Commentary: It's About Time to Teach Evolution Forthrightly

Fifty years ago, in 1967, the Tennessee legislature repealed the Butler Act, a 1925 law that made it a misdemeanor for a teacher in the state’s public schools to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” (Larson 2012).

It was the Butler Act under which John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted and convicted in what remains the most iconic event in the litigious

Teacher John Scopes shortly before the 1925 “monkey trial.”

history of evolution education in the United States (Moore and McComas 2016).

Teaching evolution is still contentious
The repeal of the Butler Act notwithstanding, the teaching of evolution is still contentious. Proposals to require the teaching of Biblical creationism, creation “science,” and intelligent design—all billed as scientifically respectable alternatives to evolution—have, in a series of federal court cases, been ruled to be unconstitutional (Branch, Scott, and Rosenau 2010). Evolution’s opponents have thus resorted to calling for teachers to be required or encouraged to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial. Such proposals were enacted as laws in Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012 (Matzke 2016).

But of course evolution is anything but scientifically controversial. The nation’s premier scientific organizations, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are on record as describing evolution as the foundation of the biological sciences (NAS 2008; AAAS 2006). Moreover, the consensus is reflected among individual scientists. In a 2014 survey, 98% of scientists—and 99% of active research scientists and working PhD biomedical scientists—accepted that “[h]umans and other living things have evolved over time” (Rainie and Funk 2015).

Recognizing the responsibility of science educators to respect the scientific consensus, the nation’s leading science education organizations endorse the teaching of evolution. The National Science Teachers Association, for example, “strongly supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be emphasized in K–12 science education curricula” (NSTA 2013). And the authors of science standards agree: The Next Generation Science Standards, for example, treat evolution as one of four disciplinary core ideas of the life sciences (NGSS Lead States 2013).

Yet it is regrettably common for teachers to bypass, balance, or belittle evolution. A rigorous national survey of public high school biology teachers conducted in 2007 revealed that only 28% taught evolutionary biology forthrightly, while 13% presented creationism as scientifically credible in their classrooms, and a whopping 60% were “cautious”—teaching evolution, but feeling unable, unwilling, or unprepared to do so in full accordance with the recommendations of scientific and science education experts (Berkman and Plutzer 2011).

Be part of the solution
As a reader of The Science Teacher—and of the February issue focused on evolution—you probably already present evolution to your students as a central, unifying, and established principle of biology. Moreover, you may be likely to keep current on the latest developments in the evolutionary sciences and in effective science pedagogy through professional journals, reliable online resources (such as Understanding Evolution), and in service trainings. So you are not part of the problem. But you can be part of the solution.

You can improve the effectiveness of your own teaching of evolution, by, for example, taking into account the distinctive obstacles to understanding evolution (see, e.g., Kampourakis 2014); taking notice of the history, complexity, and diversity of the reactions of faith traditions in the United States to evolution (see, e.g., Giberson and Yerxa 2002); and taking advantage of the burgeoning literature emphasizing the practical applicability and the human relevance of evolution (see, e.g., Mindell 2006; Pobiner 2012). But you should also look beyond your own classroom.

If any of your colleagues present creationism as scientifically credible in their classrooms, you can gently but firmly remind them of their professional and legal responsibilities as science educators and government employees. If any are among the cautious, you can inspire them to improve their scientific knowledge and pedagogical confidence, enabling them to teach evolution honestly, accurately, and confidently.
(That is also the goal of the National Center for Science Education’s new teacher network, NCSEteach.) And those who already present evolutionary biology forthrightly can help you with those projects.

Finally, you can become a public voice to defend the integrity of science education. In recent years, proposed state science standards have been criticized for their treatment of evolution in Alabama, Kansas, Iowa, Kentucky, and South Carolina, while in 2016 alone, legislative attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution arose in Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Science educators have commendably resisted these assaults, but it is clear these assaults will continue, or even intensify, in 2017—and so will the imperative to resist them.

If you recognize the need to improve your classroom presentation of evolution, or to support colleagues who may feel unable, unwilling, or unprepared to teach evolution forthrightly, or to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, but you simply haven’t found the time to do so yet, remember what Scopes reportedly said—with no great degree of originality but doubtless with plenty of feeling—when Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, 42 years after his conviction: “Better late than never.”

Glenn Branch ( is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2006. Statement on the teaching of evolution.

Berkman, M.B., and E. Plutzer. 2011. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331: 404–405.

Branch, G., E.C. Scott, and J. Rosenau. 2010. Dispatches from the evolution wars: Shifting tactics and expanding battlefields. Annual Reviews of Genomics and Human Genetics 11: 317–338.

Giberson, K.W., and D.A. Yerxa. 2002. Species of origins: America’s search for a creation story. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kampourakis, K. 2014. Understanding evolution. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Larson, E.J. 2012. Creationism in the classroom: Cases, statutes, and commentary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Matzke, N.J. 2016. The evolution of antievolution policies after Kitzmiller v. Dover. Science 351: 28–30.

Mindell, D.P. 2006. The evolving world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moore, R., and W.F. McComas. 2016. The Scopes Monkey Trial. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2008. Science, evolution, and creationism. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2013. NSTA position statement: The teaching of evolution.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pobiner, B.L. 2012. Use human examples to teach evolution. The American Biology Teacher 74 (2): 71–72.

Rainie, L., and C. Funk. 2015. Elaborating on the views of AAAS scientists, issue by issue.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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