After months of debate, the Ohio State Board of Education unanimously adopted science standards on Dec. 10 that require Ohio students to know "how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."
Ohio thus becomes the first state to mandate that students learn not only scientific evidence that supports Darwin's theory but also scientific evidence critical of it. While the new science standards do not compel Ohio's school districts to offer a specific curriculum, Ohio students will need to know about scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory in order to pass graduation tests required for a high-school diploma.
Ohio is not the only place where public officials are broadening the curriculum to include scientific criticisms of evolution. In September the Cobb County School District in Georgia, one of the largest suburban school districts in the nation, adopted a policy encouraging teachers to discuss "disputed views" about evolution as part of a "balanced education." And last year, Congress in the conference report to the landmark No Child Left Behind Act urged schools to inform students of "the full range of scientific views" when covering controversial scientific topics "such as biological evolution."
After years of being marginalized, critics of Darwin's theory seem to be gaining ground. What is going on? And why now?
Two developments have been paramount.
First, there has been growing public recognition of the shoddy way evolution is actually taught in many schools. Thanks to the book "Icons of Evolution" by biologist Jonathan Wells, more people know about how biology textbooks perpetuate discredited "icons" of evolution that many biologists no longer accept as good science. Embryo drawings purporting to prove Darwin's theory of common ancestry continue to appear in many textbooks despite the embarrassing fact that they have been exposed as fakes originally concocted by 19th-century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. Textbooks likewise continue to showcase microevolution in peppered moths as evidence for Darwin's mechanism of natural selection even though the underlying research is now questioned by many biologists.
When not offering students bogus science, the textbooks ignore real and often heated scientific disagreements over evolutionary theory. Few students ever learn, for example, about vigorous debates generated by the Cambrian Explosion, a huge burst in the complexity of living things more than 500 million years ago that seems to outstrip the known capacity of natural selection to produce biological change.
Teachers who do inform students about some of Darwinism's unresolved problems often face persecution by what can only be termed the Darwinian thought police. In Washington state, a well-respected biology teacher who wanted to tell students about scientific debates over things like Haeckel's embryos and the peppered moth was ultimately driven from his school district by local Darwinists.
Science is supposed to prize open minds and critical thinking. Yet the theory of evolution is typically presented today completely uncritically, as a dogma to be accepted rather than as a theory to be explored and questioned. Is it any wonder that policymakers and the public are growing skeptical of such a one-sided approach?
A second development fueling recent gains by Darwin's critics has been the demise of an old stereotype.
For years, Darwinists successfully shut down any public discussion of Darwinian evolution by stigmatizing every critic of Darwin as a Biblical literalist intent on injecting Genesis into biology class. While Darwinists still try that tactic, their charge is becoming increasingly implausible, even ludicrous. Far from being uneducated Bible-thumpers, the new critics of evolution hold doctorates in biology, biochemistry, mathematics and related disciplines from secular universities, and many of them teach or do research at American universities. They are scientists like Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, University of Idaho microbiologist Scott Minnich, and Baylor University philosopher and mathematician William Dembski.
The ranks of these academic critics of Darwin are growing. During the past year, more than 150 scientists — including faculty and researchers at such institutions as Yale, Princeton, MIT, and the Smithsonian — adopted a statement expressing skepticism of neo-Darwinism's central claim that "random mutation and natural selection account for the complexity of life."
Deprived of the stock response that all critics of Darwin must be stupid fundamentalists, some of Darwin's public defenders have taken a page from the playbook of power politics: If you can't dismiss your opponents, demonize them.
In Ohio critics of Darwinism were compared to the Taliban, and Ohioans were warned that the effort to allow students to learn about scientific criticisms of Darwin was part of a vast conspiracy to impose nothing less than a theocracy. Happily for good science education (and free inquiry), the Ohio Board of Education saw through such overheated rhetoric. So did 52 Ohio scientists (many on the faculties of Ohio universities) who publicly urged the Ohio Board to require students to learn about scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory.
The renewed debate over how to teach evolution is not likely to stop with Ohio.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, every state must enact statewide science assessments within five years. As other states prepare to fulfill this new federal mandate, one of the looming questions will be what students should learn about evolution. Will they learn only the scientific evidence that favors the theory, or will they be exposed to its scientific criticisms as well?
Ohio has set a standard other states would do well to follow.
— John West is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and chair of the department of political science at Seattle Pacific University.