PSU Probing Question: Why is Teaching Evolution Still Controversial?

In 2008, the Church of England issued an unexpected apology. Wrote Reverend Dr. Malcolm Brown, “Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still…But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet…”

That may be an understatement. Darwin—a mild-mannered naturalist who attended church most of his life and shied away from controversy—sparked one of the most enduring battles between religious doctrine and science when he introduced the concept of natural selection in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

Explain Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, despite 40 years of court cases ruling against teaching creationism in American public schools, the majority of high school biology teachers are not strong classroom advocates of evolutionary biology.

“Considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America’s classrooms,” they write in a January 2011 Science article that details their study of 926 public high school biology instructors.

Says Berkman, “Only 28 percent of those teachers consistently introduce evidence that evolution occurred, and thirteen percent explicitly advocate creationism.” Over 60 percent attempt to avoid the controversy (and potential objections from school boards or parents) by employing several classroom strategies, he adds.

Some only teach evolution as it pertains to molecular biology, not animals or humans. Another strategy, Plutzer adds, is to “tell students it does not matter if they really believe in evolution, as long as they know it for the test,” while other teachers choose to teach it alongside creationism, sometimes referred to as “teaching the controversy.”

Advocates of the latter approach say it promotes critical thinking skills and allows students to make up their own minds. Not so, says Berkman, who calls a side-by-side comparison of evolution and creationism “a false equivalency.” “Creationism’s proponents don’t conduct experiments or engage in any of the other activities we associate with modern science,” he adds, “whereas evolution has been verified through many experiments and validation of hypotheses over many years. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a fact.”

As for students deciding for themselves, this idea “is a red herring and disingenuous,” believes Berkman. “Some students have been taught creationism since they were born. A few lectures on evolution won’t sufficiently prepare them to make up their own minds.”

In the landmark 2005 case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal judge found the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public school science classes to be unconstitutional. Judge John Jones III wrote in his decision, “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory…Accordingly, we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to be a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

Why does the teaching of evolution matter for American children and the nation’s future? “Biology is the only high-school science class for many Americans,” notes Berkman. “We found that, in all regions and states, students in high-school biology are being short-changed in instruction on the field’s foundational theory. I think this does several things. For one, students miss out on the beauty and elegance of evolution, an idea that ties together life on this planet. And it also leads to an undermining and distrust of science, at a time when the United States is falling behind in science and math education when compared to other nations.

Says Plutzer, the data suggest that many teachers lack the necessary confidence in their own knowledge of evolutionary science to present evolution in a positive, appropriate, and accurate way. “We argue in our Science article that the answer lies in how high-school biology teachers are themselves educated. They need to take a course in evolution, for example, so they are confident when they need to teach it.”

There are those who will not want to take such a course, because it goes against their own values, the researchers acknowledge. “But I think biology instruction overall will be stronger if those potential teachers, dissuaded by that class requirement, choose to teach another subject,” says Berkman.

Is there any harm to kids in learning about evolution? “Some people seem to believe that Darwinism is a kind of ideology that undermines faith and might encourage immoral behavior,” notes Plutzer. “Yet many religious leaders have affirmed their belief that there is no inherent conflict between evolution and faith.” It’s also important to realize, he adds, “that, in and of itself, evolution takes no position on the ultimate creation of the universe or the origin of life.”

As to the claim made by some opponents that evolution diminishes humans by reducing us to simply another kind of ape, Plutzer says emphatically, “What makes human beings special is not our anatomy. Whether one calls it a soul or something else, human beings have a rich spiritual capacity, free will, and the ability to live a meaningful life.” If a life of devotion to God is meaningful to a child, he adds, “nothing taught about evolutionary biology will change that.”

Melissa Beattie-Moss, Research Penn State

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8 thoughts on “PSU Probing Question: Why is Teaching Evolution Still Controversial?

  1. brhoffman

    Perhaps we should be more concerned with the teaching of Global Warming in the classroom more than evolution. Because, we have been created, by whatever means you decide, it is already so. The global warming fallacy is much more damaging because it alters how our children perceive the future, things TO BE created, economies, policies, nations, and the like. Perhaps requiring this theory to be grounded in fact is more beneficial than throwing the Bible and the Origin of Species at each other.

    • provoking1

      Mr. Hoffman,

      When I was educated in the public school system we were taught about all the theories in the early 70’s. We were not taught conclusions but rather how to prove your conclusion. We were taught how to think and how to learn.

      One of our great problems (in my opinion) is that we do not teach our students to look an argument and to question the premises of the argument for validity. If we do not question the premises then we merely indoctrinate.

      I guess we could also hold in tension with teaching fact and the presuppositional basis from which we draw our conclusion. (Fact being the conclusion(s) we come to based on all available evidence.) I remember more than once having a paper handed back saying prove your answer. The correct answer was not enough.

      We know that the earths climate has never been static. That is a fact supported with fairly strong evidence. As theories come along, especially ones that become popular and draw huge amounts of grant money, we should promote critical examination of those theories.

      The global warming debate was declared to be over. Of course that flies in the face of scientific methodology. In fact, it would be a good example of what happens when you base your theory on flawed presuppositons.

      The earths temperature will continue to change until we figure a way to tax it into being static.

      I agree with your comparitive conclusion,

      John Balliet

      • brhoffman

        Agreed. Regrettably our current political climate of ‘correctness’ only allows for the teaching of the theory of least resistance. If you teach creationism – right, wrong, or otherwise – it will offend someone somewhere and our politically correct system will sweep in to correct the offense, not support the advancement of knowledge. However, if we teach darwinism when Judea-Christian population has no recourse, as the evolutionists will hide behind the First Amendment.

        The same argument holds true with Global Warming.

  2. provoking1

    Citing evidence as the basis of a THEORY is much different from the critical examination of the actual evidence as proof. Proof that can be tested such as actual sciences.

    This alleged debate ignores what the article said- only 28% of teachers are teaching this. Are the rest extreme right wing nut jobs? No, they are teachers which employ critical thought.

    The use of logical fallacies in argumentation is disappointing and distracts from meaningful discourse.

  3. TheBicyclingGuitarist

    what some creationists demand as “proof” of evolution would, if it were found, raise serious questions about our current understanding of how life evolved. Evolution does not predict that a dog will give birth to a cat or that we will find a fossil of a creature with half a leg for example. The “proof” for evolution creationists demand would, if found, not falsify evolution but would require the theory to be adjusted to account for the new data.

    In a hundred fifty years, no data has yet been found that falsifies evolution, and our understanding of it is better than ever before. We know more about how evolution works than about how gravity works. How can creationists deny the existence of fossils of fish with legs, whales with legs, and perfect transitional forms between apes and humans, not to mention the genetic evidence (ERVs, pseudogenes, human chromosome 2)?

  4. JosephU

    Q. Why is Teaching Evolution Still Controversial?
    A. Because the Biblical creation account is in accord with scientific evidence:
    Genesis 1:21 …
    “God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing
    with which the water teems, according to their kinds,
    and every winged bird according to its kind.”

    Scientific evidence:
    Dogs produce dogs, cats produce cats, and humans produce humans.

    Creation … Yes. Evolution … NO.

    • TheBicyclingGuitarist

      JosephU, you are incorrect. The strongest evidence for evolution is the nested hierarchies of many different types of data that all produce the same tree of life. This is expected and explained by evolution but makes no sense if everything was created separately.

      Scientific evidence fish produce land animals, land animals produce whales, dinosaurs produce birds, apes produce humans.

      Conclusion: Evolution…Yes. Creation, possibly, but a literal interpretation of Genesis is NOT supported by the evidence of God’s creation. That’s just the way it is whether you like it or not. Educate yourself, or at least don’t stand in the way of our children getting educated.

    • Dr_G_Hurd

      JosephU says: “Dogs produce dogs, cats produce cats, and humans produce humans.”

      I want everyone to compare this to:

      “The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger.”


      “For it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties.”


      Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. ii, ch. x, xi.

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