SCIENCE WATCH | Why #whyteachevolution?

Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

Fifty years ago, in 1970, the Missi­ssippi Supreme Court decided that the ban on the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools was unconstitutional. It was the last of the statutes prohibiting the teaching of evolution—and the common ancestry of humans with the rest of life—to remain on the books. Its Arkansas counterpart was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1968, while its Tennessee counterpart—famous from the Scopes trial of 1925—was repealed by the Tennessee
legislature in 1967, in part because of a looming lawsuit filed by a teacher who was fired for violating the ban.

Half a century later, the National Center
for Science Education—in collaboration with a number of organizations, including the American Humanist Association—is conducting a #whyteachevolutionsocial media campaign for 2020, peaking on Darwin Day, February 12. By featuring the testimony of scientists, educators, and authors—all answering the question “Why teach evolution?”—the campaign offers a reminder about the critical importance of including evolution in science education, in both formal and informal learning environments.

There is no shortage of good answers to the question. The biologist Kenneth R. Miller says that teaching evolution “instills an appreciation for the beautiful, enduring, and ultimately triumphant fabric of life that covers our planet.” NCSE’s executive director, Ann Reid, emphasizes the “vast practical importance” of understanding evolution. And AHA’s executive director, Roy Speckhardt, observes that “a foundational understanding of evolution is an essential inoculation against the increasing tendency among some to block out any information that conflicts with their fundamentalist teachings.”

But why is the campaign timely? The resistance to teaching evolution is deep. Despite the defeats of the Scopes-era bans, legislators persist in trying to undermine the teaching of evolution. In 2019, for example, bills in Indiana and South Carolina
attempted to allow the teaching of “creation science”—a selective treatment of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis in scientific trappings—in the public schools. Meanwhile, bills in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota encouraged science teachers to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial.

None of these bills succeeded, thankfully. But even their existence reflects ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution in the American public at large. A 2015 survey found that 98 percent of US scientists—and 99 percent of those actively engaged in research—accept evolution, including human evolution, as sound science. But the same survey found that only 65 percent of the American public agreed, with 31 percent preferring “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” to “Humans and other living things have evolved over time.”

And a similar, if smaller, disconnect is to be found between scientists and high school biology teachers. Even though they’re responsible for teaching the majority of Americans all they’ll ever learn about evolution in their formal education, only about three in four of them accept evolution themselves, according to a rigorous national survey conducted in 2007. A small minority of these teachers—about one in eight—misrepresent creationism in their classrooms as scientifically credible, while only 28 percent present evolution honestly, accurately, and completely.

What about the remaining 60 percent? They present evolution, but only halfheartedly. Their reluctance is manifested in a number of ways. They may downplay or disregard topics that ought to be major foci of high school biology, such as human evolution. Or they may make a point of telling students that they aren’t expected to accept what they’re taught—a disclaimer never offered in the case of osmosis or photosynthesis! Or they may, while not misrepresenting creationism as scientifically credible, nevertheless misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial.

The reluctance of the 60 percent is largely attributable to their judgments about the attitudes of the communities in which they teach. According to the same 2007 survey, 22 percent of these teachers reported experiencing explicit pressure from members of their community to compromise their teaching of evolution. And even in the absence of such pressure, community attitudes make a difference: after all, it isn’t surprising that teachers will tend to feel uncomfortable teaching evolution if they believe that those around them are going to be hostile to it.

In order to teach evolution effectively, science teachers, especially those who are worried about possible backlash, need to know that they have the support of their coworkers, their supervisors, their professional organizations, their colleagues in the scientific community, and, most importantly, of the public. The greater the reach of the #whyteachevolution campaign, the greater the reassurance it provides to science teachers. So, if you support the teaching of evolution, please participate by spreading the word—or in this case the hashtag #whyteachevolution—on social media.

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