Continued from page 1




People don't oppose evolution because they disagree with the science but because it offends their religious sensibilities. In most communities, at least some students come into a class wary of the "e-word" because somehow they have acquired the idea that acceptance of evolution is incompatible with religious faith. Antievolutionists, in fact, make a special point of proclaiming that one is either an evolutionist or a creationist, falsely dichotomizing the issue. Although it is not the job of public school science teachers to teach theology, when students come to class with their fingers stuck into their ears and their eyes closed, it is necessary to figure out a way to get the fingers out and the eyes open.

Most Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations have accepted evolution as the way God brought the world about, and this is also true of the theology of all but the most conservative Jews. Although it would be inappropriate for a teacherto encourage students towards or against any religious view, it is appropriate to inform them, in a comparative sense, of the existence of more than one religious perspective on creation and evolution. Because students are not tabulae rasae when they come to class, a constructivist approach is a useful way to help them build their understanding of this important fact.

Teachers have told me they have had good results when they begin the year by asking students to brainstorm what they think the words "evolution" and "creationism" mean. As expected, some of the information will be accurate and some will be erroneous. Under "evolution," expect to hear "Man evolved from monkeys" or something similar. Don't be surprised to find some variant of, "You can't believe in God" or some similar statement of supposed incompatibility between religion and evolution. Under "creationism" expect to find more consistency: "God"; "Adam and Eve," "Genesis," etc. The next step in constructing student understanding of concepts is to guide them towards a more accurate view. One goal of this exercise is to help them see the diversity of religious attitudes towards evolution.

After one such initial brainstorming session, one teacher presented students with a short quiz wherein they were asked, "Which statement was made by the Pope?" or "which statement was made by an Episcopal Bishop?" and given an "a, b, c" multiple choice selection. All the statements from theologians, of course, stressed the compatibility of theology with the science of evolution. This generated discussion about what evolution was versus what students thought it was. By making the students aware of the diversity of opinion towards evolution extant in Christian theology, the teacher helped them understand that they didn't have to make a choice between evolution and religious faith.

A teacher in Minnesota told me that he had good luck sending his students out at the beginning of the semester to interview their pastors and priests about evolution. They came back somewhat astonished, "Hey! Evolution is OK!" Even when there was diversity in opinion, with some religious leaders accepting evolution as compatible with their theology and others rejecting it, it was educational for the students to find out for themselves that there was no single Christian perspective on evolution. The survey-of-ministers approach may not work if the community is religiously homogeneous, especially if that homogeneity is conservative Christian, but it is something that some teachers might consider as a way of getting students' fingers out of their ears.

A less constructivist but not necessarily ineffective approach is to begin by properly separating "evolution" as something that occurred (change through time) from the processes and mechanisms — the causes — of evolution. Define evolution as an issue of the history of the planet: as the way we try to understand change through time. The present is different from the past. Evolution happened, there is no debate within science as to whether it happened, and so on. Then, list (for later discussion) a number of causes or processes which might explain in whole or in part, how this change through time might have taken place. Stress that this is where debating takes place. List both currently-debated and also rejected explanations, such as Lamarckism, saltation, Darwinian natural selection, neodarwinism, non-Darwinian evolution, and so on. At the end of the list (and I recommend using a transparency or writing the list on the blackboard), include "Supernatural Causation". Explain that some people think that change through time is caused directly or indirectly by a supernatural being, including God, the Hero Twins (Navajo), or some other supernatural power. At this point you then state because this is a science class, and science is limited to explaining through natural forces, we cannot discuss supernatural causation here.

I have used this approach at the college level and seen a remarkable development: the fingers start coming out of the ears. Just by mentioning the fact that some people believe God was responsible for change through time, you are recognizing the view of many Christian and Jewish students, even though you are not going to discuss it further (you're not a theology teacher!) Many religious students have never been exposed to a continuum of religious views, and in a very real sense, you are giving them an opportunity to listen to you and not shut you out. Note that you are not to promote theistic evolution: the schools must be religiously neutral. The purpose of this exercise is to give the student some critically important information so that he or she will be more willing to listen to the scientific information you will present.

Similarly, it is useful to separate "creationism" into two parts. Most Americans define "creationism" as "God Created," and when creationism is juxtaposed with evolution, the translation made is that "evolution = God didn't create." This is the perspective promoted by antievolutionists, of course, but it is an unnecessary dichotomy. As discussed above, mainline Christian and Jewish theology accept evolution as the way God created. The other type of "creationism" tries to more specifically answer the question, "what happened?" Special creation, the view of biblical literalists, is that everything in the universe was created all at one time, in its present form. From my experience in dealing with the general public on this issue (radio talk shows are very educational...), most Americans are willing to accept that change through time has taken place, but they very much want to retain God as the creator.

Whether God created is of course, not a scientific question, because science is restricted to explaining natural phenomena using only natural processes. But science can tell us a great deal about "what happened," and the evidence powerfully leads us to conclude that change has taken place, not that everything appeared in its present form.

Helping students understand that evolution, like all scientific explanations, deals only with proximate, never ultimate cause, allows them to accommodate their religious views to evolution, if they so choose. Much resistance to evolution is overcome by allowing the religious student to retain his or her faith in God the creator, while still accepting the scientific evidence for descent with modification.

"But I don't believe in evolution!" — There will doubtless be students who refuse to accept evolution. That's all right. Remember, the job of you and your colleagues at the K-12 level is to help students understand the consensus view of a discipline, whether it is history, literature, mathematics, or science. No one said a student has to "believe" in a spherical earth, and in fact, a teacher in a small mountain community in Appalachia told me that she had a brother and sister who would walk out of the class when she discussed a heliocentric solar system! It's the job of the teacher to instruct, not to indoctrinate. All you are asking is that the student learn the subject. Whether he agrees with what is being taught is up to him. Although you'd feel silly telling students, "Well, kids, today we're going to discuss the theory of heliocentrism, but you don't have to believe it!," tension is often reduced when you reassure students that all you're expecting of them is to learn the material (they have to pass the test, after all.) Whether they accept the modern scientific consensus that evolution occurred is up to them.
Return to top


Schoolboards in every state have been pressed by citizens to include creationism in the science curriculum because "you already teach evolution, so it's only fair to teach creationism too." The idea of "balancing" evolution with creationism, giving "equal time," out of "fairness" is an approach that resonates with Americans. It is, in fact, the strongest argument creationists have raised — not because of logical soundness, but because Americans value fairness and equality.

Science is not a democratic process — We decide which explanation (theory) is superior based on its power to explain successfully, not on how popular it is. Heliocentrism was not a popular idea 300 years ago — ask Galileo — but it is now the standard explanation for the relationship of the earth to the sun because it explains so many more observations than any other theory. The theories of kin selection and parental investment derived from sociobiology are not "popular" views, but if they continue to explain social behavior successfully, they will be utilized.

If scientists could vote to choose theories, I'd vote for Lamarckism! It's a lot more humane and useful than natural selection! But the world doesn't work that way. The laws of nature work as they will, irrespective of human wish or will. The explanations scientists accept are the ones that work, and Lamarckism doesn't work. The special creationism explanation that the universe was created all at one time in its present form doesn't explain nature nearly as well as the evolutionary explanation that the universe has had a history and that change has taken place. Thus, special creation has been discarded as a scientific explanation.

"It's only fair!" — It is not "fair" to mislead students by pretending that discarded ideas are still viable. We do not present geocentrism and heliocentrism as if they are currently contending theories. We only confuse students by presenting special creation and evolution as if both were equally scientific and as if scientists were still trying to decide between them.

There is another question regarding the "fairness" approach: How should educational curricula be determined? Most of the time, we agree that the consensus scholarship of history, literature, art, or science should be presented to Kindergarten-12th grade students. We do not teach astrology with astronomy because professional astronomers (and physics teachers) tell us that astrology is not considered good scholarship. Biologists, geologists, astronomers and other scientists tell us that evolution should be taught, and creation "science" should not. The proponents of creationism in the curriculum are a political pressure group outside of the educational and scientific communities. A good defense against the "fairness" argument is to point out that we do not determine scholarship depending on what a political pressure group wants, otherwise we would teach Holocaust revisionism along with standard World War II history, and give equal time in medical school to the ideas that AIDS is caused by viruses and AIDS is a curse sent from God.

"Teach both creationism and evolution to promote critical thinking" — Often teachers are encouraged by parents or others to present creationism with evolution for pedagogical reasons: supposedly, presenting nonscience with science and "letting the children decide" will improve their reasoning skills. It makes more sense to have students practice critical thinking by evaluating ideas that are truly in contention. Few teachers would have students evaluate the "scientific" evidence for flat-earthism (there is some, with emphasis on the quotation marks!) versus spherical-earthism "and let the children decide." Again, the creationists make an issue of whether evolution occurred, rather than how. The scientific debates concern the latter, not the former.

It is possible to use creationism and evolution as foils in a discussion of the nature of science, but this may well result in a student's taking offense at what may appear to be criticism of his or her religion. It is better to avoid this, for many reasons.

Evaluating the creation science literature requires far more background than students have, or will have — and maybe even than the teacher has. Most teachers would not ask students to evaluate whether balloon angioplasty or by-pass surgery should be used to treat heart failure, and that question deals "only" with medicine, one field in biology. Consider that organic evolution (not to mention astronomical and geological evolution) relies on data from biochemistry, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, biogeography, and many other fields. The vast majority of students are not well enough versed in even one of these areas to critically evaluate it. The amount of time devoted to evolution in most classes is pitifully small as it is, although the consensus of science educators and scientists is that it should be the organizing principle of biology and geology, and be referred to regularly throughout the semester. Few teachers who favor teaching the "two models" would be willing to spend enough time teaching about evolution so that students could see why the creationist arguments are faulty.
Return to top


Teachers should teach evolution, but in many classrooms they encounter much opposition, mirroring the rejection of evolution by large percentages of the population. There are three approaches discussed here to help teachers deal with antievolutionism.

First, be informed about the nature of science, and the science of evolution.

Second, understand the religiously-based opposition to evolution, and consider ways to defuse it. Before students can learn evolution, they must be willing to learn, and many come into class thinking that evolution is incompatible with their religious views. In some cases, this will indeed be the case, and nothing a teacher can say will change it. In this situation, it is best to remind the student that the job of the teacher is to communicate the consensus view of the field, and the job of the student to learn it. Whether the student accepts what he learns is up to him. For most students, becoming aware of the plurality of religious views towards evolution allows them to accommodate their views to the science you are presenting.

Finally, there is much pressure on teachers to teach creationism along with evolution in the science class because doing so is "fair," or perhaps "good pedagogy". Neither is the case: students should learn state of the art science, not outmoded views which have been rejected as science. Also, we do not determine curricula based on the desires of a pressure group, but based on the consensus of scholars in the field.

But teachers themselves need to take the initiative, because ultimately, the buck stops in the classroom, with the teacher. Many teachers teach science without having had training in the subject, or with only inadequate training. Especially at the elementary level, many teachers have "science phobia". These teachers are especially reluctant to teach evolution, for obvious reasons. They need better knowledge of the content of science, but they also need encouragement to teach a controversial issue. There are many knowledgeable teachers who are teaching evolution, and teaching it well. You have a responsibility to mentor those who are not, and I encourage you to do so.

Evolution is the organizing principle of biology and geology, and it needs to be taught if we are to produce new scientists as well as have a scientifically literate society. There is help for teachers willing to teach this "controversial subject," from organizations like the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Center for Science Education, and also — most importantly — from colleagues.
Return to top


AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY. 1994. American Museum of Natural History announces results of nationwide survey on science literacy. Office of Public Affairs, American Museum of Natural History.

ASSOCIATED PRESS. 1996. Only 25% of American adults get passing grades in science survey. Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1996, p. A22.

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE AND CREATIONISM. 1984. Science and creationism. A view from the National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. 28pp.

DENTON, M. 1985.Evolution, a theory in crisis. Adler and Adler, Publishers, Inc., Bethesda, MD, 368 pp.

GILLIS, A.M. 1994. Keeping creationism out of the classroom. Bioscience 44(10):650-656.

GOLDMAN, A.L. 1991. Portrait of religion in U.S. holds dozens of surprises. New York Times, April 10, 1991, p. a 1.

HUNTER, J.D. 1983. American evangelicalism: conservative religion and the quandary of modernity. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.

MARSDEN, G. M. 1987 Evangelical and fundamental Christianity. In M. Eliade, (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, pp 190-197. Macmillan: New York.

MATSUMURA, M. 1995. Voices for evolution. National Center for Science Education, Berkeley, CA.

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1996. National science education standards. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. 262 pp.

PETIT, C. 1996. Americans flunk science basics. San Francisco Chronicle, May 24, 1996, p. A1.

PROJECT 2061. 1993. Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Oxford University Press, New York.

SCOTT, E.C. 1994. The Struggle for the schools. Natural History, July, 1994, p. 10, 12, 13.

_____. 1995. Science and Christianity are compatible — with some compromises. The Scientist. January 9, 1995, p. 12.

_____. 1996. Monkey business. Creationism regroups to expel evolution from the classroom. The Sciences. January/February, 1996, p. 20-25. ??