Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Evolution of the NABT Statement on the Teaching of Evolution

In Ireland, the Irish say, there is no future, only the past happening over and over — a sorrowful statement of resignation and frustration that reflects centuries of near-intractable sectarian and political strife. I sometimes feel the same way about the evolution/creation conflict: One hundred and fifteen years after Darwin's death there is no future, only the same, tired creationist arguments repeated over and over and the continuing expenditure of precious time and money to combat creationist nonsense — resources that could be applied to other problems.

Perhaps historian Gary Wills (1990) was correct when he wrote that the evolution/creation debate will never subside because "the Bible will never stop being the central book of Western culture." Richard Lewontin (1996) may also be right when he asserts that the scientific community has made little progress in convincing the public to embrace a scientific world view — including evolution — because hubris has blinded scientists to the fundamental distinctions between "elite" and "popular" culture. I suspect, however, that the cultural and philosophical reasons for the staying power of creationism and the intransigence of its proponents matter little to the average high school biology teacher when he or she is attacked for teaching evolution and unwittingly becomes a central player in a political struggle for control of the curriculum.

Unlike those of us who generally work behind the lines, as it were, dealing with the more global (read "safe") aspects of the evolution/creation conflict, teachers are at the front, dealing with direct challenges to their teaching from real students and real parents who have immediate questions and immediate demands. Some typical examples include:

  • "If you're going to teach your religion [evolution], you should teach mine [the Genesis story], too."
  • "Are you a Christian, or do you believe in evolution?"
  • "My parents say I don't have to listen to this stuff."
  • "It's only fair to have a creationist come to class to present the other side of the argument."
  • "There are lots of questions about evolution, and lots of scientists don't believe in evolution any more."

Discussions with teachers across the country confirm that challenges to the teaching of evolution are commonplace. There is evidence of correlation between such challenges and student attendance at events such as "Back to Genesis," a week-long seminar sponsored by the Institute for Creation Research and devoted to evolution-bashing and "creation science". For example, Danny Phillips, the Jefferson County, Colorado, high school student who challenged the use of the video The Miracle of Life and the BSCS textbook Biological Science: An Ecological Approach, attended a "Back to Genesis" seminar in Manitou Springs, just west of Colorado Springs (Matsumura 1996a, 1996b). There also is evidence that challenges to evolution increase in any given community following evolution/creation debates, a good reason to heed Eugenie Scott's advice that scientists inexperienced in such events should decline invitations to participate (Scott 1996).

Three unfortunate facts conspire to put most high school biology teachers at a severe disadvantage when challenges to evolution arise. First, few teachers are acquainted with the ever-evolving range of creationist arguments. Second, most teachers do not have enough background and training in the range of subjects and disciplines pertinent to evolution to respond effectively when parents or students confront them with those arguments. Third, teachers get little help from their administrators when creationists begin to make noise, because most administrators themselves do not understand evolution or its importance to biology cause they do not like controversy. Most administrators are more likely to compromise, or even capitulate completely to creationist demands, than they are to support their teachers or to protect the integrity of science. Many teachers, for example, have told me that their principals suggest that "it would be okay not to get to evolution" during the course of the school year, and others have told me that they simply avoid evolution because they do not want the controversy themselves, specially when their administrators fail to support them. It is, in fact, quite easy for teachers to avoid evolution, because most biology textbooks relegate the topic to one or two chapters, often near the end of the book, and do not integrate evolutionary perspectives throughout the program.

Against this distressing backdrop, the board of directors of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) appointed an ad hoc committee to prepare a new statement on the teaching of evolution. During the fall of 1994, the six-person committee, chaired by Dr. Richard Storey, chairman of biology at Colorado College, produced a document intended to:

  • provide support for biology teachers when they are confronted with challenges to the teaching of evolution;
  • reinforce the centrality of evolution to biology and to biology teaching;
  • summarize some of the most frequent creationist challenges to evolution theory and provide concise refutations thereof; and
  • summarize the major legal decisions related to the teaching of evolution to ensure biology teachers that the law is solidly in their corner.

Following approval by the NABT board in March, 1995, the statement appeared in January, 1996, in the Association's journal (The American Biology Teacher 1996 Jan; 58[1], pp 61-2) and in the second edition of Voices for Evolution published by NCSE in 1996.

NABT — comprising approximately 8,000 professionals who teach at the middle school, high school, and college levels — is the only professional society devoted exclusively to the teaching of biology. It is appropriate, therefore, that the society be on record with an unequivocal statement about the importance of teaching evolution, and it is imperative that the scientific and educational communities embrace the statement and support those teachers who put themselves on the line to defend the integrity of biology. The immediate future of the evolution/creation conflict likely holds few surprises, but the nation's biology teachers — and creationists — need to know that someone will be watching and responding as the past repeats itself over and over.

By Joseph E. McInerney
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.