Why We Held Back

The Consequences for Neglecting to Teach Evolution

   By Dr. William Thwaites   

Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) gave a loud and clear message for public school teachers while she was at Oregon State University last November. In short, the message was: TEACH EVOLUTION!

Scott gave lots of reasons why teachers should make evolution the centerpiece of biology courses. These ranged from the fact that evolution is the unifying theorem of the biological sciences to the fact that the NCSE stands ready to defend teachers who anticipate objections from irate parents who don't want their children to learn about evolution. Had I been a secondary education student who attended any of her presentations, I would demand that evolution be adequately covered and accurately presented in my classes.

But forty years ago when I first went out to teach eighth grade general science there was no NCSE. Teachers were fired because they tried to teach evolution. In fact, the position that I assumed in Monterey, California, was left vacant by a teacher who had attempted to weave evolution into the general science curriculum. That curriculum included a dash of astronomy, a bit of physics and electricity, a unit on health and another vaguely defined area called Life in the Sea. I saw that it would be easy to leave out evolution and avoid the fate of my predecessor. And that's exactly what I did.

At the secondary level similar decisions are still being made today. Surveys of secondary teachers from public schools indicate that the situation is much the same as it was four decades ago. This is true in spite of the best efforts of NCSE. Often evolution is glossed over, identified only as "change through time," or ignored completely. The big changes that have occurred in the teaching of biology and evolution have taken place at the university level.

But 35 years ago, even university level biology courses often covered evolution in a cursory manner. When I went to work as an assistant professor of biology at San Diego State College in 1965, most professors treated evolution in much the same way as secondary teachers do today. They spent very little time on evolution and none who I knew of used evolution as the unifying principal in biology.

Of course there were no monkey laws that restricted the teaching of evolution at public colleges and universities, yet most biology professors avoided making any kind of a case for evolution. Why would they have done that? What was holding them back? It certainly wasn't fear. There was academic freedom at the university level, especially for important and fundamental subjects such as evolution.

I think there are at least two reasons that professors went light on evolution. First, there was a matter of courtesy to religious students. Second, there was a gross underestimate of the frequency of fundamentalist students attending universities. Professors generally assumed that less than one percent of their students would have religiously motivated doubts about evolution. So the reasoning of many biology professors went something like this: "If one percent of my students would be deeply offended by the teaching of evolution, why not spare them the anguish? After all, more than 99% of the students fully accept evolution. Why bother the small minority for so little a percentage gain? Fundamentalist students, if any, probably wouldn't accept evolution anyway, since they would fear going to hell if they did accept it."

This sort of thinking largely disappeared in the 1980s. Increasingly both the evidence for, and the operational theory underlying, biological evolution are given adequate and appropriate coverage in introductory biology classes. The reason for this about face can be summarized in one word Creationism. Specifically, I refer to what its proponents call Scientific Creationism and its opponents often call Young Earth Creationism.

This scientific creationism movement got its start in the wake of Epperson vs. Arkansas in the late 1960s. That Supreme Court decision, you may recall, declared that the right of students to learn all of science superceded the right of religious students to be protected from the parts of science that conflicted with the tenets of their beliefs. Thus laws that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools were declared unconstitutional.

As soon as scientific creationism became known to journalists and pollsters, data and reports flowed forth. Survey data showed that nearly 50% of the general population and 25% of university graduates flatly rejected evolution. Other surveys showed that somewhere between 70 and 85% of the general public thought that both creationism and evolution should be taught in public school science classes.

What is more, biology professors saw that there were people with Ph.D. degrees from Harvard, California Tech. and Cal. Berkeley who were writing books claiming that the evidence supporting evolution, which had been accumulated over the last 300 years, didn't mean a thing. Professors saw that mainstream journalists were taking the creationists seriously. And they discovered that their graduates couldn't defend evolution against the flimsiest of attacks from scientific creationists. Clearly the universities were doing a poor job of eliminating ignorance and superstition.

There followed a general reassessment of biology teaching at the university level. Professors realized they should not have been so polite. They concluded also that they should have had a better idea of how widespread was the opposition to evolution. They should not have assumed that students already understood that science dealt with testable notions, that supernatural ideas are not testable, that natural science was so named because it specifically confines itself to natural phenomena, and that popular notions of evolution are simplistic and misleading.

The response to the creationism-inspired wake-up call is still taking place. An article in the January 2000 issue of the American Biology Teacher concludes that at least a fifth of secondary science teachers in their Indiana survey had strong doubts as to the scientific validity of evolutionary theory, that humans are the result of evolutionary process, that evolution is supported by available evidence, that the Earth is as old as geologic evidence says it is, and that evolutionary theory is able to explain biological phenomena. Their results show that there is little difference between the general public and secondary science teachers when it comes to attitudes towards evolution and the understanding of evolutionary theory.

The authors recommend that science teachers be required to take specific course work in evolution and in the nature of science. Even with the many improvements in the teaching of biology at the university level, the evidence suggests that at least one out of five secondary science teachers has been able to avoid learning about evolution and understanding the basic workings of science.

Certainly there is room for improvement.

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© 2000 Oregonians for Rationality