Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Helping Schools to Teach Evolution

In the August 7, 1998 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University, explained why the National Academy of Science had produced a handbook for K-12 teachers on "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science" (see article this issue). After discussing the importance of evolution education and the pressures that prevent the teaching of evolution, Kennedy went on to describe the lessons he learned from media and public reaction.

... The publication was front-page news and the subject of editorials in several daily newspapers.I was asked to discuss the booklet on radio talk shows, in television interviews, and even in a debate on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

I am now more worried about the chilling effect of creationism on teachers than I am about explicit bans by states or local school boards on teaching evolution. When I participated in a talk show on Wisconsin Public Radio, a high-school teacher called in to say that, although he wasn't proud of his actions, he had decided to duck the whole issue by leaving evolution out of his course. He had a family, he told me, and they had to get along in a small community. Other callers spoke of trying to combine good teaching with a respect for the situations that many of their students were facing outside the classroom. I am full of admiration for most teachers and impressed, at the same time, with the seriousness of the problems they have to overcome.

The News Hour with Jim Lehrer presented the issue as a debate: two biologists versus two creationists.One creationist was a very thoughtful young teacher from a Christian high school, who professed admiration for the booklet and said that he had no problem with crediting small biological changes to evolution, but that he thought that evolutionists hadn't given satisfactory accounts of big biological changes.The other creationist, a dean at a fundamentalist Christian university, insisted on a literal biblical interpretation of creation and said that evolutionists were "brainwashing" their students while supported by tax dollars.I found particularly telling his charge that many evolutionary biologists are atheists; the claim that scientists (and thus science) are inherently antireligious is a perennial feature of the creationist case.

Perhaps the most useful lesson of these and other discussions is how important it is for scientists to treat religious conviction with respect — in particular, not to suggest, even indirectly, that science and religion are unalterably opposed. Most major religions have found ways to reconcile evolution and theology; a papal decree accepting evolution has made this absolutely clear for Catholics, for example. Indeed, the conflict between science and religion has surfaced only in one or two countries besides the United States. More important, most scientists have been able to combine their personal religious convictions and their work in science without difficulty. Obviously, some scientists have no formal religious commitments and do not worship. But others do, including colleagues of mine who engage the subject of evolution in their work — and they find no difficulty whatever in reconciling their beliefs with their science.

Scientists at colleges and universities have an important stake in the resolution of the conflict between creationism and evolution. Alabama — the state that gave us EO Wilson, perhaps the most important evolutionary biologist of his generation — recently refused to distribute the NAS's booklet to teachers in its schools. In many other states, students also are entering college with little knowledge of evolution, and thus an incomplete understanding of the natural world. Unless those of us in higher education begin to take an active role in shaping what elementary and secondary students learn about science — and in assisting local teachers who must walk a tightrope in even introducing the topic — a determined minority will continue to deprive our future students of one of the foundations of scientific literacy.
By Donald Kennedy
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.