Darwinian Dictates

Original Article

Public education curricula in the United States have traditionally been controlled by local and state boards of education, but under newly crafted national guidelines called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), K-12 public school students across the country may learn essentially the same uniform science curriculum, one that proselytizes for Darwinism.

The drive to nationalize science standards intensified in 2009 when a study found American students had fallen to 23rd in science internationally, ranking behind China, Japan, Germany, and Canada. In 2011 the National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, released its Framework for K-12 Science Education, outlining specific science content and thinking skills that students should learn. The nonprofit corporation coordinated the team that drafted the final NGSS, published in April of this year.

Five states so far—Rhode Island, Kentucky, Maryland, Vermont, and Kansas—have adopted the standards, and states including California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Washington will soon be considering them. Proponents argue that nationalized standards will ensure a higher quality of instruction regardless of state or local policies. Critics respond that these national standards weren’t developed through a democratic, publicly transparent process. The NGSS drafting process excluded Darwin-skeptical groups and invited pro-Darwin advocacy groups like the National Center for Science Education.

NGSS makes biological evolution a “core idea” and urges that by the third grade students should be presented with “evidence of common ancestry” of humans and animals. Middle-school students should “infer evolutionary relationships,” and in high school they should hear that “common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”

NGSS requires students to learn that similarities among vertebrate embryos indicate common ancestry, but says nothing about the significant differences between embryos in their earliest stages. A 2010 paper in the world’s foremost science journal, Nature, explained, “Counter to the expectations of early embryonic [similarities], many studies have shown that there is often remarkable divergence between related species both early and late in development.” Under the NGSS, such evidence would be excluded.

Once students hit high school, NGSS has them learning that “similarities in DNA sequences” across different species also support common ancestry. But NGSS does not note that the scientific literature is filled with studies where DNA similarities conflict with the predictions of common ancestry. A 2009 article in New Scientist, “Why Darwin Was Wrong About the Tree of Life,” observed, “Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded.”

Although NGSS encourages inquiry-based learning and lauds “open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism … and honest and ethical reporting of findings,” it downplays those virtues when it comes to teaching evolution. The evolution section does mention, though, that students should “evaluate the evidence behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments,” and that may provide a bit of cover to teachers who emphasize open-mindedness on evolution.

Polls suggest most parents will find the NGSS objectionable not because students will learn about biological evolution, but because they will hear only the evidence for Darwinism and none against it. According to a 2009 Zogby poll, 78 percent of likely American voters agree that “Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.”

Some states are resisting NGSS. Barbara Cargill, chair of the Texas State Board of Education, says Texas has a “zero percent chance” of adopting the new national standards. This is largely because in 2009 Texas completed an arduous process of updating its own science standards, which now require students to “analyze and evaluate” Darwinian concepts like common ancestry and natural selection.

In other states, teachers who cover required NGSS elements may still have freedom to discuss additional evidence. Tennessee, for example, is one of 26 “leading state partners” that helped draft NGSS, and has pledged to consider implementing them. But last year Tennessee adopted an academic freedom law, encouraging teachers to discuss both the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics like climate change and biological evolution.

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.