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Educators Have Hard Choices; Nationally, Not Just in Kansas

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Science  11 Aug 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5481, pp. 869-871
DOI: 10.1126/science.289.5481.869d

Editors' Note: We have received many dEbates responses (see www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/288/5467/813) to Eugenie C. Scotts's Science and Society Essay on concerns regarding evolution and creationism in science education (“;Not (just) in Kansas anymore,” 5 May, p. 813). Here are highlights from a representative sample. Dr. Scott's response appears both in this section and in dEbates online.

People are talking about evolution and creationism because none of the other scientific issues is as vulnerable. Gravity, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, or general and special relativity are not constantly on the “hot seat.”…[The theory of evolution] is no closer to being incontrovertibly proven in the hearts and minds of the American public than when it was first introduced. This speaks volumes.

(response to White)

[T]he validity of a scientific theory is not dependent on polls, but on facts…The fact that many Americans do not accept evolution indicates that science education is sorely lacking in America, not that evolution is an invalid scientific theory.

(response to White)

If evolution is indeed a flawed scientific theory, it will take scientists with evidence to undo it, not rhetoric waged by a public that remains largely ignorant about the facts and theory of evolution.

(response to responses)

What arrogance to assume that the American public is unable to grasp a theory that everyone has been instructed in since grade school.

My genetics students have passed Biology I. They should understand evolution (particularly if I was their teacher). Here is why they usually don't: (i) What they learn about evolution outside the classroom is fundamentally more powerful than what they learn in it… (ii) By and large, students believe that evolution can be equated with atheism. This view comes from the false duality of an “evolution vs. creationism” debate.

The creationism view is that of one religion, Christianity. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, and many other religions have no trouble reconciling evolution with their religious teachings…The fervor of the creationists to force their views on schools amounts to an attempt to establish a religion (or a portion of it) in the governmental system of the United States.

It is…unclear why a…suggested alternative to teaching evolution, the avoidance of all lessons relating to this matter, is to be preferred over current practice. I would rather learn about something I do not wholly agree with than learn nothing at all.

[W]hat science learns about nature must become integrated into a world view in which faith finds its reasonable place.

We should give more credit to students and their abilities to think through and debate matters of social, scientific, religious, and philosophical origin than we currently allow.

In a nation where dollars produce political results—and this is a political discussion as much as it is a scientific and religious one—it is little wonder that the voice of science is not heard as well as the voice of creationism.

To present a scientific explanation, whether it be quantum electrodynamics or evolution, without the context of skepticism invites contempt and risks establishing scientific literalism.

As Richard Lewontin has rightly stated, evolution and creationism are irreconcilable world views. When each is stripped down to the bare bones, each is intrinsically religious. Although they constitute inferences based on circumstantial evidence, the evidence supporting each is by nature scientific and should be made available to students in the tax-supported public schools of our pluralistic democratic society.

The complaint against the fascinating evidence for a Big Bang event is particularly ironic and illuminating. If any piece of modern astronomy could be welcomed by creationists, it should be the Big Bang theory. The fact that it is under attack is evidence, in my opinion, that fundamentalists are not interested in content or ideas, but are simply against science and scientists.

[I]ntelligent design in biology is not invisible, it is empirically detectable. The biological literature is replete with statements like David DeRosier's in the journal Cell: “More so than other motors, the flagellum resembles a machine designed by a human.”…Exactly why is it a thought-crime to make the case that such observations may be on to something objectively correct?

Response

White is correct to say that evolution is not “in the hearts and minds of the public,” but he errs in thinking that evolution is taught from grade school up. A smattering of evolution is taught in high school biology, but by then, as McCoy illustrates, students have already acquired a lot of misinformation. The “big three” antievolution arguments students pick up (also illustrated in these dEbates excerpts) are that (i) evolution is scientifically weak—a “theory in crisis,” (ii) evolution is incompatible with religion, and (iii) it is “only fair” to teach “both.” These three arguments were also used by William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial of 1925, so we haven't gotten very far in 75 years. Scientists and teachers need to counter each of the “big three.”

Ultimately, existential issues fuel antievolutionism: people are told that if evolution happened, they can't believe in God and their lives are meaningless. A high percentage of the public believes this, which suggests that the faith community has a major role to play in informing religious people of the many ways in which religion is compatible with evolution (see www.natcenscied.org/voicont.htm and www.natcenscied.org/continuum.htm). But scientists and science teachers need to teach more evolution and teach it better, and “better” includes keeping nonscientific ideas such as creation science, intelligent design, and philosophical materialism out of the science class.

Behe claims that intelligent design is empirically detectable, but gives as an example only a statement asserting the similarity of a natural structure to a designed one. Indeed, a structure that functions to get something done can be said to be “designed” for that purpose, but this casual usage should not imply a designing agent, much less an intelligent one, and still less a supernatural one. Natural selection, a nonrandom but unintelligent mechanism, can also produce structures that function for a purpose, and as a natural mechanism, for scientific purposes, it is preferable over untestable supernatural ones.

I thank all those who took time to comment, and apologize for not responding personally to all.

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