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Evolution and Intelligent Design in High Schools

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Since its acceptance as the leading scientific theory of the origin of man, Darwinism (evolution) has been at odds with Creationism. Over the last century, American schools have gone back and forth between teaching one of the two theories, and at times even taught both. While Darwinism, in 1987, won a decisive battle with a supreme court ruling that outlawed the teaching of Creationism in public schools (it was ruled as a violation of the first amendment), in the last decade, non-Darwinist theories have been gaining support (1). Many argue that there are significant “gaps” in the theory of evolution that other competing theories, such as intelligent design, can explain. They feel that such theories should be taught in high school biology courses.

In 1990, a survey of high school biology teachers found that 40% believe that there are significant problems with the theory of evolution that are cause for doubt in its validity (2). Furthermore, a 1999 survey of the general public found that 68% of the population would be in favor of teaching both Creationism and Darwinism, while a 2002 survey of high school students found that 52% were in favor of teaching both (1). In sum, much of the public and academia alike feel that alternatives to evolution should be taught at least along side Darwinism in high school biology. The U.S. supreme court says that religious based alternatives cannot legally be taught, but American law aside, is including alternative explanations to the origin of man the right thing for students? While it may have its advantages, law aside, I feel that they should not be taught in a high school biology course. But before I argue my position, I will first discuss the arguments of both anti and pro-Darwinists.

The newest anti-Darwinist movement gaining ground, intelligent design (ID) is based on the notion that there are gaps in evolutionary theory. ID proponents claim that natural selection lacks the evolutionary power to produce major biological innovations such as the human eye and other complex organs (3). Furthermore, there have been discoveries, such as the “Cambrian explosion”, where fossil records show new species developed without connection to biological ancestors (3). In sum, ID proponents suggest that although evolution exists, it is not an entirely random process, and is directed, to some extent, by a supernatural power (3). Both ID proponents and some non-proponents as well believe that ID should be taught along side of evolution to give an alternative theoretical explanation for the origin of species that takes into consideration the evolutionary “gaps” that we have discovered (4). Not only will this bring the “gaps” to the attention of the students, which are as scientifically supported as evolution itself, but this will also spur the development of scientific thinking necessary for the refinement of all scientific theory (5). Darwin himself labeled his theory as “a credible but contestable argument”; therefore many feel that in light of the evolutionary “gaps”, challenging Darwinism is the scientifically responsible thing to do (3).

Many, on other hand, feel that Darwinism should remain the only theory to explain the origin of man taught in a high school science class. Not necessarily because they feel that Darwinism is perfectly correct, but more so due to the nature of the conflicting theories. Even though, ID supports the science of evolution, it also incorporates the major creationist attitude that a supernatural power (god) influences biology (6). This aspect of ID makes it religious in nature, and religion is a philosophically based topic, not suited for science classrooms. Religious beliefs cannot be scientific because they can never be falsified (1). Even though the U.S. supreme court has already indicated that religious-based beliefs cannot be taught in U.S public schools, because it is a violation of the first amendment, religious-based theories cannot be taught in natural science class rooms, because they are not scientific by definition. By definition, a theory in natural science must be empirically based, and the creationist aspects of ID are not empirically based; they are belief based (7). They ultimately feel that the debate between a Creationist account and a purely scientific account of the origin of man is not one that belongs in the science classroom, but the philosophy, religion, social studies classroom (5).

In this argument both sides have good points. I feel that since there is scientific evidence to support the existence of “gaps” in the Darwinist argument, that they need to be presented to high school students in the biology class room. This, in turn will show students that not all theories are concrete, and that science is a work in progress. Many high school students graduate believing that current scientific theory is fact, when in fact, scientific theories are the most “best” explanations based on empirical evidence. I feel that the topic of evolution would be a perfect place in the biology curriculum to point out that not everything is known about anything, and even scientific theories that we are very sure about can be and are likely wrong. We should use evolution as the opportunity to teach students to think of science as getting it “less wrong”, thus, teaching them the values necessary to become exploratory scientists. Teachers should also tell their students that they are often taught science as fact, because we are so sure about some that we pretty much have labeled them as such; however, this does not mean that the theory is a fact at any level. At the same time, however, students should be informed that evolution is currently the best scientific explanation for the origin of species, and that the “gaps” could be due to lack of discovery, just as much as they could be due to problems in the theory.

While the other theories such as ID and creationism should be touched upon briefly as alternative theories. I think that these theories should not be explained in any detail, because they do not belong in a high school biology classroom. While they do serve the important function of developing critical thinking skills necessary for exploratory science, a high school biology course’s main function is to teach the students the foundations of the major biological theories. While it is important to hone the analytical skills necessary to create experiments, test hypothesis or create and debate theories, one must first understand the basic biological theories, so that he or she can apply their analytical skills to what has already been discovered. Therefore, if much of the time is spent debating theories to expand critical thinking, such as ID and evolution, then the high school biology class would not be fulfilling its duty of teaching the foundations of biological theory. These critical thinking skills should be extensively developed in other courses, and applied sparingly throughout the high school biology curriculum.

On the other hand, I feel that the topics of ID and Creationism are important, and should be taught to students in detail and debated against Darwinism and other empirically based theories. However, I feel that other classes, such as philosophy classes should teach and debate such theories. These classes should focus on developing the critical thinking skills that make scientists good explorers. One public school has already begun doing so (8). Just because these theories are religiously based, does not mean they have no academic value, it just means that they are inappropriate for a high school basic science courses.











5) Scott, Eugene C. and Branch, Glenn “Evolution: what’s wrong with ‘teaching the controversy’” TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution. October 2003. V18 No.10





Anne Dalke's picture




You have of course chosen the most controversial topic in debates about American education—not an easy subject, but certainly one that this course (and the premises, design and argument of this course) brings into high focus. You give some important and useful history in the debate—thanks.

My first suggestion is aimed @ bringing your argument into clearer focus: Start by telling me up front what your claim is going to be. Then go back and build up to it, explaining how you arrived at that point. I need to know from the start where you will be taking me, whether (I want!) to go on the journey, what I’m looking for in terms of supporting data. You need to set the terms that will guide my reading @ the very beginning.

But that’s really just a technical/structural suggestion. Your paper provoked lots of larger, more interesting questions for me (always a good thing). Want to try your hand at answering some of them? Who defines science? And who gets to police the definition? How pure is science? Is there no “crack,” no subjectivity in its practice? What does it mean to “feel” that something should be done in the h.s. curriculum? Are you describing your belief, your thinking, your argumentative claims? What does “evidence to support the existence of gaps” mean? That there is no evidence to fill in the gaps (in the fossil record)? What is the difference between fact and theory? What makes a theory a fact? How can a theory become fact? What distinguishes a theory that is “religiously based” from one that has “academic value”?

Most interesting to me by far was your final gesture: that critical thinking should be done in philosophy classes, in order to give space, in biology, for covering “foundations.”
I can’t quite get my head around this notion of a “sparing” and uncritical science—is that what you are asking me to do?