EVOLUTION MUST BE TAUGHT
Mark A. Wilson
Despite more than a century of debates, legislation, and court decisions, and despite almost universal acceptance by biologists, geologists, astronomers and other scientists, evolution is still not taught in many American public schools. Evolution is the fundamental unifying principle of biology and the critical key to deciphering the history of our planet and its life, yet few of our children have the opportunity to explore it. As we bemoan the low results our students have on comparative science tests, let us also consider this extraordinary gap in our science curriculum. Fear of controversy and fear of offending community sensibilities has kept too many of our teachers from presenting modern biology to their students. Our students are being cheated, and they should loudly ask their teachers and parents why.
is the observation that life has changed through time from its earliest
beginnings as single cells more than 3.5 billion years ago to the diversity
we see today. The theory of evolution is a systematic and continually
tested set of ideas about how and why life has changed and continues to
change. Scientists will forever debate the mechanisms of evolution and
the details of life's history, but there is no doubt that life is billions
of years old and has indeed evolved. The evidence for evolution is as
close as the fingers on our hands, the hair on our bodies, or the teeth
in our jaws. In fact, every cell in our body contains information inherited
from our earliest ancestors - information we can use to assess the degrees
of relationship between all living things.
There is an unfortunate
illusion that biology can be taught without reference to evolution. This
is seldom as overt as simply skipping the evolution chapters in a textbook.
A common teaching approach is to center on "problems" in biology,
especially those which appear to be immediately relevant to the student's
world. An example would be "The Forest Habitat" where resident
bacteria, fungi, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates are examined and
placed in functional and ecological contexts. Interesting hypotheses can
be developed and tested, and all students can get their hands dirty "doing
science." Such projects are fun and valuable for education, but somehow
overarching concepts like evolution are usually left out. Questions about
how these organisms are related and how such ecosystems have evolved do
not seem to be relevant, and it is a rare student who is perceptive enough
is central to the understanding of all biology. The adaptations which
organisms have made to their environments can only be understood through
the historical perspective of evolution. Only by seeing that all organisms
are related can we begin to fruitfully investigate the origins and functions
of all characteristics. The fast-growing fields of molecular biology and
genetics are predicated on the common denominators life forms share because
of their common ancestry. Our progress against organism-borne diseases
is based in large part on evolutionary modeling. Even the study of animal
behavior, including that of humans, has as its framework the theory of
evolution. Evolution is not just a part of a biology education, it is
the fundamental biological principle.
How can the most scientifically advanced country in history have such an incomplete science curriculum in the schools? Why has evolution been so carefully avoided? Teachers simply fear the response of religious fundamentalists in their communities. Even though Pope John Paul II and the mainline Protestant denominations have affirmed evolution as compatible with the Christian faith, many Christians continue to oppose it in the public schools. In every recent court case in which the place of evolution in the public classroom has been tested, the law has sided with science. It is time teachers and school boards sided with science as well. We can no longer afford to handicap our children in science education. If we want to continue as a scientifically literate country, evolution must be taught.
in The Daily Record and several other Ohio newspapers in 1998)