As the National Science Teachers Association convened for its annual meeting over the past week, the steady wave of challenges to the teaching of evolution occupied a dominant place on the agenda.
That gathering took place as classroom teachers and others trying to stave off those offensives are receiving a renewed offer of help from a longtime ally: the scientific community.
Leaders of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences are urging their members to take a front-line role in working with teachers and others to combat what many science instructors see as attempts to weaken the teaching of evolution.
The congressionally chartered academy has traditionally offered strong resistance to attempts to bring creationism, and more recently, intelligent design, into science classrooms, arguing that such views amount to nonscientific religious belief. Over the past decade, it has spelled out those views in a number of influential guides and books.
But in recent months, academy leaders appear to have shifted their strategy by asking their 2,000 members across the country to work directly in their local communities to convince school board members, legislators, and others of the importance of emphasizing evolution in K-12 classes. That approach, the NAS leadership acknowledges, is likely to prove more effective than trying to make the case from faraway federal offices and research hubs.
“While these challenges have national implications for science and science education, they are typically viewed as local issues, and ‘meddling’ from organizations in Washington, D.C., is often viewed with skepticism,” Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in a March 4 letter to members. Mr. Alberts said he has already been in touch with members and is “enlisting their assistance through the writing of op-ed pieces, speaking at school board meetings, and related activities.”
The academy has recently offered help in Alabama and Kansas, two states where evolution’s status in science standards has come under renewed scrutiny, and its officials have volunteered their services to other states and districts as well.
The National Science Teachers Association conducted an informal poll of its members on the pressure they face to teach alternatives to evolution in their classes. The survey of 1,050 respondents found:
• 31 percent said they felt pressured to teach creationism, intelligent design, or other alternatives to evolution that the NSTA deems “nonscientific.”
• 22 percent of those teachers indicated that the pressure came from students, and 20 percent said it came from parents.
• Only 5 percent said pressure to omit evolution came from administrators or principals.
• 85 percent said they felt prepared to explain to students the importance of understanding evolution.
• 62 percent said they believed they were successful at helping parents and others understand why teaching evolution is important.
SOURCE: National Science Teachers Association, March 2005
Debates over the teaching of evolution are playing out in at least 19 states, either in legislatures or before state or local school boards, according to the National Center on Science Education, which tracks such controversies. In some cases, those attempts to downgrade evolution instruction may have stalled or died, though it is difficult to say whether they might pick up again, said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the Oakland, Calif.-based center. “A lot of it seems to be introduced to satisfy a particular constituency, without much hope of passing,” he said, referring to legislation.
Anne Tweed, the president of the 55,000-member NSTA, welcomed the academy’s endeavor. “If teachers are the only voice, [support for evolution] doesn’t seem to reach the community it needs to reach.”
The science teachers’ association, which strongly supports the teaching of evolution in science classes, staged its national convention from March 31 to April 5 in Dallas, and the evolution furor received prominent attention at the event. One workshop was titled “Teaching Evolution Without Provoking Creationist Resistance,” another “Teaching Evolution and Avoiding the Minefields.”
Officials at the NSTA, based in Arlington, Va., say teachers face broad challenges as it is. An e-mail survey released by the organization last month found that 31 percent of respondents said they felt pressured to include creationism or intelligent design in science classes.
Dissecting the Arguments
Those results mirror the findings of several studies of teachers’ experiences with instruction on evolution in recent years. (“Teachers Torn Over Religion, Evolution,” Feb. 2, 2005.)
Michael Behe, a biology professor who supports the idea of intelligent design’s role in biochemistry, said he doubted whether the National Academy of Sciences’ initiative would change the opinion of parents or students who want to learn more about alternative views to evolution. Much of that audience, he argued, would assume that scientists harbor a “particular view of the world” that would not tolerate doubts about evolution.
Charles Darwin’s theory, which is accepted by the vast majority of scientists, holds that present-day species have evolved from simpler ancestors through natural selection. Intelligent design is the belief that an unspecified creator may have played a role in the development of natural phenomena, including human life, that appear too complex to be explained solely by science, it is said.
Mr. Behe, a biology professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said high school science classes would benefit from dissecting the arguments for and against intelligent design, rather than rejecting it outright.
“Students get excited when there are questions we don’t know the answers to,” said Mr. Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box, a widely read text on intelligent design. “They go to sleep when you tell them, ‘Here’s the answer. Now go and memorize it.’ ”
Others, like Brown University biology professor Kenneth R. Miller, said the staunchest intelligent-design and creationism advocates are unlikely to accept scientists’ arguments. But a larger proportion of Americans could be swayed, the prominent biology-textbook author said.
Scientists would be wise to avoid simply brandishing their credentials, or appealing to “scientific authority,” Mr. Miller said, and instead focus on explaining the evidence for evolution, a theory he strongly supports.
“This has been an ongoing battle,” he said, and so far, “it’s been fought by and large by teachers, more than the scientific community.”