Originally created 04/10/98

Scientists offer guidelines for teaching evolution



WASHINGTON -- Evolution must be taught in public schools if children are to understand biology at all, a panel of scientists and educators said today.

"There is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution has occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred," the National Academy of Sciences asserted in a guidebook aimed at keeping the subject from being watered down or eliminated from the classroom.

It says that understanding evolutionary change is essential to understanding vital processes, such as how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

How to go about teaching evolution has plagued education in this country since the 1920s, when John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching any account of the creation except the biblical version. The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that schools cannot teach creationism.

"Many students receive little or no exposure to the most important concept in modern biology," said the National Academy of Sciences guidebook, intended for teachers, parents, school administrators and policy makers.

Just to show how touchy the issue is, the Arizona Board of Education dropped the word "evolution" from its 1996 science standards, although they call for students to learn "how organisms change over time in terms of biological adaptation and genetics." Scientists protested the omission, and a committee will study the question this year.

The North Carolina House last year passed a bill requiring that evolution be presented as theory, not fact. And a Christian publisher in Richardson, Texas, Jon Buell, says he's been getting plenty of orders for a biology textbook, "Of Pandas and People," presenting the view that the world is the way it is by design -- a term that critics say is a code word for creationism.

Moreover, a number of university scholars, including law professor Phillip E. Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley and biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, have published books and articles challenging evolution. Critics suggest that creation is so complex, starting with the molecular structure of cells, that there had to have been a purpose.

"Our contention is that there is reasonable evidence of intelligent design," said Raymond G. Bohlin, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and heads the Probe Ministries, based in Richardson, Texas.

But the panel says that the "scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming." Without mentioning names, it says opponents of teaching evolution quote prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution.

Among the points raised in the guidebook:

  • People can still believe in God and accept evolution. "Religion and science answer different questions about the world," it says.
  • Less than one-half of American adults believe humans evolved from earlier species, according to one survey. Another found that more than half wanted creationism taught. "But there are thousands of different ideas about creation among the world's people" and the study of comparative religions does not belong in a science class, the book says.
  • Children should not be penalized for not believing in evolution, but they should be graded on their understanding of the basic ideas of evolution. "It is quite possible to comprehend things that are not believed," the guidebook says.
  • And, to set the record straight, "Humans did not evolve from modern apes, but humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists."
  • The guidebook also explains that theory in the scientific sense -- an explanation that has been well-substantiated -- is different from the everyday explanation -- a guess or hunch.

    But that helps get some teachers off the hook.

    "Just this year a parent asked me if I was teaching evolution as a theory or as a fact," said Elizabeth Carvellas, a biology teacher in Essex Junction, Vt. "I explained that I taught it as theory. That seemed to settle that problem."