Volume 87 Issue 12 | p. 48 | ACS Comments
Issue Date: March 23, 2009

ACS On Teaching Evolution: Fact & Theory

By Bryan Balazs, Chair, Society Committee on Education
Department: ACS News
Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

THIS YEAR marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his treatise, "On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." It is therefore fitting that the American Chemical Society publicize the latest revision of its policy statement on "Teaching of Evolution: Fact & Theory."

ACS policy statements serve to clearly and concisely define the society's official positions on a number of issues with significant policy implications (C&EN, Jan. 12, page 42). The updated statement on the teaching of evolution can be found at www.acs.org/policystatements/evolution.

The previous statement on this topic noted that the modern theory of evolution is not simply a hypothesis or conjecture and that it is based on hundreds of years of research and many thousands of scientific publications. The statement went on to note that the inclusion of nonscientific explanations in K–12 science curricula on par with the scientific theory of evolution compromises the preparation of a scientifically literate workforce. It is the equivalent of teaching the phlogiston theory in chemistry classes today as though it was still considered viable.

At the ACS spring 2008 national meeting in New Orleans, the Society Committee on Education (SOCED) formed a task force to work on revising the most recent statement, which was to expire at the end of 2008. The task force developed a new statement, which was subsequently reviewed and approved by SOCED at the fall meeting in Philadelphia. Following concurrence by the Office of Public Affairs, the ACS Board Committee on Public Affairs & Public Relations approved this statement (and several others) on Nov. 17, 2008, as the society's official position.

Why does this statement matter? Why is it important for ACS to reemphasize the importance of including current evolutionary theory in the science content taught at the K–12 level? The SOCED task force considered these questions as it engaged in a revision of the document, noting that "Portraying nonscientific content as science in curriculum at any educational level poses a threat to the future scientific, technological, and economic competitiveness of the nation."

The new statement also clearly defines the critical distinction between the modern theory of evolution and other claims that are often described as scientific theories. It is important to note here that the word "theory" used by scientists has a more rigorous, and thus stronger, meaning than the same word used in the common parlance. The former usage implies that the ideas are broad and that they allow us to explain a large set of concepts as a unifying whole. The latter usage is often taken to mean little more than conjecture or "our best guess."

The revised statement takes a strong stand on intelligent design: "Because intelligent design is not built upon a scientifically testable hypothesis, is not derived from a base of valid experimental studies, cannot point to any scientifically validated body of literature, and makes no testable predictions, it cannot be described as a scientific theory." Consequently, presenting intelligent design in the science classroom "misrepresents the nature and processes of science."

Presenting intelligent design in the science classroom "misrepresents the nature and processes of science."

Essentially—and this is my interpretation—what the new statement clearly reinforces is that our modern understanding of evolution is an excellent example of how science successfully constructs models of how the world works and thus is an excellent introduction to the methods of science for young students. We are all familiar with the logical, evidence-based predictive thinking of science: Observations of the world around us are formed, hypotheses are constructed to explain them, and there is an iterative process between experimentation and theory construction to verify that we obtain the right answers and validate that we have asked the right questions.

SCIENCE is a dynamic body of knowledge consisting of observations, models, experiments, and theories that lead to predictive capabilities. This last asset allows science to not only explain why the natural world behaves as it does but also to make predictions as to what is likely to happen in the future. Of course, the better the underlying data and models are, the better the predictions. Because these tools are used during the course of nearly every advance in science and technology, SOCED strongly believes that K–12 students must be aware of the ways in which science moves forward and understand why the modern theory of evolution is true to this core principle of scientific investigation.

In December of last year, while visiting the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., I was struck by how often evolution was mentioned in the displays and how the progression of life forms from simple to more complex was clearly demonstrated. The new statement on the teaching of evolution reinforces ACS's position on this important issue, and SOCED is proud to have been part of the statement's (dare I say it?) evolution.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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