National Science Teachers Association (1997)

An NSTA Position Statement: The Teaching of Evolution

Introductory Remarks

The National Science Teachers Association supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept of science and should be included as part of K–College science frameworks and curricula. NSTA recognizes that evolution has not been emphasized in science curricula in a manner commensurate to its importance because of official policies, intimidation of science teachers, the general public's misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and a century of controversy.

Furthermore, teachers are being pressured to introduce creationism, creation "science," and other nonscientific views, which are intended to weaken or eliminate the teaching of evolution.

Within this context, NSTA recommends that:

  • Science curricula and teachers should emphasize evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance as a unifying concept in science, and its overall explanatory power.
  • Policy makers and administrators should not mandate policies requiring the teaching of creation science, or related concepts such as so-called "intelligent design," "abrupt appearance," and "arguments against evolution."
  • Science teachers should not advocate any religious view about creation, nor advocate the converse: that there is no possibility of supernatural influence in bringing about the universe as we know it. Teachers should be nonjudgmental about the personal beliefs of students.
  • Administrators should provide support to teachers as they design and implement curricula that emphasize evolution. This should include inservice education to assist teachers to teach evolution in a comprehensive and professional manner. Administrators also should support teachers against pressure to promote nonscientific views or to diminish or eliminate the study of evolution.
  • Parental and community involvement in establishing the goals of science education and the curriculum development process should be encouraged and nurtured in our democratic society. However, the professional responsibility of science teachers and curriculum specialists to provide students with quality science education should not be bound by censorship, pseudoscience, inconsistencies, faulty scholarship, or unconstitutional mandates.
  • Science textbooks shall emphasize evolution as a unifying concept. Publishers should not be required or volunteer to include disclaimers in textbooks concerning the nature and study of evolution.

NSTA offers the following background information:

The Nature of Science, and Scientific Theories

Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. The methodology of science emphasizes the logical testing of alternate explanations of natural phenomena against empirical data. Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces, because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.

The most important scientific explanations are called "theories." In ordinary speech, "theory" is often used to mean "guess," or "hunch," whereas in scientific terminology, a theory is a set of universal statements that explain the natural world. Theories are powerful tools. Scientists seek to develop theories that
  • are internally consistent and compatible with the evidence
  • are firmly grounded in and based upon evidence
  • have been tested against a diverse range of phenomena
  • possess broad and demonstrable effectiveness in problem-solving
  • explain a wide variety of phenomena.
The body of scientific knowledge changes as new observations and discoveries are made. Theories and other explanations change. New theories emerge and other theories are modified or discarded. Throughout this process, theories are formulated and tested on the basis of evidence, internal consistency, and their explanatory power.

Evolution as a Unifying Concept

Evolution in the broadest sense can be defined as the idea that the universe has a history: that change through time has taken place. If we look today at the galaxies, stars, the planet Earth, and the life on planet Earth, we see that things today are different from what they were in the past: galaxies, stars, planets, and life forms have evolved. Biological evolution refers to the scientific theory that living things share ancestors from which they have diverged: Darwin called it "descent with modification." There is abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology and other sciences that evolution has taken place.

As such, evolution is a unifying concept for science. The National Science Education Standards recognizes that conceptual schemes such as evolution "unify science disciplines and provide students with powerful ideas to help them understand the natural world," and recommends evolution as one such scheme. In addition, the Benchmarks for Science Literacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061, and the NSTA s Scope, Sequence, and Coordination Project as well as other national calls for science reform, all name evolution as a unifying concept because of its importance across the discipline of science. Scientific disciplines with a historical component such as astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology, cannot be taught with integrity if evolution is not emphasized.

There is no longer a debate among scientists over whether evolution has taken place. There is considerable debate about how evolution has taken place: the processes and mechanisms producing change, and what has happened during the history of the universe. Scientists often disagree about their explanations. In any science, disagreements are subject to rules of evaluation. Errors and false conclusions are confronted by experiment and observation, and evolution, as in any aspect of science, is continually open to and subject to experimentation and questioning.


The word "creationism" has many meanings. In its broadest meaning, creationism is the idea that a supernatural power or powers created. Thus to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, God created; to the Navajo, the Hero Twins created. In a narrower sense, "creationism" has come to mean "special creation": the doctrine that the universe and all that is in it was created by God in essentially its present form, at one time. The most common variety of special creationism asserts that
  • the Earth is very young
  • life was originated by a creator
  • life appeared suddenly
  • kinds of organisms have not changed
  • all life was designed for certain functions and purposes.
This version of special creation is derived from a literal interpretation of Biblical Genesis. It is a specific, sectarian religious belief that is not held by all religious people. Many Christians and Jews believe that God created through the process of evolution. Pope John Paul II, for example, issued a statement in 1996 that reiterated the Catholic position that God created, but that the scientific evidence for evolution is strong.

"Creation science" is an effort to support special creationism through methods of science. Teachers are often pressured to include it or synonyms such as "intelligent design theory," "abrupt appearance theory," "initial complexity theory," or "arguments against evolution" when they teach evolution. Special creationist claims have been discredited by the available evidence. They have no power to explain the natural world and its diverse phenomena. Instead, creationists seek out supposed anomalies among many existing theories and accepted facts. Furthermore, creation science claims do not provide a basis for solving old or new problems or for acquiring new information.

Nevertheless, as noted in the National Science Education Standards "Explanations on how the natural world changed based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific." Because science can only use natural explanations and not supernatural ones, science teachers should not advocate any religious view about creation, nor advocate the converse: that there is no possibility of supernatural influence in bringing about the universe as we know it.

Legal Issues

Several judicial rulings have clarified issues surrounding the teaching of evolution and the imposition of mandates that creation science be taught when evolution is taught. Th First Amendment of the Constitution requires that public institutions such as schools be religiously neutral; because special creation is a specific, sectarian religious view, it cannot be advocated as "true," accurate scholarship in the public schools. When Arkansas passed a law requiring "equal time" for creationism and evolution, the law was challenged in Federal District Court. Opponents of the bill included the religious leaders of the United Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist churches, and several educational organizations. After a full trial, the judge ruled that creation science did not qualify as a scientific theory (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (ED Ark. 1982)).

Louisiana's equal time law was challenged in court, and eventually reached the Supreme Court. In Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) the court determined that creationism was inherently a religious idea and to mandate or advocate it in the public schools would be unconstitutional. Other court decisions have upheld the right of a district to require that a teacher teach evolution and not to teach creation science (Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1003 (7th Cir. 1990); Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994)).

Some legislatures and policy makers continue attempts to distort the teaching of evolution through mandates that would require teachers to teach evolution as "only a theory," or that require a textbook or lesson on evolution to be preceded by a disclaimer. Regardless of the legal status of these mandates, they are bad educational policy. Such policies have the effect of intimidating teachers, which may result in the de-emphasis or omission of evolution. The public will only be further confused about the special nature of scientific theories, and if less evolution is learned by students, science literacy itself will suffer.


Aldridge, Bill G. (Ed.). (1996). Scope, Sequence, and Coordination: A High School Framework for Science Education. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Project 2061. (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daniel v. Waters, 515 F.2d 485 (6th Cir. 1975).

Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).

Laudan, Larry. (1996). Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (ED Ark. 1982).

National Research Council. (1996). The National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). (1993). Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science. Vol. 1. The Content Core: A Guide for Curriculum Designers (Rev. ed). Arlington, VA: Author.

Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994).

Ruse, Michael. (1996). But Is It Science: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1003 (7th Cir. 1990).

Table of Contents