Teach The Controversy

Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell
The Baltimore Sun
March 11, 2005
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NOTE: The Baltimore Sun today published a shortened version of this piece. It is posted here in its entirety. This article explains and makes the case for Discovery Institute’s Policy on how to teach the controversy over Darwinism in the classroom.

What should public schools teach about life’s origins? Should science educators teach only contemporary Darwinian theory, or not even mention it? Should school boards mandate that students learn about alternative theories? If so, which ones? Or should schools forbid discussion of all theories except neo-Darwinism?

These questions are now arising frequently as districts around the country consider how to respond to the growing controversy over biological origins.

Of course, many educators wish such controversies would simply go away. On the one hand, if science teachers teach only Darwinian evolution, many parents and religious activists will protest. On the other, if teachers present religiously-based creationism, they run afoul Supreme Court rulings. Either way, it seems educators face a no-win situation.

So what should they do? Is there any approach that will satisfy—if not everybody—at least most reasonable people?

Surprisingly, there is a way to teach evolution that will benefit students and satisfy all but the most extreme ideologues.

Rather than ignoring the controversy or teaching religiously-based ideas, teachers should teach about the scientific controversy that now exists over Darwinian evolution.

This is simply good education.

When credible experts disagree about a controversial subject, students should learn about competing perspectives.

In such cases teachers should not teach as true only one view—just the Republican or just the Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. We call this "teaching the controversy."

But is there really a scientific, as opposed to just a cultural or religious controversy, over evolution?

In fact there are several significant scientific controversies about key aspects of evolutionary theory.

First, some scientists doubt the idea that all organisms have evolved from a single common ancestor. Why? Fossil studies reveal "a biological big bang" near the beginning of the Cambrian period (530 million years ago) when many major, separate groups of organisms or "phyla" (including most animal body plans) emerged suddenly without clear precursors. Fossil finds repeatedly have confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms—not the gradual “branching-tree” pattern implied by Darwin’s common ancestry thesis.

Other scientists doubt the creative power of the Darwinian mechanism. While many scientists accept that natural selection can produce small-scale “micro-evolutionary” variations, many biologists now doubt that natural selection and random mutations can generate the large-scale changes necessary to produce fundamentally new structures and forms of life. Over 350 scientists, including researchers from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale, Rice, and the Smithsonian, have signed a statement questioning the creative power of the selection/mutation mechanism.

Finally, some scientists doubt the Darwinian idea that living things merely “appear” designed. Instead, they think that living systems display tell-tale signs of actual or “intelligent” design. Prominent scientists, like Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe and former San Francisco State University biophysicist Dean Kenyon, have cited intriguing evidence in support of this theory such as the presence of digital information, complex circuits and miniature motors in living cells. Recently, mainstream academic publishers, notably Cambridge University Press, have published books and articles that present the scientific case for, and the debate over, intelligent design.

Since intelligent design is a new theory of biological origins, we recommend that students not be required to learn about it. Nevertheless, we think they should learn about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of orthodox Darwinism. Clearly, teachers should also be free to tell their students about alternative new theories like Behe’s design theory, provided these theories are based (as Behe’s is) upon scientific evidence, not scriptural texts.

There are many reasons to adopt this “teach the controversy” approach.

First, constitutional law permits it. In the controlling Edwards v. Aguillard case, the Supreme Court ruled that it is permissible to teach students about both alternative scientific theories of origins and scientific criticism of prevailing theories.

Second, federal education policy calls for it. The authoritative report language accompanying the No Child Left Behind act states that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of views that exist."

Third, polls show that over 70% of the electorate favor teaching both the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Finally, teaching scientific controversies engages student interest and encourages them to do what scientists must do—deliberate about how best to interpret evidence. As Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species, "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."

Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell are the editors of the recently released book Darwinism, Design and Public Education from Michigan State University Press. Meyer earned his Ph.D. Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University and is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Campbell is Professor of Communications at University of Memphis and a leading expert on the argument of Darwin’s Origin of Species.