The Constitutionality and Pedagogical Benefits of Teaching Evolution Scientifically

Casey Luskin
University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy
May 6, 2010

This article appears in the legal journal University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. IV(1):204-277 (Fall, 2009), published by University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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The Constitutionality and Pedagogical Benefits of Teaching Evolution ScientificallyThe inquiry method of teaching science stresses that students should understand not just scientific content, but also the processes of scientific investigation. The inquiry method of science education seeks to inculcate in students habits of mind employed by successful scientists such as open mindedness, skepticism, curiosity, and a distaste for dogmatism. This method expects students to analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations and explore alternative explanations, with the understanding that scientific knowledge is durable, yet tentative. While leading science education authorities regularly laud the importance of implementing the inquiry-method of teaching science, they effectively jettison this pedagogical philosophy when recommending standards for teaching evolution. Instead, they recommend teaching evolution as unadulterated fact, thereby losing many of the benefits gained from the inquiry method of science education. Case law shows that there are no legal obstacles to teaching “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories,” such as neo-Darwinian evolution, so long as such critiques are enacted for the purpose of enhancing the effectiveness of science education.  Given the prevalence of scientific criticisms of textbook treatments of neo-Darwinism in mainstream scientific literature, and the well-recognized pedagogical benefits of using the inquiry method in teaching science, school boards will readily find the secular justification needed to study evolution objectively, skeptically, and critically—to wit, to treat neo-Darwinism like a science in the science classroom. Three case studies are provided to show how teaching evolution as a science—i.e. truly using the inquiry method in evolution instruction—allows students to explore key questions within modern evolutionary biology, resulting in many pedagogical benefits.

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.” Indeed, the President’s inaugural address even pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” 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.”

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.

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