Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution

By David J. Hoff — April 28, 1999 6 min read
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The nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization is standing firm in its position that the theory of evolution should be at the heart of any biology curriculum and that theories colored by religious beliefs should not be taught in science classes.

As the debate over evolution and creationism enters a new phase, the National Academy of Sciences has revised and updated its 15-year-old statement declaring that biology teachers should not shy away from teaching natural selection out of deference to religious groups.

For More Information

“Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition,” is available for $9.95, plus shipping, from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Lockbox 825, Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242; or by fax at (202 334-2451. The complete text is also available online at

“The theory of evolution has become the central unifying concept of biology and is a critical component of many related scientific disciplines,” the professional group says in “Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition,” released last week.

“In contrast, the claims of creation science lack empirical support and cannot be meaningfully tested,” it says. “These observations lead to two fundamental conclusions: The teaching of evolution should be an integral part of science instruction, and creation science is in fact not science and should not be presented as such in science classes.”

Shifting Arguments

The new, 35-page report essentially restates a position the academy first outlined in 1984. It follows a lengthier guidebook the private, congressionally chartered organization published last year explaining how teachers should address the topic. (“National Academy Guides Teachers on Evolution,” April 15, 1998.)

Since its 1984 statement, the NAS and other exponents of evolution have won major battles in the century-old debate of the theory first presented in 1859 by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law requiring that creationism be given equal time with evolution in science classrooms. But that definitive statement from the high court hasn’t subdued the debate over teaching evolution in the public schools.

“The problem hasn’t gone away because it’s taken new forms,” said Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, Calif., and a member of the NAS panel that wrote the new report. “There needs to be an increased effort to teach what evolution really is.”

Current critics of the theory of evolution no longer cloak their arguments in the Biblical creation story and instead cite what they contend is scientific evidence that calls evolution into question. In an effort to sidestep the constitutional barriers to religiously based instruction, Ms. Scott said, such critics are now raising scientific findings they say suggest the “intelligent design” of a creator.

Scientists associated with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, argue that evolution theory fails to account for rapid changes during the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago. In the space of less than 5 million years, multicell organisms appeared for the first time, according to Steven Meyer, a professor of the philosophy of biology at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash.

Darwinism documents changes that happen “bit by little bit,” said Mr. Meyer, the director of the institute’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture. Natural selection doesn’t account for such major changes over a relatively short period, he said. Some scientists say the events of the Cambrian explosion suggest “there is real design in nature,” he added.

Yet, he said, only one K-12 textbook discusses the Cambrian period, in which evidence of marine creatures, such as sponges, first appears.

Return to Galapagos

Mr. Meyer’s arguments are typical of the approach of evolution critics in the wake of the 1987 Supreme Court decision and other federal court cases in the 1980s, according to Ms. Scott.

But they don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, contends Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and a co-author of two high school biology textbooks. Evidence suggests that multicell organisms started to appear before the Cambrian period, he said, and that organisms can evolve as rapidly as they did in that era.

“I keep waiting for some sort of debate to occur in a scientific context,” Mr. Miller said. But the findings of intelligent-design theorists have yet to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, he said.

The NAS report cites research in molecular biology that disputes the intelligent-design theories. Biologists have deduced how complex molecular changes, such as the development of DNA, unfolded over generations, as evolutionists theorize, and didn’t require the intervention of a creator, as intelligent-design theorists suggest.

It also points to recent research that shows how animals’ physical structure evolves quickly. Princeton University researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant found that the beaks of finches on the Galapagos Islands--the birds on which Darwin conducted his original research--changed visibly as the result of a one-year drought.

If the island off South America suffers a drought once a decade, the Grants estimate that a new species of finches will appear in 200 years, the NAS report says.

“Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science,” the report concludes. “These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief.”

Fear of Teaching

But the debate over how to teach evolution in public schools continues throughout the country.

In Kansas next month, for example, the state school board will consider proposed science standards that state “evolution by natural selection is a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology.”

That language is similar to what the national academy says in its statement released last week. But it is the subject of controversy for the Kansas board, which may reject or revise the standards.

“I think [the curriculum] ought to be maintained so that [students] are aware there are two basic theories of the origin of life,” said Steve E. Abrams, a state board member and a Baptist who believes in the creation story as chronicled in the book of Genesis. “To teach one of them as law ... goes too far. Both of them require faith to believe in.”

And in suburban Detroit last fall, the Melvindale/Northern Allen Park district’s school board voted to add anti-evolution books to its libraries and to refer students who question the theory in science classes to those books.

“It was never an issue of teaching creationism, per se,” said John Rowe, the president of the school board for the 2,200-student district. “The concept was: If you’re going to teach evolution are you going to allow students to see both sides?”

Such disputes create an atmosphere in which teachers are often afraid to address the topic, defenders of instruction on evolution say.

In a recent survey of Louisiana biology teachers, 23 percent said they put “little or no emphasis on evolution instruction,” according to last month’s issue of American Biology Teacher.

“There is no pressure to regard evolutionary theory as a unifying theme of biology in classroom instruction,” writes Donald Aguillard, the plaintiff who challenged the Louisiana creationism law that led to the Supreme Court decision. He is now the director of management-information systems for the Lafayette Parish school board.

Many scientists lament teachers’ desire to avoid stirring up controversy.

“What it leads them to do is de-emphasize or omit evolution from the curriculum,” said Mr. Miller, the Brown University professor and textbook author. “I don’t see how [the NAS statement] can be anything but helpful. It tends to clarify matters.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution


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