February 9, 2011

Evolution FAIL

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:49 pm by chavisory

I’m not a big fan of mandatory schooling, as most of my readers will already know.  Okay, I’m not a fan at all.  But I’m starting to think it’s about time to require everyone to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

And I mean everyone.

I read it myself last year, in a campaign of reading stuff that we should’ve been assigned in school but weren’t.  I was a little bit (okay, a lot) appalled that as much as I thought I knew about evolution, I had actually attained a degree in biology without ever having read the seminal work on the subject.

If you need evidence that our schools are profoundly failing to educate, consider that.  Most biology students never have to actually read On the Origin of Species.

Or that, according to a Times article (On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan) on a survey published in Science magazine last month, 86 years after the Scopes trial, only 28 percent of high school biology teachers are actually teaching the straight facts about evolution, the foundational principle of modern biology, while 13 percent are still explicitly teaching creationism.


The article shines a light on what the study calls the “cautious 60 percent” of biology teachers who in some way, shape or form, compromise on teaching evolution outright.

In what other discipline would it not be outrageous to allow 73 percent (the 60 who don’t teach evolution straight up + the 13 who openly teach creationism) of our educators to bow in deference to religious fundamentalism?  But that’s what we’re doing in biology.  Wouldn’t there be nationwide outraged panic if it were found that an authoritarian sect of some religion other than Christianity were managing to seriously compromise how our kids are being taught?

Yet this is what’s going on in the overwhelming majority of our biology classrooms.

One professor quoted, Randy Moore, doesn’t think that better science education for instructors will help.  “They already know what evolution is,” he says.  “They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.”

But do they really know what evolution is?  I doubt it.  If nearly three quarters of biology teachers aren’t really teaching evolution or teaching it in a half-hearted way; or if they, like me, got through school as high-achieving biology students without ever reading first-hand the definitive books on the topic, then they really might not.  And fundamentalist churches aren’t simply rejecting evolution; they’re lying about what the theory actually says and does not say.  So when someone who hears about evolution in school but rejects it for religious reasons, are they honestly rejecting an accurately presented representation of evolution, or are they believing their pastor over their science teacher when it comes to what evolution by natural selection really is?

So I come down, cautiously hopeful, on the side of the slightly more optimistic Dr. Eric Plutzer, who says that “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”

This is a cycle that can be broken, if educators know how to stand up for the facts.


  1. Byron said,

    Mrs. Whipple, I believe, was my bio teacher in high school. I think she actually did a good job with evolution. She didn’t approach nervously, at least. I remember her saying something like, “Now, I know some of you might not agree with this, but it’s still important that you understand it.” The nice way of saying, “You’re not leaving during the lesson and I’m testing you on it whether you like it or not.” Of course, it was *just* high school, so we didn’t read Darwin or anything.

    • chavisory said,

      My AP bio teacher didn’t approach nervously, but she did say something like “you don’t have to believe it, but you have to understand it because it’s on the AP test.” But I think even that starts to send the wrong message that it doesn’t matter if this is actually true or not, it’s just what the College Board says we have to test. In science, it matters whether what we say is actually true or not. People seriously studying science need to learn to deal with what the overwhelming evidence says is actually true, whether it’s inconvenient or unpleasant to their belief system or not.

  2. Emma said,

    You’re preaching to this choir. Scientific illiteracy, in general, is something our schools need to address.
    I recommend “Demon Haunted World” (Sagan) to many people as a good first step.

  3. Amber said,

    For the record, I start my biology year teaching the nature of science and then teach evolution right afterwards. This way, I can explain why i don’t talk about creationism, because it isn’t testable, and therefore it isn’t science. Plus, by teaching evolution so early, I can use it to explain so many other quirky things in biology.

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