How Should We Teach Evolution?

Darwinian evolution should be fully and completely taught in public schools, and schools need to teach more about evolution, not less. Unfortunately, most biology classrooms teach a one-sided, pro-Darwin-only curriculum that censors serious any scientific critique of neo-Darwinism. This makes for bad science education. It doesn’t teach students how to think, just what to think. Instead, schools should teach about both the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories and let students critically evaluate the arguments and evidence in this debate.

Teaching students in such a balanced, objective manner turns classroom instruction away from indoctrination and toward genuine education. Critically analyzing Darwinian evolution teaches students more about the facts of biology and produces scientifically minded students with good critical thinking skills. As Charles Darwin himself wrote in the Origin of Species: “a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”1

Modern biology textbooks have a chronic habit of papering over scientific evidence that dissents from the standard lines of evidence — or “icons” — that are used to support Darwinian evolution. For example, textbooks often present examples of small-scale “microevolution” and over-extrapolate from this evidence to make unwarranted claims about “macroevolution.” They discuss minute changes in the sizes of beaks on the Galápagos finches or small changes in the colors of peppered moths to claim that fundamentally new types of organisms can evolve via Darwinian processes.2

But evolutionary biologist Robert L. Carroll asks: “Can changes in individual characters, such as the relative frequency of genes for light and dark wing color in moths adapting to industrial pollution, simply be multiplied over time to account for the origin of moths and butterflies within insects, the origin of insects from primitive arthropods, or the origin of arthropods from among primitive multicellular organisms?”3 Many scientists feel the answer is no. However, biology textbooks never inform students of this fact. Students need to have access to all of the evidence regarding Darwinian evolution so they can make up their own minds.

Science education theorists agree that students learn science best when they learn about arguments for and against a particular concept. A 2010 paper in the journal Science observes that “[c]ritique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice.” The paper found that students learn science best when they are asked “to discriminate between evidence that supports … or does not support”4 a given scientific concept.

Science education is about teaching students the facts of biology, but also about teaching them how to think like scientists. When students are told that Darwinian evolution is a “settled theory” or that there “is no controversy over evolution,” that not only misinforms them about debates taking place among scientists, but it fails to teach students how to use critical thinking on these important scientific questions. When evolution advocates demand that students should not learn about scientific weaknesses in evolution, the real losers are the students who are denied opportunities to learn about all of the evidence and are prevented from studying different legitimate scientific viewpoints regarding Darwinism.

There is a vibrant debate over Darwinian evolution taking place in the scientific community, and the scientists who have signed the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List invite you to investigate it. As the 900 signers to the list agree: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

References:

[1.] Charles Darwin, Introduction, The Origin of Species (1859), Literature.org, accessed March 14, 2012, http://www.literature.org/authors/darwincharles/the-origin-of-species/introduction.html.
[2.] See Jonathan Wells, “Second Thoughts about Peppered Moths,” The Scientist, Vol. 13(11):13 (1999).
[3.] Robert Carroll, Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, pp. 8-10 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
[4.] Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328: 463-466 (April 23, 2010).

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