Teaching evolution: Legal victories aren't enough

May 20, 2008

In many ways, much has changed since the famous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. In recent years, US courts have consistently ruled that teaching explicitly religious alternatives to evolution in public schools is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. But in a new essay published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, political scientist Michael Berkman and his colleagues show that despite these many legal victories, a surprising number of public high school biology teachers still include creationism or intelligent design in their curriculum.

In the “first nationally representative survey of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution,” the authors show that one in eight high school biology teachers present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to Darwinian evolution. While this number does not reflect public demand—38% of Americans would prefer that creationism to be taught instead of evolution—it does represent a disconnect between legal rulings, scientific consensus, and classroom education.

The majority of biology teachers spend between 3 and 15 hours on evolution. This is a wide range for a topic considered by the National Academy of Sciences to be “the central concept of biology.” The amount of time spent teaching human evolution is even less: the majority of teachers spend no more than five hours on the subject.

“This is the hottest of the hot buttons” says Berkman, suggesting that pressure from the community might play a role in how teachers structure their classes. Even the strongest legal ruling “still gives boards of education, school districts, and especially teachers considerable leeway” he says.Teachers are still in charge of implementing state standards, adhering to court decisions, and integrating textbooks into their classrooms. “And about this,” the authors write, “we are less sanguine.”

The authors show that the disparity in teaching evolution is not linked to differences in state regulations, but can more likely be attributed to differences of religious belief and education amongst teachers. Less than one-third of high school biology teachers believe that God had no part in evolution, nearly one-half believe God had a hand in evolution, and almost one in six believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. The teachers who hold creationist or intelligent design beliefs spent substantially less time teaching evolution than their Darwinist counterparts. Likewise, teachers with a stronger background in evolution spent 60% more time teaching it than those who had the least education in the subject.

There are no federal standards for class curriculums, and the state regulations are often inconsistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. Rather than adjusting government regulations, Berkman et al. argue, raising the certification standards for teachers could have a significant impact on the amount of time they spend on evolution. The authors propose requiring extra courses in evolutionary biology. “The extra background could make a large difference” says Berkman. ”The legal ruling and legislative victories are clearly necessary for evolution to maintain its proper place in the biology curriculum,” the authors conclude, “but they are not sufficient.”

Citation:Berkman MB, Pacheco JS, Plutzer E (2008) Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: A national portrait. PLoS Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124 (biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124)

Source: Public Library of Science

Explore further: Stanford researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Physics: A fundamental force for future security

Feb 13, 2014

What is matter? What is energy? What holds matter together? How do the various constituents of the universe interact at the most basic level? Where does the Earth sit in relation to the rest of the universe? ...

Surgeon test-drives Google Glass in the operating room

Nov 23, 2013

When Dr. Heather Evans, a trauma surgeon at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, stepped into the operating room wearing an eyeglasses-like, Internet-connected device known as Google Glass, she quickly realized ...

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JerryPark
not rated yet May 20, 2008
Or, the federal government could stop micro-managing education and let teachers teach.

Gregori
not rated yet May 20, 2008
they shouldn't be allowed to teach children absolute bullshit though.

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...