evident within the diversity of existing organisms.70
By the end of the 12th grade, students should know that . . . [m]olecular evidence substantiates the anatomical evidence for evolution and provides additional detail about the sequence in which various lines of descent branched off from one another.71
Similarly, the NSES offers recommended science standards that essentially require students to assent to the view that evolution is supported by the evidence, without any suggested opportunities for students to study scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism:
The great diversity of organisms is the result of more than 3.5 billion years of evolution that has filled every available niche with life forms.72
Natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the fossil record of ancient life forms, as well as for the striking molecular similarities observed among the diverse species of living organisms.73
While it is both necessary and appropriate to teach students about the scientific evidence supporting evolution, such standards encourage students to treat evolution like dogma. They discourage students from questioning modern evolutionary biology, such as common descent or the sufficiency of natural selection to account for the adaptive complexity of life. Instead, they inculcate a tolerance for dogmatism and discourage students from asking fundamental questions about the sufficiency of modern evolutionary thinking.
Unsurprisingly, such modes of teaching evolution have become incorporated into state science standards. In 2008, Florida adopted science standards that followed the proscriptions of the NAS, namely, requiring students to learn evolution in an ardently pro-Darwin-only fashion:
- The scientific theory of evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.
- The scientific theory of evolution is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence.
- Organisms are classified based on their evolutionary history.
- Natural selection is a primary mechanism leading to evolutionary change.74
While there is nothing wrong with students learning about the scientific evidence supporting evolution or the importance that many scientists place on evolutionary biology, students were given no opportunity to investigate scientific dissent from Darwinism. Instead, various benchmarks have been adopted that essentially require uncritical assent to evolution by the student. Some of these standards were clearly modeled after the above, including:
Recognize that fossil evidence is consistent with the scientific theory of evolution that living things evolved from earlier species.75
Explore the scientific theory of evolution by recognizing and explaining ways in which genetic variation and environmental factors contribute to evolution by natural selection and diversity of organisms.76
Explain how the scientific theory of evolution is supported by the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology, and observed evolutionary change.77
Identify basic trends in hominid evolution from early ancestors six million years ago to modern humans, including brain size, jaw size, language, and manufacture of tools.78
Recognize that there are scientific explanations of how life began.79
Such standards are not intended to inculcate scientific values such as skepticism, openness to challenge, or consideration of alternative explanations. Bluntly stated, the goal of such standards is to guide students into accepting evolution, not to foster critical thinking or to encourage them to truly explore whether the scientific evidence supports, or does not support, neo-Darwinian evolution.
Dogmatic evolution standards are found in other state science guidelines, but only a couple more examples will suffice. California’s science standards require that “[s]tudents know how independent lines of evidence from geology, fossils, and comparative anatomy provide the bases for the theory of evolution,”80 without asking students to consider any evidence that does not support the theory of evolution. The New York State Science Standards call evolution “the central unifying theme of biology” and state it is “well documented by extensive evidence from a wide variety of sources.”81 The standards teach, without question, that “Natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the fossil record of ancient life-forms, as well as for the molecular and structural similarities observed among the diverse species of living organisms” and that “The diversity of life on Earth today is the result of natural selection.”82 The standards even uncritically assert that “Behaviors have evolved through natural selection. The broad patterns of behavior exhibited by organisms are those that have resulted in greater reproductive success.”83 Likewise, New Jersey requires students to learn that “[a]natomical evidence supports evolution and provides additional detail about the sequence of branching of various lines of descent” and that “[m]olecular evidence (e.g., DNA, protein structures, etc.) substantiates the anatomical evidence for evolution and provides additional detail about the sequence in which various lines of descent branched.”84 No requirement is made for students to learn about scientific evidence that challenges these viewpoints.
New Jersey’s standards further require students to understand that “[t]he principles of evolution (including natural selection and common descent) provide a scientific explanation for the history of life on Earth as evidenced in the fossil record and in the similarities that exist within the diversity of existing organisms.”85 While there should be no objections to learning about natural selection, such standards make no provision for students to learn about the many scientific viewpoints that question the adequacy of natural selection to explain the diversity of life.
Textbook publishers write textbooks which meet the science standards adopted by state educational authorities. Large states, such as California or Florida, are especially influential upon textbook content because publishers find it most economical to tailor their textbooks to satisfy the demands and requirements of the larger textbook markets. Since dogmatism in evolution education is required by these states, one-sided evolution education finds its way into textbooks nationwide.
For example, Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell’s textbook Biology: Concepts and Connections, forces students to engage in critical thinking exercises aimed at encouraging uncritical support for evolution, such as: “Write a paragraph briefly describing the evidence for evolution.”86
Likewise, Holt’s Life Science asks students to only consider how “organisms can be compared to support the theory of evolution[,]” or “how fossils provide evidence that organisms have evolved.”87 No opportunity is offered to encourage students to critically evaluate the theory and explore potential weaknesses in neo-Darwinism.
Sylvia S. Mader’s Essentials of Biology carefully steers students away from any meaningful, critical thought about evolution by asking students to “[e]xplain why evolution is no longer considered a hypothesis.”88 For students who cannot regurgitate from the text, the proper “answer” is given directly below the question, up-side-down, so students are not required to hunt for the “correct” answer.89 Mader’s answer states that “[e]volution is supported by many diverse and independent lines of evidence.”90 Again, no opportunity is given to students to challenge or explore counter-arguments to evolution.
Other textbooks such as Raven, Johnson, Losos, and Singer’s Biology, do not even ask questions allowing students to evaluate the evidence, instead they make dogmatic claims like, “the evidence for Darwin’s theory has become overwhelming” because “information from many different areas of biology — fields as different as anatomy, molecular biology, and biogeography — is only interpretable scientifically as the outcome of evolution.”91
Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine’s Biology provides yet another example of the faux inquiry-based learning employed when teaching evolution. The textbook recommends that teachers ask students, “Why do you think many scientists infer that birds evolved from dinosaurs?” implying that “scientists” would not challenge this hypothesis, even though some leading scientists have challenged the hypothesis that birds evolved from dinosaurs.92 Miller and Levine show the kind of inquiry commonly implemented in evolution instruction by asking, “[w]hat are the two alternative explanations for the evolution of modern birds?”93 Such a false choice does not encourage students to think outside of the evolutionary box created by the text; it encourages students to fundamentally take neo-Darwinian evolution as a given.
Many additional textbook examples could be given, but this matter is ultimately resolved upon the following questions: Will schools teach neo-Darwinian evolution as a dogma to be accepted but never questioned, or will they teach it as a science that is open to rigorous scientific investigation, inquiry, and debate? This author feels evolution can and should be taught as a science — encouraging students to truly explore the evidence for and against modern neo-Darwinian theory to form their own views. However, while leading science education authorities frequently laud inquiry-based instruction, they effectively jettison such pedagogical approaches to science education when recommending standards for teaching evolution, expecting students to learn neo-Darwinian evolution as unadulterated fact. Such evolution-education standards make their way into state science standards, which in turn influence textbooks and the classroom learning experience. The result: dumbed-down teaching of evolution as a dogma, not as a science. This is harmful to students because it does not foster scientific literacy, it does not teach them to think scientifically or skeptically about modern theories of biological origins, and it does not give them the mental tools or adequate access to the data to make up their minds on these fundamental questions about origins.
More pragmatically, teaching neo-Darwinism as unquestioned fact discourages curious minds from investigating fundamental questions about the sufficiency of modern evolutionary thinking. This has the effect of squashing student interest in pursuing science and impedes the progress of science. Whether students ultimately accept evolution or not, the result is a population that is less scientifically literate and is less interested in pursuing careers in science. Thus, teaching evolution dogmatically works directly against any attempts to solve the stated problems facing American science and science education today. Teaching evolution scientifically, however, could be the exact antidote needed to increase scientific literacy and foster student interest in studying and pursuing science — directly helping to solve current crises in American science education.