Teaching About Evolution


If you teach biology, or life science, you need to teach evolution at some point — or to decide not to and how to work around it. I live and teach in Arkansas, and I have a lot of sympathy for teachers who decide not to open themselves up to controversy in their communities by teaching about evolution in exactly the same way that they teach about cells. On the other hand, there’s an element of intellectual dishonesty in skipping the topic. Working biologists have accepted and assumed the existence of the process of natural selection and evolution for longer than any of us have been alive, so teaching life sciences without mentioning evolution is a lot like teaching life sciences without mentioning cells.

Even if you’ve settled on your approach to the topic and feel satisfied with your decision, you may still face some issues. For one thing, surveys last summer found that only about 45% of Americans actually understood the theory of evolution: are you one of them? Does your textbook treat the topic in a useful way? Do your state standards present the concepts in a developmentally appropriate sequence?

When you’re ready to teach the subject, we have some good resources for you.

The National Academy of Sciences is offering their book, Science, Evolution, and Creationism for free online, or you can buy a print copy if you prefer. Click the same link for either choice.

This little book takes a position on the controversy about the teaching of evolution. The evidence for evolution is laid out simply and clearly, and arguments for the teaching of evolution are given.

The creationist position appears to me to be fairly presented, though it is presented together with counterarguments. It does not strike me as disrespectful, but I’d love to hear the reaction of someone reading it from that perspective.

“Science and religion are different ways of understanding,” the authors conclude. “Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of both to contribute to a better future.”

Here are some other links on the question of evolution in the classroom:

In our state frameworks, evolution is taught in 8th grade. Natural selection is introduced in 6th grade, and the notion of adaptation comes up in 3rd grade. The 8th grade requirement is to compare the theory of evolution with the requirements for a scientific theory. Since we are a state with a history on this point (Arkansas vs. Epperson), it may be that this arrangement is intended to allow teachers to pussyfoot around the topic. Given the potential for conflict in our communities, pussyfooting may be a reasonable strategy. However, it is difficult to prepare students for serious study in biology if we teach the topic in a piecemeal fashion.

If you’re ready to jump in, Darwin and Evolution for Kids by Kristan Lawson is a great starting point for kids of all ages, clearly and gently explaining the theory of evolution and its interesting history. Hands-on ideas for teaching about taxonomy, fossils, scientific journals, geological strata, natural selection, and many more relevant topics are included. Recipes and numerous illustrations help kids get a sense of Darwin’s life and times. Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton is a fine picture book for younger kids or a lesson starter for older ones.

Here are some of our favorite links for teaching evolution:

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