AAAS Responds to Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Controversy
The decision reached last December by U.S. District Court Judge John Jones in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District concluded that it is unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom. In a lengthy decision, Judge Jones noted that scientific experts had testified to the quality and quantity of scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution and to its wide acceptance by an overwhelming majority of the scientific community.
Science and education leaders at AAAS and elsewhere had been following the Dover trial closely and responded quickly to the decision. “We are heartened by Judge Jones's decision,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS. He applauded the decision for recognizing that “intelligent design was injected into Dover's 9th grade biology classes for religious reasons rather than scientific reasons.” Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), called it "a great day for science education,” and added that Jones's decision “is a 'must read' for school boards and communities that are addressing this issue." Wayne W. Carley, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), commended the court’s decision and said, “By keeping intelligent design out of the science classroom, Dover’s students will receive a much better education,” and remarked that the decision reinforces the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Evolution and State Standards
The teaching of evolution has been put at risk in several states. In November 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to revise the state’s science standards so that students would be expected to study perceived doubts about the theory of evolution. AAAS CEO Leshner spoke out against the changes and offered to help Kansas improve its standards by working with AAAS’s Project 2061. Despite the criticism from AAAS and from other national and local scientists and science educators, the state’s revised standards remain in effect.
Two years ago Georgia revised its state science standards using Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy as a model. When the standards were released for public review, it became clear that key ideas related to biological evolution—and included in Benchmarks—had been omitted. According to a study conducted by Education Week, many other states have standards that “fail to address the fundamental evidence supporting the theory, which explains how life on Earth developed…. the age of the Earth, internal similarities among organisms, or the common ancestry of different species.” The study also found that four states—Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, and Oklahoma—do not mention the term “evolution” in the context of biological changes in species anywhere in their standards documents (Cavanagh, 2005b). Although some states argue that students are still expected to understand evolutionary concepts even though the term itself is not mentioned, Project 2061’s director Jo Ellen Roseman believes that such circumventions are wrong, telling Education Week, “We expect that students who graduate from high school will be able to read the term ‘evolution’ in the newspaper and know what it is” (Cavanagh, 2005a).
In Georgia, the controversy is over for now. After much public debate and the involvement of local and national science and science education leaders, the evolution concepts were reinstated in the Georgia standards. The move prompted Dr. Roseman to comment, “It’s all back. Now teachers will need to cover the material effectively, using classroom lessons and readings from textbooks. The fact they’re in the standards is a very important first step and Georgia should be proud of that. This is a very powerful set of standards” (MacDonald, 2004).
Resources for Teachers
To help science educators convey key evolution concepts to their students, Project 2061 has created a guide to relevant resources available in its science education reform tools. Evolution on the Front Line: An Abbreviated Guide for Teaching Evolution presents excerpts from Project 2061’s Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and other tools and aims to help teachers answer the following questions:
- What do adults need to know about evolution and the nature of science and why is this knowledge important?
- What do students need to learn about evolution and the nature of science and when should they learn it?
- How do students build a coherent understanding of evolution and the nature of science as they progress from one grade level to the next?
- How well do textbooks deal with the topic of evolution and the nature of science?
The new guide was distributed at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February during a special event on the evolution issue for St. Louis-area teachers.
With challenges to evolution education continuing across the U.S.—most recently in Utah—Project 2061 and AAAS stress that students need to understand of how life on Earth evolved in order to become science-literate adults. Moreover, when students understand the nature of science—the kinds of knowledge it produces, its assumptions and methods, its demand for evidence and logical reasoning, its ability to explain and predict—they can make better sense of discussions related to creationism and intelligent design. As Project 2061 director Roseman recently told Education Week, "Kids need to understand why the scientific community supports evolution, and why its important" (Cavanagh, 2005b).
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For more AAAS resources on evolution and science education, see Evolution on the Front Line.
Cavanagh, S. (2005a, December 7). Evolution theory well represented in leading high school textbooks. Education Week, pp. 10–11.
Cavanagh, S. (2005b, November 9). Treatment of evolution inconsistent. Education Week, pp. 1, 20–21.
MacDonald, M. (2004, February 13). Evolution a fit survivor. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. E6.