Controversy over life’s origins

Students should learn to assess competing theories

Original Article
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. A school district in Dover, Pa., for example, has attracted national media attention by mandating that its students learn about the new theory of intelligent design.

Of course, many educators wish such controversies would simply go away. If, on the one hand, science teachers teach only Darwinian evolution, many parents and religious activists will protest. On the other, if teachers present creationism, they run afoul of U.S. 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?

Rather than ignoring the controversy or teaching ideas based in religion, teachers should teach about the scientific debate over Darwinian evolution.

A good education presents students with competing perspectives held by credible experts, and offers them the skills to judge these views themselves.

In such cases, teachers should not teach only one view as true. Instead, teachers should describe differing 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. Discoveries in molecular genetics and embryology have also challenged universal common ancestry.

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. For example, more than 330 scientists, including professors from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale and Rice universities, along with the Smithsonian Institution, have signed a statement authored by the Discovery Institute in Seattle that questions 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 telltale signs of actual or “intelligent” design. Prominent scientists, such as Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe and Dean Kenyon, the emeritus San Francisco State University biophysicist, 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 Darwinism. Clearly, teachers should also be free to tell their students about alternative new theories such as Behe’s design theory, provided these theories are based (as Behe’s is) upon scientific evidence, not biblical passages.

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

First, constitutional law permits it. In Edwards vs. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures (and by extension state boards) already have the right to mandate teaching scientific critiques of prevailing theories. Interestingly, the court also determined that teachers have the right to teach students about “a variety of scientific theories about origins . .. with the clear secular intent of enhancing science education.”

Second, federal education policy calls for it. The authoritative report 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 more than 70 percent of the electorate (both in California and nationally) favors 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 Charles Darwin wrote in the “On 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. in philosophy of science from Cambridge University. Campbell is a professor of communications at the University of Memphis and an expert on the argument of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Both are senior fellows at the Discovery Institute in Seattle (