Probing Question: Why is teaching evolution still controversial?

In 2008, the Church of England issued an unexpected apology. Wrote Reverend Dr. Malcolm Brown, "Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still… But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet…"

That may be an understatement. Darwin -- a mild-mannered naturalist who attended church most of his life and shied away from controversy -- sparked one of the most enduring battles between religious doctrine and science when he introduced the concept of natural selection in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

According to Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, despite 40 years of court cases ruling against teaching creationism in American public schools, the majority of high school biology teachers are not strong classroom advocates of evolutionary biology.

"Considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America's classrooms," they write in a January 2011 Science article that details their study of 926 public high school biology instructors.

Says Berkman, "Only 28 percent of those teachers consistently introduce evidence that evolution occurred, and 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism." Over 60 percent attempt to avoid the controversy (and potential objections from school boards or parents) by employing several classroom strategies, he adds.

Some only teach evolution as it pertains to molecular biology, not animals or humans. Another strategy, Plutzer adds, is to "tell students it does not matter if they really believe in evolution, as long as they know it for the test," while other teachers choose to teach it alongside creationism, sometimes referred to as "teaching the controversy."

Advocates of the latter approach say it promotes critical thinking skills and allows students to make up their own minds. Not so, says Berkman, who calls a side-by-side comparison of evolution and creationism "a false equivalency." "Creationism’s proponents don’t conduct experiments or engage in any of the other activities we associate with modern science," he adds, "whereas evolution has been verified through many experiments and validation of hypotheses over many years. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a fact."

As for students deciding for themselves, this idea "is a red herring and disingenuous," believes Berkman. "Some students have been taught creationism since they were born. A few lectures on evolution won’t sufficiently prepare them to make up their own minds."

In the landmark 2005 case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal judge found the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public school science classes to be unconstitutional. Judge John Jones III wrote in his decision, "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory… Accordingly, we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to be a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause."

Nevertheless, some states -- notably Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee -- have passed laws that permit public school teachers to teach "alternatives" to evolution, using public funds to do so. In other states, such as Florida, Indiana, Arizona, and elsewhere, public funds are used to support creationist private schools through state tuition voucher or scholarship programs.

Why does the teaching of evolution matter for American children and the nation’s future? "Biology is the only high-school science class for many Americans," notes Berkman. "We found that, in all regions and states, students in high-school biology are being short-changed in instruction on the field’s foundational theory. I think this does several things. For one, students miss out on the beauty and elegance of evolution, an idea that ties together life on this planet. And it also leads to an undermining and distrust of science, at a time when the United States is falling behind in science and math education when compared to other nations.

Says Plutzer, the data suggest that many teachers lack the necessary confidence in their own knowledge of evolutionary science to present evolution in a positive, appropriate, and accurate way. "We argue in our Science article that the answer lies in how high-school biology teachers are themselves educated. They need to take a course in evolution, for example, so they are confident when they need to teach it."

There are those who will not want to take such a course, because it goes against their own values, the researchers acknowledge. "But I think biology instruction overall will be stronger if those potential teachers, dissuaded by that class requirement, choose to teach another subject," says Berkman.

Is there any harm to kids in learning about evolution? "Some people seem to believe that Darwinism is a kind of ideology that undermines faith and might encourage immoral behavior," notes Plutzer. "Yet many religious leaders have affirmed their belief that there is no inherent conflict between evolution and faith." It’s also important to realize, he adds, "that, in and of itself, evolution takes no position on the ultimate creation of the universe or the origin of life."

As to the claim made by some opponents that evolution diminishes humans by reducing us to simply another kind of ape, Plutzer says emphatically, "What makes human beings special is not our anatomy. Whether one calls it a soul or something else, human beings have a rich spiritual capacity, free will, and the ability to live a meaningful life." If a life of devotion to God is meaningful to a child, he adds, "nothing taught about evolutionary biology will change that."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated since its original publication in 2011.

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Last Updated June 06, 2014