Like the vast majority of people in the state, I believe that students should be able to learn about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. A Zogby poll, taken during the development of the state science standards, revealed that 82 percent of Minnesotans agree that “When Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also learn how scientists continue to critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” Support was even broader among college graduates.
Accurate teaching of evolution (along with the continuing debate) could be improved greatly by educating students about the important difference between microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution refers to variation within a species. There is 100 percent consensus in this “fact of evolution,” as we see it every day in instances like the breeding of dogs and the creation of hybrid corn seed.
The debate among scientists appears when discussions turn to macroevolution or the development of new species, new body plans and unique organs. Many scientists now question the mechanism generating the large amount of change required to account for the completely novel organs or body plans that suddenly emerge in the fossil record. Teaching students about the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution will lead to a deeper understanding of the debate.
Students should also be able to learn about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of chemical origin-of-life scenarios. New scientific evidence has shed new light on old theories about the origin of life.
Unfortunately this approach is not being followed in all classrooms. Some evolutionists go too far when they insist that evolution should be taught completely without criticism. There is no valid reason to shield students from scientific criticisms about key parts of evolutionary or any other scientific theory.
This can be accomplished by making students aware of peer-reviewed literature and mainstream publications containing scientific criticisms of aspects of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories. Today’s biology textbooks can be augmented by more current information available on the Internet.
Intelligent design (ID) theory is an emerging scientific challenger to neo-Darwinian theory. ID holds that certain aspects of living things and the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than unintelligent causes alone.
(Examples include random mutation and natural selection.) While ID is an interesting and growing scientific topic, it is an emerging theory and should be allowed but not mandated by the state.
It is against the law for public schools to instruct students in creationism. Creationism depends on scripture; ID depends on science.
Teaching about the scientific critiques of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theory does not involve the teaching of religion, or even involve the teaching of an alternative scientific theory. The law recognizes this as well. The Supreme Court has made clear that students could be taught about “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.”
Minnesota’s new science standard requires that students “will be able to explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including but not limited to … [the] theory of evolution.”
We also should not ignore the guidance provided in the report language of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which urges adoption of a science curriculum that “help[s] students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist” about controversial subjects “such as biological evolution.”
Recently, high school biology teachers in the state have started teaching their students how scientists critically analyze Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is clear that the scientific strengths and weaknesses for Darwin’s theory can be presented in a way that does not require the science teacher to cross over into religious or philosophical grounds.
Adopting these improvements will help teach the skills of analysis and critical deliberation that are central to a quality education.
My hope is that teachers are allowed to cover evolution in an intellectually honest and scientifically accurate manner.
Students need to know about the theory of evolution in order to be scientifically literate, but they need to learn about it in a way that promotes continuing inquiry and analysis, not Darwinian dogmatism.
Now that our state science standards endorse this concept, many more students will benefit from a clear, honest presentation of Darwin’s theory.
Dave Eaton is a member of the Minnetonka school board and of the Minnesota Standards Writing Committee.