Why teach evolution?

NCSE Board President Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University, writes that to accept evolution is "to open one's eyes to the endless beauty that life has generated."

Biology is the science of life, and it is arguably the most challenging of all the sciences. Not only does biology build upon the principles of chemistry and physics, it also adds new layers of complexity requiring an entirely different form of scientific analysis. Adding to this is the immense diversity of the living world, with creatures as different in lifestyle as spiders, oak trees, coral, and bacteria. So where do we find a unifying principle to make sense of this? It is easy to see how living things are different from each other. But how can we help students to see that in other, important ways, they are very much the same? The answer to that, of course, is to teach about evolution.

Evolution isn't just a story about where we came from. It's an epic at the center of life itself.

The great insight of Charles Darwin was the fact that the living world today holds the key to our biological past. The fact that he worked in an age before genetics, before the discovery of DNA, and before the riches of the human fossil record in Africa came to light makes his work that much more remarkable. Darwin didn't know about the gene, but today we trace the ways in which genes themselves produce evolutionary change. Darwin didn't know about DNA, but today we follow the course of evolution through our own DNA and the story is unmistakable. Like every other living thing on this planet, we evolved. Unfortunately, for all too many Americans, that’s a problem.

The objections often raised against the teaching of evolution, like doubts about the age of the earth, or the so-called gaps in the fossil record, are remarkably easy to answer. But my concern for those who reject evolution or wish to dilute its teaching isn't just that they are wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology. It is that they are missing something grand and beautiful and personally enriching. Evolution isn't just a story about where we came from. It's an epic at the center of life itself. Far from robbing our lives of meaning, it instills an appreciation for the beautiful, enduring, and ultimately triumphant fabric of life that covers our planet. This is why evolution belongs in every classroom where the science of life is taught.

To accept evolution isn't just to acknowledge the obvious, that the evidence behind it is overwhelming. It is to open one's eyes to the endless beauty that life has generated and continues to produce. It is to become a knowing participant, in the truest sense, in the living world of which we are all a part.

Kenneth R. Miller
Short Bio

Kenneth R. Miller is President of NCSE's Board of Directors and is Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University.

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