Teaching Evolution in a Climate of Controversy
Meshing Classroom Practice with
Science and Common Sense
Kenneth R. Miller
The issues that confront all educators in the teaching of evolution are social, religious, and even
political. And these are the things that make them troublesome. I will propose that the most
effective and most respectful way to deal with these issues is also the simplest — to treat them
simply as matters of science education.
It is true that evolution — even when properly taught — is a topic that engenders passionate
resistance from many members of the public. I will not suggest that careful, accurate, respectful
teaching of evolution will ever silence all critics, especially those who feel that their fundamental
values are threatened by the whole of modern science. What I do propose is that evolutionary
biology, fully described and examined, need not be in conflict with community values in
Tennessee, Kansas, Massachusetts, or anywhere else.
I will suggest this can be achieved by teaching evolution in ways that seek to avoid unnecessary
conflict with religion, that encourage respect for the variety of religious beliefs, and that
emphasize the tentative, evolving nature of scientific knowledge.
Finally, I will argue that science educators have a powerful, surprising ally that can be enlisted in
our efforts to normalize the teaching of evolution — 21st century American popular culture.
Evolution's power as an explanatory narrative of our planet's human and biological past has
influenced movies, television shows, books, even games and toys. By using these media as
classroom tools, one can fire the imagination of our students and simultaneously defuse the issue
of evolution as a "controversial" theory.
Our goal as educators is never to compel belief, but always to promote an understanding of
evolution as it really is: an essential, expansive, powerful explanatory tool that fuses the vast
diversity of biology into a single compelling narrative of change through time.
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Teaching Evolution in a
Climate of Controversy: New
Challenges in the Science
As science educators, the challenges we face today in the United States include an issue
that science itself settled nearly a century and a half ago — the issue of evolution.
Opposition to evolution comes in many forms, and it can be understood in a number of
ways. We might, for example, analyze the philosophical, religious, or cultural roots of
anti-evolutionism, and several writers have done exactly this. Tonight, however, I will
propose that we, as science educators, ought to do something different. We should deal
with anti-evolutionism purely as an issue of science education.
We might begin with the National Science Education Standards, a document prepared
by the National Academy of Sciences, that sets an ambitious series of goals for
American education. As we will see, evolutionary science is woven through every level
of the Standards, beginning with the principles of earth and physical science at grades
K-4, and culminating with a sophisticated review of evolutionary theory at the
In many ways, what we can learn tonight from the specifics of the Standards are less
important than their general theme, which is that evolution is not a subject apart, an
isolated concept, a discipline separable from the rest of sciences. Rather, evolution is
part and parcel of a unified science of biology. Therefore teaching evolution properly
isn't an issue of slipping a specific, isolated set of teachings into a science curriculum
that can exist with or without it. It's simply a matter of teaching all of biology, all of
science, and teaching it well. This means that teaching evolution does not require us to
do something "special." It requires only that we do our jobs completely.
In many school districts, where evolution is a controversial topic, this advice will seem
to run contrary to experience and common sense. Evolution in many places is, indeed,
viewed as a special topic that provokes parental concern, letters to the editor, calls to
superintendents, and even debates in state legislatures. Why is this so? The answer is
simple enough — evolution is generally believed to conflict with religious and
community values, to present a threat to what parents wish to teach their children at
home and in church.
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What I propose we ask tonight is to ask if this really and truly has to be the case. If
evolution, properly taught, if science, fully acknowledged and examined, has to be in
conflict with community values in Tennessee, in Kansas, in Massachusetts, or anywhere
else. I don't think it does. I propose that we begin by refusing to accept that conflict
between science and religion is unavoidable.
There are a number of ways in which evolutionary science can be reconciled with the
most conventional and literal of religious teachings, and I will discuss several of these.
Each, I will argue, encourages the same sensible strategy for dealing with religious
conflicts that might arise in science education. The strategy is:
(1) Never to seek conflict where it is avoidable.
(2) Always to encourage respect and understanding for religious belief.
(3) Always to teach science "correctly," by which I mean to emphasize the
tentative, evolving nature of scientific knowledge.
It is especially important that we begin this process in the early grades. Keeping
evolution's integration with the other sciences in mind, science education in early
grades should concentrate on developing a scientific view of nature. Such a view
includes appreciation of:
• The size and scale of the universe.
• Ages of the earth and the solar system.
• The unity of the physical and biological worlds
As younger students gain confidence in the scientific approach, more complex concepts
can be developed in the middle grades. These include:
• The ability of organisms to reproduce their own numbers without limit.
• Individual variation among members of every species.
• The heritability of variation.
• Differential reproductive success among individuals.
• The dramatic changes over time found in natural history.
You will, of course, recognize that these exact scientific concepts formed the basis of
Darwin's reasoning and remain, today, as the foundations of evolutionary thinking.
Finally, evolution itself should be presented not as an isolated just-so story with an
unwelcome message, but as the unavoidable conclusions of a framework of facts and
principles that lead one to recognize evolution as a well-understood, well-supported
process of change through time. The educational elements of this process including
demonstrating to students that:
• Organisms routinely generate new variation.
• Sometimes this variation is beneficial (the flu, HIV, insects)
• Natural selection, acting on this variation, changes the nature of populations
(not individuals!) over time.
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• The range of variation in recognized species sometimes is so great it makes it
hard to tell where one species leaves off and where two should be recognized.... the
very fact that we have a word (variety) to refer to such cases tells us they are common,
and allows us to recognize numerous cases of incipient species around the world.
As I will emphasize, my central thesis is not that scientific knowledge can or should be
withheld from those who resist it. Rather, I will argue that evolutionary science can and
should be taught in a way that respects and enriches religion. All science educators
should realize that western religions were essential to the intellectual transformation
that made the scientific revolution possible. Religious motivations to understand nature
have motivated many scientists, including Darwin himself.
Finally, I will emphasize two crucial things about science:
First, science never provides us with the definitive, final answer to any question. This
means that one doesn't "believe" in evolution any more than one "believes" in organic
chemistry. Rather, one accepts evolution as an explanation well supported by fact, as a
theory that explains facts and makes sense of them, and as a productive and useful way
to conduct further research. This doesn't mean that anyone ever has to accept
evolution to learn biology; but it does mean that no person is fully educated without an
understanding of it.
Second, science never provides absolute knowledge. It answers limited questions
about nature in a limited (but very useful way). This means that science by itself can
never address questions of meaning and purpose, even though such questions are
important to each of us.
Evolution, properly taught and properly understood, is never a challenge to belief or
faith. I would argue, perhaps surprisingly, that our tasks as biology educators are not
complicated by the controversies associated with the teaching of evolution, but are
actually made simpler. Evolution is the central organizing principle of the life sciences,
an explanatory theory that reveals, exactly as Darwin wrote, the "grandeur" of life and
the majesty of the natural world. The misunderstandings of those who oppose the
teaching of evolution should never cause us to lose heart or tempt us to set Darwin's
great idea aside. I would hope instead that the opposition to science education will
make us refine and improve our methods of teaching, and appreciate more than ever
the extraordinary insights that evolution gives to each and every branch of the science
Kenneth R. Miller
Professor of Biology
Providence, Rhode Island 02912
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The National Center for Science Education
The National Center for Science Education should be thought of as your primary resource in
defending the integrity of science teaching. NCSE maintains a web site with a range of
information useful in meeting challenges to the teaching of evolution, and NCSE staff are always
willing to provide support to teachers and school boards in crisis situations.
420 40th Street Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509 · Phone: (510) 601-7203 · Fax: (510) 601-7204
The Talk Origins Archive
An extraordinary resource of facts, analyses, and arguments devoted to the Evolution-Creation
controversy. When looking for the answer to a specific scientific challenge to evolution, such as
the age of the earth or the supposed lack of transitional forms, Talk Origins should be your first
stop. For a quick introduction to some of the resources available at this site, visit the "Must-
Read" files at this address:
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The National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Bruce Alberts, outgoing President of the National Academy, has been outspoken in defense
of evolution, and has placed the full weight of the National Academy behind efforts to defend the
teaching of evolution in the schools.
Publications from the National Academy:
Several publications are available from the National Academy that should be on every biology
teacher's bookshelf (you can also read each of them on-line). They include:
• Science and Creationism (1999)
• Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (1998)
• Evolution in Hawaii: A Supplement to Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of
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The American Association for the
Advancement of Science
AAAS is the leading American scientific organization. It maintains a useful web page on
evolution featuring educational and historical resources, records of court cases on evolution and
creation science, and scientific resources including the complete text of On the Origin of Species.
The National Association of Biology Teachers
The NABT maintains a web page with a sseries of strong statements on
the teaching of evolution:
"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." This
often-quoted assertion accurately illuminates the central, unifying role
of evolution in nature, and therefore in biology.
"Teaching biology in an effective and scientifically-honest manner
requires classroom discussions and laboratory experiences on
"Frequently-Encountered Criticisms of Evolution"
This is one of the most complete sites I have found, dealing with every conceivable criticism of
evolution, from the age of the earth to the amount of dust on the surface of the moon. With
extensive links to more detailed references such as Talk.Origins.
Special Note: This site is maintained by Mark I. Vuletic, a doctoral candidate in philosophy.
Marc is currently deployed in Iraq with the USMC, so he’s not in a position to provide
immediate responses to written questions.
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National Science Teachers Association
The National Science Teachers Association maintains a page of excellent evolution resources,
and has published a series of books directly addressing classroom controversies.
Teaching Resources with Classroom and Field Exercises on
A series of superb teaching exercises on the principles of evolutionary biology. More than 30
exercises are archived at the site, including demonstrations, exploration projects, classroom and
field activities, and even songs!
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A series of lessons and classroom exercises (from Indiana University) relating to different
aspects of evolution.
The Natural History Museum of the University of California at Berkeley has a wonderful web
site supporting both teachers and students in the study of evolution.
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