Learning About Evolution Critical For Understanding Science

April 09, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Many public school students receive little or no exposure to the theory of evolution, the most important concept in understanding biology, says a new guidebook from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Teachers are reluctant to teach evolution because of pressures from special-interest groups to downplay or eliminate it as part of the science curriculum. Moreover, some are advocating that creationism be taught in public schools -- even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism is a religious idea that cannot be mandated in public education.

In an effort to move beyond the debate and focus attention on effective instruction, the Academy has issued a new guidebook, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, to provide educators and policy-makers with tools to help integrate lessons about the scientific theory with basic biology for children in kindergarten through grade 12. The guidebook was written by a group of prominent scientists and educators who have been involved extensively in education and research on evolution.

"The widespread misunderstandings about evolution are of great concern to the scientific community and the Academy," said Bruce Alberts, NAS president and one of the book's authors. "Evolution is the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world. If we want our children to have a good grasp of science, we need to help teachers, parents, school administrators, and policy-makers understand both evolution and the nature of science. They also must recognize that many scientists are religious people, and that religion and science represent different approaches to understanding the human condition that are not incompatible with each other."

Teaching evolution is essential for explaining some of the most fundamental concepts of science, the guidebook says. Like all scientific theories, evolution explains natural phenomena by building logically on observations that can be tested and analyzed. The book: "Biology simply cannot be taught well without covering evolution," said Donald Kennedy, a co-author of the guidebook and Bing Professor of Environmental Studies, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. "Students who understand the process of evolutionary change are able to grasp its vital practical consequences, such as how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. A failure to teach effectively about evolution will rob students of a precious opportunity -- to understand how life on Earth has developed and to appreciate their own place in the world."

The guidebook does not attempt to refute the ideas of those who oppose the teaching of evolution. Rather, it points out that most religious denominations in the United States do not view evolution as being at odds with their understanding of human origins. The idea that the entire universe was created all at once about 10,000 years ago ? an idea inherent in "creation science" -- is not supported by scientific data. However, the concept of evolution is unquestioned by almost all scientists.

Many who oppose teaching evolution charge that it is "just a theory, not a fact," and should be taught as such in the classroom. But scientists do not use the word "theory" to describe an unsubstantiated idea. In science, theories are explanations based on a large body of established facts. The debate about evolution in the scientific community is focused on the details of how evolution occurs, not whether it occurs, the publication says. Nearly all scientists agree that biological evolution is the most sound theory to explain the diversity of life.

Science teachers can use the new publication in conjunction with the National Science Education Standards -- voluntary guidelines introduced three years ago by the National Research Council to ensure that all students achieve scientific literacy through improving what is taught, how it is taught, and how students are assessed. The science standards stress the importance of evolution because understanding the theory is essential to mastering basic biology and learning how science works. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science also provides criteria for evaluating school science programs and the content and design of instructional materials.

The project was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund Inc., and the Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy is a private, non-profit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter.

*Copies of Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science are available from the National Academy Press tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The complete guidebook is also available on the World Wide Web at www.nap.edu/readingroom/ books/evolution98. The cost of the report is $19.95 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for a single copy; discounts are available for bulk orders. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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