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Religion Doesn’t Belong in Public Schools, but Debate Over Darwinian Evolution Does

Students need to learn about Darwinian evolution. But they also deserve to hear countervailing scientific evidence – evidence that is censored in many current textbooks. Published in Christian Science Monitor

Critical inquiry and freedom for credible dissent are vital to good science. Sadly, when it comes to biology textbooks, American high school students are learning that stubborn groupthink can suppress responsible debate.

In recent weeks, the media have been buzzing over a decision by the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt biology textbooks. A Fox News summary read “Louisiana committee rejects calls to include debate over creationism in state-approved biology textbooks….” There was one problem with the story. Leading critics of evolution in Louisiana were not asking that public schools debate creationism, or even that they teach intelligent design. Rather, they wanted schools to simply teach the scientific debate over Darwinian evolution.

The controversy began because the biology textbooks up for adoption in Louisiana teach the neo-Darwinian model as settled fact, giving students no opportunity to weigh the pros and cons and consider evidence on both sides.

So much for critical thinking

One textbook under review (“Biology: Concepts and Connections”) offers this faux critical thinking exercise: “Write a paragraph briefly describing the kinds of evidence for evolution.” No questions ask students to identify evidence that counters evolutionary biology, because no such evidence is presented in the text. If the modern version of Charles Darwin’s theory is as solid as most scientists say, textbooks shouldn’t be afraid to teach countervailing evidence as part of a comprehensive approach. Yet students hear only the prevailing view.

Is this the best way to teach science? Earlier this year a paper in the journal Science tried to answer that question, and found that students learn science best when they are asked “to discriminate between evidence that supports … or does not support” a given scientific concept. Unfortunately, the Darwin camp ignores these pedagogical findings and singles out evolution as the only topic where dissenting scientific viewpoints are not allowed.

Courts have uniformly found that creationism is a religious viewpoint and thus illegal to teach in public school science classes. By branding scientific views they dislike as “religion” or “creationism,” the Darwin lobby scares educators from presenting contrary evidence or posing critical questions — a subtle but effective form of censorship.

The media fall prey to this tactic, resulting in articles that confuse those asking for scientific debate with those asking for the teaching of religion. And Darwin’s defenders come off looking like heroes, not censors.

Those who love the First Amendment should be outraged. In essence, the Darwin lobby is taking the separation of church and state — a good thing — and abusing it to promote censorship. But one can be a critic of neo-Darwinism without advocating creationism.

Valid doubts

Eugene Koonin is a senior research scientist at the National Institutes of Health and no friend of creationism or intelligent design. Last year, he stated in the journal Trends in Genetics that breakdowns in core neo-Darwinian tenets such as the “traditional concept of the tree of life” or “natural selection is the main driving force of evolution” indicate that the modern synthesis of evolution “has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.”

Likewise, the late Phil Skell, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, considered himself a skeptic of both intelligent design and neo-Darwinian evolution. He took issue with those who claim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” because, according to Dr. Skell, in most biology research, “Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.”

In a 2005 letter to an education committee in South Carolina, Skell wrote: “Evolution is an important theory and students need to know about it. But scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as well.”

Skell was right, and polls show that more than 75 percent of Americans agree with him. The Louisiana textbook debate reflects the public’s gross dissatisfaction with the quality of evolution instruction in biology textbooks.

The Louisiana Board should be applauded for rejecting censorship and adopting the disputed textbooks despite their biased coverage of evolution. Students need to learn about the evidence supporting the evolutionary viewpoint, and the textbooks present that side of this debate. But the books themselves should not be praised because they censor from students valid scientific questions about neo-Darwinian concepts — concepts that are instead taught as unquestioned scientific fact.

Students are the real losers here, because they are not taught the critical thinking skills they need to evaluate questions about evolution and become good scientists. When we start using the First Amendment as it was intended — as a tool to increase freedom of inquiry and promote access to scientific information — then perhaps these divisive controversies will finally go away.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.