Teaching Evolution, State By State

By Lawrence S. Lerner

The following article was written for Freethought Today by the author of the famous Fordham Foundation report grading the teaching of evolution state-by-state.

In response to the flurry of public interest in education over the past few years, every state except Iowa has published a set of curriculum standards in every subject studied from kindergarten through high school. These standards usually take the form of a sort of laundry list, specifying what every public-school student should know at specified grade levels. As a scientist, I have taken a particular interest in the science standards.

In 1997 I was asked by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative Washington-based education think tank, to evaluate all the science standards that were current at the time. It took me several months to plow through the stuff, and the results were published by the foundation in March 1998 in a report with the heavy title "State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards in 36 States." To put it bluntly, a lot of states did not do very well.

By 1999 there had been so much activity in revising old curriculum standards and publishing new ones that the foundation published a re-evaluation. I was again asked to review the science standards and the results were published in The State of State Standards 2000, which covered English, history, geography and mathematics as well as science. By late 1999, 46 states had published science standards. Their quality ranged from excellent to simply awful.

In the course of these reviews, it became clear that a major factor in the variation of quality from state to state was the treatment of evolution, and the Fordham Foundation asked me to make a specific study of the way that evolution is treated in state science standards. The results of this study, which covers 49 states and the District of Columbia, were published in September 2000 in a report entitled "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution In The States."

The report addresses three main questions:

  • In learning about the history of life on earth, and the related histories of the universe and the nonliving earth, what essentials should students learn as they progress from the primary grades through high school?
  • On what religious and political grounds do creationists (and other less visible groups of anti-evolutionists) object to the learning of science, and what pseudoscientific alternatives do they offer?
  • How well do various states outline the scientific essentials in their K-12 science standards, and to what extent do they degrade those standards by responding to creationist pressures?

Before giving the results of the state-by-state study, let me expand a little on the nature of the political/religious issues that work against a proper treatment of science, particularly in the biological realm. In the broad sense, almost all of science is the study of the way that various systems evolve over time. The systems can be as large as the universe itself or as small as a neutrino; the relevant time scales can be as long as billions of years or as short as attoseconds. Biology is no exception; its central organizing principle is the evolution of living things. Without evolution, biology is no more than a vast, bewildering array of facts. One can teach a sort of natural history without evolution--"This is a horse and this is a rose"--but one runs into trouble almost immediately when some clever student asks, "Why are horses and roses different from one another?"

The difficulty arises, as most people know, from the conflict between the realities of science and the fanciful world views that arise from certain religious and ideological positions. The best-known anti-evolutionists are the subset of Protestant fundamentalists called young-earth creationists. These are the folks who believe that the first few chapters of Genesis from Adam and Eve to Noah are the basic textbook for all the sciences, and that the genealogies of the Old Testament are the proper foundation for the chronology of the universe.

There are other screwballs as well, with conflicting views. Black Muslims, for instance, believe that the universe is trillions of years old, and some Native American tribes consider that their ancestors have lived in the traditional tribal territories forever. Just as the fundamentalist creationists underestimate the age of the earth by a factor of a million or so, the Black Muslims overestimate by a thousandfold and the Indians are off by a factor of infinity.

Other ideologues object to evolution for different reasons. On the political left, Marxists object to evolution because it implies that human behavior is determined at least in part by our biological history. This conflicts with the Marxian principle that all the ills of society are due to socioeconomic injustice, and that the future will see the emergence of the New Socialist Man who is without vices. On the political right, a general disgust with the current social order (which is seen as grossly immoral) is associated with a yearning for an absolutism that extends from the moral sphere to the objective scientific world. For many if not most absolutists, an eternal, immutable set of moral standards implies the existence of a deity. And what better proof of the deity's existence can one have than the assertion that he/she/it is intimately, continually, and visibly directing the processes of nature? This is the position held by a new group of creationists, called intelligent-design advocates (IDers for short.) They tend to be slick, sophisticated, and free of the redneck image that adheres to the young-earth creationists.

Unfortunately, the desire to inject a deity into natural processes is inconsistent with the operational processes of science. As soon as one explains any natural phenomenon as the result of supernatural action, the path to further explanation is closed, and that is the end of science. Even from the point of view of the more thoughtful religious person, this supernaturalist position is unacceptable. Science progresses in spite of those who are satisfied with the "God did it" explanation. As scientific knowledge expands, the realm of the supernatural shrinks and the deity who manipulates it becomes what theologians call the "God of the gaps"--not a very satisfactory god at all.

All of these ideologies, whether religious or political, are committed to a world-view incompatible with science. The scientist investigates the way nature works; whether the scientist "likes" that way or not is of no consequence. The ideologue, on the other hand, decides how nature must work to fit preconceived notions. This, of course, cannot lead to expansion of knowledge about nature.

As a practical matter, it is the young-earthers who have had by far the greatest influence to date on state science standards. However, I think we will hear much more from the intelligent-design advocates in the future.

Some states have yielded to a greater or lesser extent to creationist pressures. They do this in one or more of several ways. Here are the major tactics used:

The standards may include many of the central principles of evolution--usually briefly--but the word evolution is carefully avoided. Inaccurate and misleading euphemisms such as "change over time" are used instead of the "E-word." Alabama, Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi are among the fifteen states that do this to a greater or lesser extent.
Biological evolution is simply ignored. Geological evolution, the history of the solar system, and cosmology may be treated to some extent, often even employing the word evolution. Fossils are sometimes mentioned, but only in the context of geology, not biology. Only four states (Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia) ignore evolution completely but only ten have a completely satisfactory coverage of the subject.
Creationist jargon and misinformation are used. Examples are: "Some scientists believe that life evolved . . ."; "Describe the strengths and weakness of various theories of the history of life"; "Natural selection can maintain or deplete genetic variation but does not add new information to the genetic code." Eight states do this.
A point scale was developed to evaluate the degree to which each of the state standards gave a good account of evolution and avoided creationist pseudoscience. Each state was scored and letter grades A to F-minus were assigned.

The map (shown below) shows the situation as of August 2000. Since then, however, several states have made or are making revisions. In Kansas, the voters kicked out several creationist members of the State Board of Education, and we can expect a set of pretty good standards to replace the F-disaster that is now in place. Alabama seems to be in the continuing process of ridding itself of the influence of former governor and redneck par excellence Fob James, and will likely move up from F. The Pennsylvania Board of Education, sadly, seems determined to degrade a set of draft standards that merit an A to a C; it remains to be seen whether the creationists will prevail there.

The map teaches us an important lesson. Not all the worst-performing states are in the Bible Belt, and many states outside the Bible Belt do badly. For example, North Carolina's standards are among the best in their treatment of evolution and South Carolina's are very good. Maine, New Hampshire, and Illinois do badly. Good science is not simply a matter of geography. This is an important point because it is a snobbish as well as damaging misconception to shrug one's shoulders and write off the inhabitants of this or that region as incorrigible or ineducable.

Good science is not a matter of politics, either. Many political conservatives seem to hold the view that one cannot be a genuine conservative unless one is a creationist, too. This position has often been set forth in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and the American Spectator. In the wake of the publication of my report, the director of the Fordham Foundation, a man of impeccable conservative credentials, has endured a great deal of flak from some of his political associates, especially those who are IDers.

What does the future hold? At the moment, the creationists are probably losing more ground than they are gaining, but that is most likely a temporary situation. As the political situation evolves, creationist claims evolve as well, and the creationists are not going to go away. As the map suggests, local vigilance is essential if we are to give the best education possible to all the members of the next generation. The reports cited in this article may be found at the Fordham Foundation website, http://www.edexcellence.net/

Lawrence S. Lerner is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He has been a Foundation member since 1985. A briefer version of his official report was published in Nature, September 2000. ("Good and bad science in US Schools: One-third of US states have unsatisfactory standards for teaching evolution.")

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