The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) strongly supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be emphasized in K–12 science education frameworks and curricula. Furthermore, if evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy needed to be well-informed citizens and prepared for college and STEM careers. 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 recognizes that a century of political controversy has prevented evolution from being emphasized in science curricula in a manner commensurate with its importance. This political controversy has been accompanied by anti-evolution policies, the intimidation of science teachers and textbook publishers, and the general public's lack of understanding about evolutionary theory. Teachers face pressure not only to eliminate or de-emphasize the teaching of evolution, but to introduce scientific misinformation and non-science into science classrooms. This pressure comes from overt advocacy of nonscientific views, such as “creation science,” “intelligent design,” or other forms of creationism, as well as the implicit advancement of those nonscientific views to “teach the controversy” or present “strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” Twisting and abusing core pedagogical principles, such as critical thinking and scientific inquiry is another strategy designed to open science classroom doors to non-science.
Within this context, NSTA recommends that
—Adopted by the NSTA Board of Directors, July 2013
Science is a method of testing natural explanations for natural objects and events. Phenomena that can be observed or measured are amenable to scientific investigation. Science also is based on the observation that the universe operates according to regularities that can be discovered and understood through scientific investigations. Explanations that are not consistent with empirical evidence or that cannot be tested empirically are not a part of science. As a result, explanations of natural phenomena that are not derived from evidence but from myths, personal beliefs, religious values, philosophical axioms, and superstitions are not scientific. Furthermore, because science is limited to explaining natural phenomena through testing based on the use of empirical evidence, it cannot provide religious or ultimate explanations.
The most important scientific explanations are called “theories.” In science a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses (NAS 1998). Theories are powerful tools. Scientists seek to develop theories that
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 in the broadest sense leads to an understanding that the natural world has a history and that cumulative change through time has occurred and continues to occur. If we look today at the galaxies, stars, the planet Earth, and the life on planet Earth, we see that the natural world today is different than 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 sometimes called “descent with modification.” Biological evolution also encompasses a range of mechanisms that cause populations to change and diverge over time, and include natural selection, migration, and genetic drift. 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 Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education recognizes that there are crucial core ideas in the sciences that “have application across all domains of science” and that should be emphasized in classrooms to “prepare students with sufficient core knowledge so that they can later acquire additional information on their own” (NRC 2012, pp. 30–31). This report concludes that “the core ideas in the life sciences culminate with the principle that evolution can explain how the diversity that is observed within species has led to the diversity of life across species through a process of descent with adaptive modification” (NRC 2012, p. 140). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is based on the Framework and also emphasizes 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 and is occurring. There is debate, however, 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 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” (NAS 1998, p. 21).
The National Academy of Sciences observes in Science, Evolution, and Creationism that “arguments of creationists reverse the scientific process. They begin with an explanation that they are unwilling to alter—that supernatural forces have shaped biological or Earth systems—rejecting the basic requirements of science that hypotheses must be restricted to testable natural explanations. Their beliefs cannot be tested, modified, or rejected by scientific means and thus cannot be a part of the processes of science” (NAS 2008, p. 43). 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
This version of special creation is derived from a particular 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 while simultaneously affirming that the evidence for evolution from many scientific fields is very strong.
“Creation science” is a religious effort to support special creationism through a semblance of the methods of science. Teachers may be 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. Claims by proponents of these views have been evaluated and discredited based on scientific evidence. These claims 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” and these other claims do not lead to new discoveries of scientific knowledge. As such, these creationist perspectives cannot be considered science, and have no place in science classrooms.
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]).
Courts have applied that same body of law to claims about “intelligent design” (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 [M.D. Pa.2005]) and efforts to deviate from a district’s approved curriculum to present “the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory” (LeVake v. Independent School District #656, 625 N.W. 2d 502 [Minn. Ct. App. 2001]). Courts have also found efforts to single out evolution for special scrutiny to be inherently suspect, finding that isolating evolution in that way “sends an impermissible message of [religious] endorsement (Selman v. Cobb County School District, 390 F. Supp. 2d 1286 [N.D. Ga., 2005] [reversed and remanded for procedural reasons], citing similar statements from Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 , and Edwards).
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 would 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.
Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
LeVake v. Independent School District #656, 625 N.W. 2d 502 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001).
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. The National Academies Press.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2008. Science, evolution, and creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012 A framework for K–12 education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994).
Selman v. Cobb County School District, 390 F. Supp. 2d 1286 (N.D. Ga., 2005) (reversed and remanded for procedural reasons).
Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1003 (7th Cir. 1990).
Berkman, M., and E. Plutzer. 2010. Evolution, creationism and the battle to control America’s classrooms. New York: Cambridge Press.
Laudan, L. 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, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Pennock, R., and M. Ruse. 2008. But is it science: The philosophical question in the creation/evolution controversy, updated edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
Scott, E.C. 2009. Evolution vs. creationism: An introduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Skehan, J.W., and C.E. Nelson. 1993. The creation controversy and the science classroom. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.