[Paleopsych] NYT: Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes

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The New York Times > Science > Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes


    Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers
    in Birmingham, Ala., recently when he met a young woman who had just
    begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the
    state. Their conversation turned to evolution.

    "She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she'd
    get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was
    teaching it," he recalled. "She told me other teachers were doing the
    same thing."

    Though the teaching of evolution makes the news when officials
    propose, as they did in Georgia, that evolution disclaimers be affixed
    to science textbooks, or that creationism be taught along with
    evolution in biology classes, stories like the one Dr. Frandsen tells
    are more common.

    In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the
    curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers
    who follow the issue.

    Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but
    superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it.
    Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from
    fundamentalists in their communities.

    "The most common remark I've heard from teachers was that the chapter
    on evolution was assigned as reading but that virtually no discussion
    in class was taken," said Dr. John R. Christy, a climatologist at the
    University of Alabama at Huntsville, an evangelical Christian and a
    member of Alabama's curriculum review board who advocates the teaching
    of evolution. Teachers are afraid to raise the issue, he said in an
    e-mail message, and they are afraid to discuss the issue in public.

    Dr. Frandsen, former chairman of the committee on science and public
    policy of the Alabama Academy of Science, said in an interview that
    this fear made it impossible to say precisely how many teachers avoid
    the topic.

    "You're not going to hear about it," he said. "And for political
    reasons nobody will do a survey among randomly selected public school
    children and parents to ask just what is being taught in science

    But he said he believed the practice of avoiding the topic was
    widespread, particularly in districts where many people adhere to
    fundamentalist faiths.

    "You can imagine how difficult it would be to teach evolution as the
    standards prescribe in ever so many little towns, not only in Alabama
    but in the rest of the South, the Midwest - all over," Dr. Frandsen

    Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for
    Science Education, said she heard "all the time" from teachers who did
    not teach evolution "because it's just too much trouble."

    "Or their principals tell them, 'We just don't have time to teach
    everything so let's leave out the things that will cause us problems,'
    " she said.

    Sometimes, Dr. Scott said, parents will ask that their children be
    allowed to "opt out" of any discussion of evolution and principals
    lean on teachers to agree.

    Even where evolution is taught, teachers may be hesitant to give it
    full weight. Ron Bier, a biology teacher at Oberlin High School in
    Oberlin, Ohio, said that evolution underlies many of the central ideas
    of biology and that it is crucial for students to understand it. But
    he avoids controversy, he said, by teaching it not as "a unit," but by
    introducing the concept here and there throughout the year. "I put out
    my little bits and pieces wherever I can," he said.

    He noted that his high school, in a college town, has many students
    whose parents are professors who have no problem with the teaching of
    evolution. But many other students come from families that may not
    accept the idea, he said, "and that holds me back to some extent."

    "I don't force things," Mr. Bier added. "I don't argue with students
    about it."

    In this, he is typical of many science teachers, according to a report
    by the Fordham Foundation, which studies educational issues and backs
    programs like charter schools and vouchers.

    Some teachers avoid the subject altogether, Dr. Lawrence S. Lerner, a
    physicist and historian of science, wrote in the report. Others give
    it very short shrift or discuss it without using "the E word," relying
    instead on what Dr. Lerner characterized as incorrect or misleading
    phrases, like "change over time."

    Dr. Gerald Wheeler, a physicist who heads the National Science
    Teachers Association, said many members of his organization "fly under
    the radar" of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as
    controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many
    people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts
    of the science curriculum.

    Dr. Wheeler said the science teachers' organization hears "constantly"
    from science teachers who want the organization's backing. "What they
    are asking for is 'Can you support me?' " he said, and the help they
    seek "is more political; it's not pedagogical."

    There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that all living
    things evolved from common ancestors, that evolution on earth has been
    going on for billions of years and that evolution can be and has been
    tested and confirmed by the methods of science. But in a 2001 survey,
    the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of
    Americans agreed with the statement "human beings, as we know them,
    developed from earlier species of animals."

    And this was good news to the foundation. It was the first time one of
    its regular surveys showed a majority of Americans had accepted the
    idea. According to the foundation report, polls consistently show that
    a plurality of Americans believe that God created humans in their
    present form about 10,000 years ago, and about two-thirds believe that
    this belief should be taught along with evolution in public schools.

    These findings set the United States apart from all other
    industrialized nations, said Dr. Jon Miller, director of the Center
    for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University, who has
    studied public attitudes toward science. Americans, he said, have been
    evenly divided for years on the question of evolution, with about 45
    percent accepting it, 45 percent rejecting it and the rest undecided.

    In other industrialized countries, Dr. Miller said, 80 percent or more
    typically accept evolution, most of the others say they are not sure
    and very few people reject the idea outright.

    "In Japan, something like 96 percent accept evolution," he said. Even
    in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries like
    Poland, perhaps 75 percent of people surveyed accept evolution, he
    said. "It has not been a Catholic issue or an Asian issue," he said.

    Indeed, two popes, Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, have
    endorsed the idea that evolution and religion can coexist. "I have yet
    to meet a Catholic school teacher who skips evolution," Dr. Scott

    Dr. Gerald D. Skoog, a former dean of the College of Education at
    Texas Tech University and a former president of the science teachers'
    organization, said that in some classrooms, the teaching of evolution
    was hampered by the beliefs of the teachers themselves, who are
    creationists or supporters of the teaching of creationism.

    "Data from various studies in various states over an extended period
    of time indicate that about one-third of biology teachers support the
    teaching of creationism or 'intelligent design,' " Dr. Skoog said.

    Advocates for the teaching of evolution provide teachers or school
    officials who are challenged on it with information to help them make
    the case that evolution is completely accepted as a bedrock idea of
    science. Organizations like the science teachers' association, the
    National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the
    Advancement of Science provide position papers and other information
    on the subject. The National Association of Biology Teachers devoted a
    two-day meeting to the subject last summer, Dr. Skoog said.

    Other advocates of teaching evolution are making the case that a
    person can believe both in God and the scientific method. "People have
    been told by some evangelical Christians and by some scientists, that
    you have to choose." Dr. Scott said. "That is just wrong."

    While plenty of scientists reject religion - the eminent evolutionary
    theorist Richard Dawkins famously likens it to a disease - many others
    do not. In fact, when a researcher from the University of Georgia
    surveyed scientists' attitudes toward religion several years ago, he
    found their positions virtually unchanged from an identical survey in
    the early years of the 20th century. About 40 percent of scientists
    said not just that they believed in God, but in a God who communicates
    with people and to whom one may pray "in expectation of receiving an

    Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said
    he thought the great variety of religious groups in the United States
    led to competition for congregants. This marketplace environment, he
    said, contributes to the politicization of issues like evolution among
    religious groups.

    He said the teaching of evolution was portrayed not as scientific
    instruction but as "an assault of the secular elite on the values of
    God-fearing people." As a result, he said, politicians don't want to
    touch it. "Everybody discovers the wisdom of federalism here very
    quickly," he said. "Leave it at the state or the local level."

    But several experts say scientists are feeling increasing pressure to
    make their case, in part, Dr. Miller said, because scriptural
    literalists are moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of
    geology and physics on issues like the age of the earth and the origin
    of the universe.

    "They have now decided the Big Bang has to be wrong," he said. "There
    are now a lot of people who are insisting that that be called only a
    theory without evidence and so on, and now the physicists are getting
    mad about this."

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