Mark A. Wilson
Department of Geology
The College of Wooster
Wooster, OH 44691

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.

Evolution is the fundamental unifying principle of biology and the critical key to deciphering the history of our planet and its life.

Biological evolution 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 to ask.

Evolution, however, 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.


(Editorial published in The Daily Record and several other Ohio newspapers in 1998)