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Stephen C. Meyer Philosopher of Science
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How Should Schools Handle Evolution? Debate it

Published in USA Today

The sky is falling.

Or so you might think if you have been reading reports about the Kansas State Board of Education’s proposed policy on teaching evolution. Though many have portrayed the hearings that led to the Kansas policy as a re-run of the Scopes trial, the reality is much different. Rather than prohibiting teachers from teaching about evolution (as Tennessee law did for John Scopes in 1925), Kansas is poised to adopt a policy that would enable students to learn more about the topic. (Related: Just teach it)

Specifically, the Kansas policy would require students to learn not only the full scientific case for contemporary evolutionary theory, called “neo-Darwinism,” but also the current criticisms of the theory as they appear in scientific literature. The Kansas policy would not require, or prohibit, discussing the theory of “intelligent design,” which has been so much in the news since President Bush spoke about it earlier this month.

Though Zogby polls show that 71% of the public favors a policy like the Kansas one, defenders of teaching only the case for Darwinian orthodoxy regard it with suspicion. For them, the Kansas policy illustrates the folly of determining the science curriculum within the democratic process.

Moving forward

The two of us disagree about the status of Darwin’s theory. Even so, we think there is a way to teach evolution that advances science education, fosters civil discourse and also respects public opinion. We encourage teachers to present the case for Darwin’s theory of evolution as Darwin himself did: as a credible, but contestable, argument. Rather than teaching evolution as an incontrovertible “truth,” teachers should present the arguments for modern neo-Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate these arguments critically. In short, students should learn the scientific arguments for, and against, contemporary evolutionary theory.

There are good reasons for teaching science, and Darwinian evolution, this way. Teaching scientific controversies and arguments helps students understand the nature of science. Contrary to the “men in white coats” stereotype, with scientists as data-collecting automatons, scientists argue about how best to interpret evidence. Students who learn the arguments for and against a theory are learning how science works. Teaching current scientific arguments about a theory also gives students an understanding of the status of a theory. And, in the case of neo-Darwinism, there are significant scientific criticisms of the theory students should know about.

Some scientists think the fossil record challenges the Darwinian idea that all organisms share a common ancestor. Events such as the “Cambrian explosion” show that new forms of life appear suddenly in the fossil record without evidence of connection to earlier forms — contradicting Darwin’s picture of the history of life as a fully-connected branching tree. (Related: Curriculum battles across the USA)

Many scientists also doubt the ability of Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection to produce the major innovations — the new organs and body plans — that arise during life’s history.

Recently, 400 Ph.D.-level scientists, including a distinguished embryologist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, signed a statement questioning the creative power of the natural selection/mutation mechanism.

In May, 15 such doubting scientists from universities such as Cornell, Wisconsin, Georgia and Italy’s Perugia came to encourage the Kansas board to let students learn about the evidence challenging (as well as supporting) evolutionary theory.

Some scientists also doubt the Darwinian idea that living things merely “appear” designed. Instead, they think living systems display indicators of actual or “intelligent” design. Prominent scientists such as biochemist Michael Behe and biophysicist Dean Kenyon have cited intriguing evidence to support this theory, such as the presence of digital code, complex circuits and miniature motors in living cells.

Additionally, mathematician William Dembski has developed a statistical method for identifying tell-tale signs of intelligence. Dembski’s method of design detection confirms our common sense intuition that digital information —including that found encoded within the DNA inside the cell — points to an intelligent source.

Because intelligent design is a new theory, we, like Kansas’ board, don’t think students should be required to learn it. But we do think teachers should be free to discuss such alternatives if they are based upon scientific evidence, not scriptural texts.

So what should the public do when competent experts disagree about whether evidence supports a theory, as they do in the case of Darwinian evolution? Our answer: Teach the competing arguments.

‘One long argument’

To his great credit, Darwin addressed every competing argument he could in The Origin of Species. When evolution is taught as Darwin presented it — as “one long argument” resting on a large and diverse body of facts, but nevertheless as an argument from which thoughtful people (and scientists) can dissent — fewer parents will object to their children learning about it.

As John Scopes said, “If you limit a teacher to only one side of anything, the whole country will eventually have only one thought. … I believe in teaching every aspect of every problem or theory.”

John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer are the editors of the book Darwinism, Design and Public Education. Campbell is an expert on the rhetorical structure of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Meyer, who supports intelligent design, received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from Cambridge University. He directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and testified in the Kansas hearings.