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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1998

National Academy's New Booklet
Is Intended to Support Educators
in Repelling Creationists' Attacks

Teaching About Evolution
and the Nature of Science

1998. 140 pages. ISBN: 0-309-06364-7.
National Academy Press, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055.

Editor's Introduction -- Creationism is a fundamentalist political movement. The creationists seek to impose onto our entire population, by political means, a religion that revolves around a literal reading of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The name creationism reflects the special emphasis that this movement's adherents give to the creation myths in the Bible's first section, the Book of Genesis. The creationists believe that the Genesis myths are accurate historical accounts of real events, and they ardently denounce all the scientific findings that have discredited that belief -- indeed, they ardently denounce science itself. They want ultimately to abolish science and to replace it with a system of religious pseudoscience that furnishes bogus "evidences" to affirm biblical narratives.

In working toward the eradication of science, the creationists try to corrupt the public's understanding of what science is, how science works, and what science has learned. Their most conspicuous efforts are aimed at eroding the teaching of science in public schools. They promote curricula that misrepresent science, they demand that teachers present scientific constructs and biblical tales as equivalent alternatives, they try to prevent the teaching of any science that contravenes biblical lore, and they try to force the schools to disseminate Bible stories that have been cloaked in "scientific" disguises. They are especially vigorous in their attempts to undermine or stifle the teaching of scientific information about organic evolution and the history of life on Earth. (See, for example: "Alabama Will Use Schoolbooks to Spread Lies and Foster Creationism" in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1995; and "Combating Creationism in a Louisiana School System" in The Textbook Letter for July-August 1997.)

In response to the creationists' continuing attacks on science education, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a 140-page booklet that seeks to provide "information and resources that teachers and administrators can use to inform themselves, their students, parents, and others about evolution and the role of science in human affairs." Titled Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, the booklet was released on 9 April.

This is the NAS's second important publication aimed at helping educators to resist the creationists' assaults. In 1984 the NAS produced a 28-page booklet called Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences and distributed it widely to teachers and school-district officials. That booklet concentrated on describing scientific findings, on showing how those findings supported scientific inferences about the history of Earth and Earth's organisms, and on debunking some of the creationists' pseudoscience. Teaching About Evolution covers some of the same ground, but it also offers a lot of practical pedagogic material. Here are two reviews of the NAS's new product.

This Timely Publication Is a Boon
to Science Teachers at Every Level

Anne C. Westwater

In many a public school, it is customary to hold an open house for parents, or perhaps for parents and students together, a few weeks after the start of the school year. The open house is an opportunity for teachers and parents to meet informally -- and for most teachers, it is a pleasant event (provided they can recall their new students' names and can avoid premature discussions of grades).

For a biology teacher, however, an open house can be stressful, as I know from some of my personal experiences during the twenty years when I taught biology in California high schools. A biology teacher must be ready to confront parents who have rejected all our scientific knowledge of organic evolution, and who declare that they don't want their children to hear anything about evolution in any science class. These people are motivated by religious convictions, and they can be intimidating -- especially to teachers whose own knowledge of science is shaky. Some of these teachers, sad to say, respond to the intimidation by choosing the path of least resistance: They downplay evolution during their teaching, or ignore it entirely, even though evolution is biology's central, unifying idea.

It is good news, then, that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has published Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, a paperback guidebook that provides a wealth of scientific information and pedagogic support that will be useful to teachers at every grade level.

Teaching About Evolution comprises seven chapters and five appendices. It explains science as a way of knowing about the natural world, summarizes a large amount of scientific evidence pertaining to our present understanding of evolution, and describes engaging hands-on and minds-on activities that help students learn about evolution and about scientific inquiry. It also considers -- by presenting answers to frequently asked questions -- some of the scientific, educational and legal issues surrounding the teaching of evolutionary biology in schools. I wish that I had had a booklet like this one during my own career in the classroom, especially during the first few years. It would have made me a more confident, more effective biology teacher.

Though Teaching About Evolution is commendable in most respects, it also has an aspect that I personally find bothersome: It reproduces many items from another NAS publication, National Science Education Standards (which was created by the National Research Council, was copyrighted in 1996 by the NAS, and was issued by the National Academy Press). The writers of Teaching About Evolution are, I think, trying to push the National Science Education Standards document. Chapter 4 of Teaching About Evolution is devoted entirely to "Evolution and the National Science Education Standards," and items from the "standards" are quoted in chapter 7 as well.

All this seems gratuitous. There is no necessary connection between the "standards" document and the teaching of evolutionary biology, and knowledgeable educators can teach about evolution without using that document at all.

I also am bothered by the NAS writers' practice of referring to National Science Education Standards without explaining that this title is misleading. As readers of The Textbook Letter know, there are no national standards in science or any other subject. The federal program for establishing national subject-matter standards collapsed in 1995 and was formally abolished in 1996, and no national standards were ever certified. By failing to explain this, the writers of Teaching About Evolution leave the reader with the misleading impression that National Science Education Standards is truly a set of national science-education standards, with some kind of official status -- the standards that must be used in developing lessons and measuring outcomes.

[Editor's note: To learn more about the failure of the federal effort to erect national standards, see the review of Glencoe World Geography in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1998.]

My last complaint concerns chapter 7, "Selecting Instructional Materials." The first section of this chapter allegedly presents ten criteria for evaluating "school science programs and the design of instructional materials," but some of the criteria are less than useful. They are larded with edu-speak but they offer little or no substantive guidance. As examples I cite "Criterion 3: An Integration of Psychological Principles Relative to Cognition, Motivation, Development, and Social Psychology" and "Criterion 5: An Array of Opportunities to Develop Knowledge, Understanding, and Abilities Associated with Different Dimensions of Scientific Literacy." Such trendy jargon is not notably helpful in evaluating instructional materials.

Another useless entry is "Criterion 9: Thorough Field Testing and Review for Scientific Accuracy and Pedagogic Quality." How can educators possibly know whether an instructional product has undergone any testing at all, let alone "thorough" testing? One of the best-known jokes of the schoolbook industry is that publishers equip their books with long lists of "reviewers" and "field test teachers," but the lists are misleading. Is the NAS suggesting that educators should give credence to these lists?

In contrast, the chapter's second section, called "Analyzing Instructional Materials," gives advice that is specific and useful. Analysis procedures are described and then are incorporated into worksheets that teachers can use when they put the procedures into practice. Moreover, teachers can adapt these procedures to the evaluation of science materials in general -- not just materials that concentrate on evolution and the nature of science.

Teaching About Evolution also has some valuable lessons for writers and editors of textbooks. It presents scientific information in clear, concise ways, with interesting examples. Its photographs and other illustrations are easy to understand, appropriately captioned, and tied to the narrative text. And the activities that this booklet describes are practical and really serve to reinforce and extend students' understanding of basic concepts.

As a biology teacher with years of classroom experience (and as a veteran of many an open house), I am pleased to recommend Teaching About Evolution as a source of solid scientific information and practical pedagogic support. When teachers have to fight ignorance and intimidation, they need accurate and up-to-date information to use as ammunition. Teaching About Evolution provides it in abundance.

While It's Successful in Some Ways,
It Fails In Its Treatment of Religion

Lawrence Davis

"If you can't take no for an answer, don't ask the question."

This bit of proverbial advice points to the essential difference between scientists and creationists. Scientists ask questions. Creationists prefer not to ask anything, rather than get an answer that seems like no.

The questions that scientists ask take the form of hypotheses, and the answers come when the hypotheses are compared with what we see in nature.

Karl Popper, in a famous but simplistic description of science, said that scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable. Unfortunately, that word "falsifiable" has often been misunderstood, and it has even been taken to mean that all the things said by scientists are false. What Popper actually meant was that scientists should propose questions, or hypotheses, that invite nature to answer yes or no. If nature answers no, then the hypothesis is false. Questions like "Is the Moon bigger than the Sun?" can clearly be answered in a yes-or-no way. Questions like "How old is God?" clearly cannot. Questions like "How old is Earth?" are a bit trickier. But if we ask "Is there any evidence that Earth is less than a billion years old?" -- a yes-or-no question -- we can take a scientific approach to the subject of Earth's age.

This reliance on testable propositions, stated as yes-or-no questions, is something that students have to understand about the nature of science. Scientists, to be scientists, must ask questions, and each question must be put so that it allows the possibility that nature will answer no.

Scientists aren't the only people who ask questions, of course. Educators ask questions too, and one of the questions that educators have posed to scientists is: Why should we teach our students about organic evolution? That question is a good one -- it's so good that the National Academy of Sciences has tried to answer it in a new booklet called Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. In the booklet's first chapter, the NAS writers begin by restating the problem:

Why is it so important to teach evolution? After all, many questions in biology can be answered without mentioning evolution: How do birds fly? How can certain plants grow in the desert? Why do children resemble their parents? Each of these questions has an immediate answer . . . .

But things don't end there, the writers say, for the immediate answers lead students (and scientists) to ask deeper questions:

How did things come to be that way? What is the advantage to birds of flying? How did desert plants come to differ from others? How did an individual organism come to have its particular genetic endowment? Answering questions like those requires a historical context -- a framework of understanding that recognizes change through time.

Hence students must study evolution.

But things don't end there, either -- because when students study evolution, it is inevitable that some of them will ask questions about received wisdom. The most common question is whether we find the biblical account of the origin of living things to be consistent with a scientific perception of evolution. The short answer is no.

In the battle over the teaching of evolutionary biology in the schools, there are extremists on both sides. The creationists cling to the language and logic of the 17th century and to an antiquated dualism, dating from medieval times, which holds that the spirit world and the material world coexist but are entirely independent. According to that doctrine, one can believe whatever one chooses to believe about the spirit world, regardless of what one sees in nature. On the opposing side, the creationists' adversaries include radical materialists like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, who have neither the vocabulary to address the creationists nor the will to take them seriously as persons. (Dawkins and Wilson are among the authors whose books are cited in the NAS booklet's Appendix D, "References for Further Reading and Other Resources.") The creationists lump all scientists together and regard them all as radical materialists, while the radical materialists lump all religionists together and regard them all as creationists.

The NAS writers know that not all religionists are creationists, and they note this in their preface: "[M]ost religious communities," they report, "do not hold that the concept of evolution is at odds with their descriptions of creation and human origins." In the later parts of the booklet, however, that point seems to get lost. Even when the writers quote a long passage composed by the biologist Ernst Mayr, who is a careful and mature thinker, things are not right. The passage, from Mayr's book This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World (1997), purports to analyze "How Science Differs from Theology," but Mayr misses the diversity and ferment that exist among religious believers. He generalizes about "revealed religions" as if they all shared a single epistemology and a single mode of exegesis. They don't.

In my view, the failure to come to grips with the diversity of religious thinking is the NAS booklet's greatest weakness. Though the appendix of "References for Further Reading and Other Resources" lists about 75 books, I see none by anyone whom I would recognize as a theologian. Let me recommend, as a starting place, Ian Barbour's book Religion in an Age of Science, published in 1990 by HarperCollins.

Now, what are the booklet's strengths?

First, the NAS writers give a comprehensible introduction to the language of science, emphasizing what words mean in the context of evolutionary biology, and they give a fair discussion of the nature of scientific inquiry. This is an important step.

A chapter of more than 40 pages provides suggested activities for teaching about evolution and the nature of science, and some of these seem really good. Activity 2, for instance, deals with the appearance of insecticide resistance in a population of flies in a dairy barn. This activity is a guided inquiry in which students form hypotheses about environmental variables, the potency of the insecticide, and natural selection. Activity 3, dealing with a predator-prey relationship, can teach many things about "survival of the fittest." It is similar to an activity which is used in introductory biology classes at my own university, and which works well.

On the other hand, the activity titled "Proposing the Theory of Biological Evolution: Historical Perspective" -- built around excerpts from writings of Lamarck, Darwin and Wallace -- is dubious. Poor old Lamarck takes another beating, and the writers ignore some inconvenient facts: Darwin was familiar with Lamarck's ideas about the mutability of species; Darwin accepted the inheritance of acquired traits (just as Lamarck did); and Darwin, in the third edition of On the Origin of Species, gave high praise to the "justly-celebrated naturalist" Lamarck. Since the writers don't acknowledge these points, their "historical perspective" reinforces the common misconception that Darwin and Lamarck were antagonists.

[Editor's note: See "The Imaginary Lamarck: A Look at Bogus 'History' in Schoolbooks" in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1994.]

A practical aid to science educators is the booklet's section on selecting instructional materials. The worksheets provided here will be very helpful to any textbook-evaluation committee that takes its charge seriously. The committee members will still have to know the subject matter well, of course, so that they can distinguish knowledgeable exposition from clichés and idle "mentioning," but proper use of the worksheets will ensure that books will be examined carefully. This section alone can be worth the price of the booklet.


Anne C. Westwater retired in 1997 from a twenty-year career as a science teacher, including some fifteen years as a teacher of biology, earth science and environmental science at Napa High School (in Napa, California). She now lives at The Sea Ranch (in Sonoma County, California) and works as a consultant in the application of brain research to educational practice.

Lawrence Davis is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas). His scientific interests include biological nitrogen fixation and the application of plants to the bioremediation of soils. He has taught plant genetics and plant physiology to high-school teachers for many years.

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