What should public schools teach about the origin and development of life? Should science educators teach only Darwinian theory? 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?
The Kansas State Board of Education is holding hearings to determine what Kansas students should learn about Darwinian evolution and to address some of these very questions.
Of course, many educators wish such controversies would simply go away. If science teachers teach only Darwinian evolution, many parents and religious activists will protest. But if teachers present religiously based ideas, they run afoul of Supreme Court rulings.
We think there is a more constructive way to advance science education that also gives students and parents a diversity of perspectives at stake in the biology curriculum.
Teach it as a theory
We propose that teachers should present Darwin’s theory of evolution as Darwin himself did, as a credible, but contestable, argument. Rather than teaching Darwinian evolution as an incontrovertible ”truth,” teachers should present the main arguments for contemporary Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate these arguments 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 scientific controversies and arguments helps students understand the nature of science. Contrary to the ”technicians in white coats” stereotype of science, in which it is assumed that facts generate scientific theories in an almost automatic way, scientists typically deliberate, and argue, about how best to interpret evidence.
Second, teaching current scientific arguments for and against a theory is necessary to give students an accurate understanding of the current status of a theory. And, in the case of contemporary Darwinism, there are significant scientific criticisms of the theory that students should know about.
For example, some scientists doubt the idea that all organisms have evolved from a single common ancestor. 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 — including most animal body plans — emerged suddenly without clear precursors. This directly challenges the Darwinian picture of the history of life stemming from one fully connected branching-tree.
For this reason, nearly 400 Ph.D.-level scientists, including researchers from institutions such as MIT, Yale and the Smithsonian, have recently signed a statement questioning the creative power of the natural selection mechanism. Fifteen such dissenting scientists were among those testifying to encourage the Kansas State Board to adopt a more inclusive controversy-based curriculum.
Shouldn’t informed biology students know that some scientists question key aspects of evolutionary theory and why they do?
It seems like a majority of the public thinks so. Interestingly, polls from 2001 to 2004 show that more than 70 percent of the electorate favors teaching both the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory of evolution.
And the federal education policy calls for it. The authoritative report language accompanying the No Child Left Behind law 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.”
Finally, teaching science as argument helps prepare students to be informed citizens. Today’s science education must prepare citizens to decide many issues requiring scientific knowledge — from personal health-care issues to stem-cell research, end-of-life questions, environmental policy, and decisions about government funding of scientific research.
Teaching scientific controversies engages student interest and encourages them to do what scientists must do — deliberate about how best to interpret evidence.
As school boards and educators shape science education policy and curriculum, they should remember what Darwin himself wrote in ”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.”