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NSTA Position Statement:
The Teaching of Evolution
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) strongly supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K–12 science education frameworks and curricula. Furthermore, if evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy they need. This position is consistent with that of the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and many other scientific and educational organizations.
NSTA also recognizes that evolution has not been emphasized in science curricula in a manner commensurate to its importance because of official policies, intimidation of science teachers, the general public's misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and a century of controversy. In addition, teachers are being pressured to introduce creationism, “creation science,” and other nonscientific views, which are intended to weaken or eliminate the teaching of evolution.
Within this context, NSTA recommends that
- Science curricula, state science standards, and teachers should emphasize evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance as a unifying concept in science and its overall explanatory power.
- Science teachers should not advocate any religious interpretations of nature and should be nonjudgmental about the personal beliefs of students.
- Policy makers and administrators should not mandate policies requiring the teaching of “creation science” or related concepts, such as so-called “intelligent design,” “abrupt appearance,” and “arguments against evolution.” Administrators also should support teachers against pressure to promote nonscientific views or to diminish or eliminate the study of evolution.
- Administrators and school boards should provide support to teachers as they review, adopt, and implement curricula that emphasize evolution. This should include professional development to assist teachers in teaching evolution in a comprehensive and professional manner.
- Parental and community involvement in establishing the goals of science education and the curriculum development process should be encouraged and nurtured in our democratic society. However, the professional responsibility of science teachers and curriculum specialists to provide students with quality science education should not be compromised by censorship, pseudoscience, inconsistencies, faulty scholarship, or unconstitutional mandates.
- Science textbooks shall emphasize evolution as a unifying concept. Publishers should not be required or volunteer to include disclaimers in textbooks that distort or misrepresent the methodology of science and the current body of knowledge concerning the nature and study of evolution.
—Adopted by the NSTA Board of Directors
NSTA offers the following background information:
The Nature of Science and Scientific Theories
Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes that anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Science also assumes that the universe operates according to regularities that can be discovered and understood through scientific investigations. The testing of various explanations of natural phenomena for their consistency with empirical data is an essential part of the methodology of science. Explanations that are not consistent with empirical evidence or cannot be tested empirically are not a part of science. As a result, explanations of natural phenomena that are not based on evidence but on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, and superstitions are not scientific. Furthermore, because science is limited to explaining natural phenomena through the use of empirical evidence, it cannot provide religious or ultimate explanations.
The most important scientific explanations are called “theories.” In ordinary speech, “theory” is often used to mean “guess” or “hunch,” whereas in scientific terminology, a theory is a set of universal statements that explain some aspect of the natural world. Theories are powerful tools. Scientists seek to develop theories that
- are firmly grounded in and based upon evidence;
- are logically consistent with other well-established principles;
- explain more than rival theories; and
- have the potential to lead to new knowledge.
The body of scientific knowledge changes as new observations and discoveries are made. Theories and other explanations change. New theories emerge, and other theories are modified or discarded. Throughout this process, theories are formulated and tested on the basis of evidence, internal consistency, and their explanatory power.
Evolution as a Unifying Concept
Evolution in the broadest sense can be defined as the idea that the universe has a history: that change through time has taken place. If we look today at the galaxies, stars, the planet Earth, and the life on planet Earth, we see that things today are different from what they were in the past: galaxies, stars, planets, and life forms have evolved. Biological evolution refers to the scientific theory that living things share ancestors from which they have diverged; it is called “descent with modification.” There is abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology, and other sciences that evolution has taken place.
As such, evolution is a unifying concept for science. The National Science Education Standards recognizes that conceptual schemes such as evolution “unify science disciplines and provide students with powerful ideas to help them understand the natural world” (p. 104) and recommends evolution as one such scheme. In addition, Benchmarks for Science Literacy from AAAS’s Project 2061, as well as other national calls for science reform, all name evolution as a unifying concept because of its importance across the disciplines of science. Scientific disciplines with a historical component, such as astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology, cannot be taught with integrity if evolution is not emphasized.
There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place. There is considerable debate about how evolution has taken place: What are the processes and mechanisms producing change, and what has happened specifically during the history of the universe? Scientists often disagree about their explanations. In any science, disagreements are subject to rules of evaluation. Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment and observation, and evolution, as with any aspect of theoretical science, is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.
The importance of evolution is summarized as follows in the National Academy of Sciences publication Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science: “Few other ideas in science have had such a far-reaching impact on our thinking about ourselves and how we relate to the world” (p. 21).
Creationism and Other Non-Scientific Views
The National Science Education Standards note that, ” [e]xplanations of how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific” (p. 201). Because science limits itself to natural explanations and not religious or ultimate ones, science teachers should neither advocate any religious interpretation of nature nor assert that religious interpretations of nature are not possible.
The word “creationism” has many meanings. In its broadest meaning, creationism is the idea that the universe is the consequence of something transcendent. Thus to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, God created; to the Navajo, the Hero Twins created; for Hindu Shaivites, the universe comes to exist as Shiva dances. In a narrower sense, “creationism” has come to mean “special creation” : the doctrine that the universe and all that is in it was created by God in essentially its present form, at one time. The most common variety of special creationism asserts that
- the Earth is very young;
- life was created by God;
- life appeared suddenly;
- kinds of organisms have not changed since the creation; and
- different life forms were designed to function in particular settings.
This version of special creation is derived from a literal interpretation of Biblical Genesis. It is a specific, sectarian religious belief that is not held by all religious people. Many Christians and Jews believe that God created through the process of evolution. Pope John Paul II, for example, issued a statement in 1996 that reiterated the Catholic position that God created and affirmed that the evidence for evolution from many scientific fields is very strong.
“Creation science” is a religious effort to support special creationism through methods of science. Teachers are often pressured to include it or other related nonscientific views such as “abrupt appearance theory,” “initial complexity theory,” “arguments against evolution,” or “intelligent design theory” when they teach evolution. Scientific creationist claims have been discredited by the available scientific evidence. They have no empirical power to explain the natural world and its diverse phenomena. Instead, creationists seek out supposed anomalies among many existing theories and accepted facts. Furthermore, “creation science” claims do not lead to new discoveries of scientific knowledge.
Several judicial decisions have ruled on issues associated with the teaching of evolution and the imposition of mandates that “creation science” be taught when evolution is taught. The First Amendment of the Constitution requires that public institutions such as schools be religiously neutral; because “creation science” asserts a specific, sectarian religious view, it cannot be advocated in the public schools.
When Arkansas passed a law requiring “equal time” for “creation science” and evolution, the law was challenged in Federal District Court. Opponents of the bill included the religious leaders of the United Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist churches, along with several educational organizations. After a full trial, the judge ruled that “creation science” did not qualify as a scientific theory (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 [ED Ark. 1982]).
Louisiana's equal time law was challenged in court, and eventually reached the Supreme Court. In Edwards v. Aguillard [482 U.S. 578 (1987)], the court determined that “creation science” was inherently a religious idea and to mandate or advocate it in the public schools would be unconstitutional. Other court decisions have upheld the right of a district to require that a teacher teach evolution and not teach “creation science” (Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1003 [7th Cir. 1990]; Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 [9th Cir. 1994]).
Some legislators and policy makers continue attempts to distort the teaching of evolution through mandates that would require teachers to teach evolution as “only a theory” or that require a textbook or lesson on evolution to be preceded by a disclaimer. Regardless of the legal status of these mandates, they are bad educational policy. Such policies have the effect of intimidating teachers, which may result in the de-emphasis or omission of evolution. As a consequence, the public will only be further confused about the nature of scientific theories. Furthermore, if students learn less about evolution, science literacy itself will suffer.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Project 2061. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (ED Ark. 1982).
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). (1998). Teaching about evolution and the nature of science. Washington, DC: Steering Committee on Science and Creationism, National Academy Press.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994).
Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1003 (7th Cir. 1990).
Laudan, Larry. (1996). Beyond positivism and relativism: Theory, method, and evidence. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). (1999). Science and creationism: A view from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Ruse, Michael. (1996). But is it science: The philosophical question in the creation/evolution controversy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
Skehan, James W., S.J., and Nelson, Craig E. (1993). The creation controversy and the science classroom. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.