In February a Shelby County school board member suggested placing a sticker on high school biology textbooks urging students to consider “all theories” of origins “with an open mind.” This proposal is a symptom of a growing national controversy about how best to teach Darwinian evolution in public school science classrooms.
For example, a suburban Atlanta school district in Cobb County, Ga., proposed a similar textbook sticker warning students that evolution is a “theory, not a fact.” That proposal was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, but is being appealed. More recently, the ACLU has sued the Dover, Pa., school district for requiring ninth-grade students to listen to a prepared statement telling them about the theory of “intelligent design” as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.
Our national debate about how to teach evolution has exposed a tension between two competing principles, each indispensable to our way of life: Our commitment to scientific investigation and our commitment to democracy.
Science is not democratic. Discoveries about nature are not made by consulting public opinion. Nor are they confirmed by popular vote — even within the scientific community.
Equally important, however, is our commitment to the democratic principle that encourages parents and other citizens to participate in the education of our children and to question what — and how well — our future citizens are being taught.
Is there a way to reconcile these competing principles in science education? If so, how? Specifically, how should we teach an important scientific theory — namely, Darwinian evolution — that divides our culture philosophically, religiously and even scientifically? Is there a way forward that avoids court battles on the one hand, and alienating parents and students on the other?
We think there is a constructive way to advance science education that also gives students and parents from a diversity of perspectives a stake in the biology curriculum.
We propose that teachers should present Darwin’s theory of evolution as Charles Darwin himself did: as a credible but contestable argument. Rather than teaching Darwin’s theory as an incontrovertible “truth,” teachers should present the main arguments for Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate them critically — as they would any other theory, whether new or long established.
There are several good reasons for teaching science and Darwinian evolution this way.
First, teaching science as argument helps students understand the nature of science. Contrary to the “technicians in white coats” stereotype of science, in which it is assumed facts generate scientific theories in an almost automatic way, scientists typically deliberate — and argue — about how best to interpret evidence.
As the Italian philosopher of science Marcello Pera has shown, scientific understanding advances as competing teams of researchers offer alternative explanations for experimental results. Students who learn the arguments for and against a given theory, or for and against two or more competing theories, are learning not only what science teaches but also how scientists reason. In learning about Copernicus, which of us did not also learn about the stationary-Earth views of Ptolemy and Aristotle? Why not extend the principle we call “teaching the controversies” (teaching science as argument) to all scientific theories?
Second, teaching science as an argument helps prepare students to be informed citizens. Today’s science education must prepare future citizens to decide many issues requiring scientific knowledge — from personal health care issues to public health care policy, stem cell research, end-of-life questions, environmental policy and decisions about government funding of scientific research. Teaching scientific ideas and theories — Darwin’s included — openly and critically not only helps teachers prepare their students for possible careers in science, but also helps prepare citizens to make informed decisions vital to their health, to public health and to the very future of science.
To his great credit, Darwin included in “The Origin of Species” every objection he could think of. When evolution is taught as Darwin himself presented it — as a theory resting on a large and diverse body of facts, but one from which thoughtful people (and scientists) can nevertheless dissent — fewer parents will object to their children learning about it.
Further, when training in argument is recognized as the center of science education, and science education is seen as an extension of the civic education vital to a democratic and pluralistic culture, we will be able to turn the heat of our longstanding cultural debate over evolution into needed educational light.
The opening sentence of the final chapter of Darwin’s Origin should guide school board members and educators as they shape science education policy and curriculum: “This whole volume is one long argument…”