More US Teens Are Getting a Lesson in Evolution

For decades evolution has been a contentious topic in American schools. Something seems to be changing.
By Kit R. Roane

As a woman destined for medical school before life interceded, my mother always took great comfort in what science revealed about the world around us. Were she alive today, she’d be heartened to hear that some more recalcitrant souls are now finding that comfort as well.

The good news comes courtesy of Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which reported over the summer that public high school students in roughly two-thirds of the country’s biology classes appear to be learning the scientific truth about how we got here, and how the world’s diverse living organisms developed and diversified over the great arc of time.

Those in the know have always called this instruction evolution, and treated it as, well, an incontrovertible scientific fact. But surprisingly, for decades evolution has been a contentious lesson in American schools. And it has remained so, despite evolutionary theory sitting as the bedrock underlying pretty much all we comprehend about the living world.

Scientists like to point out that understanding evolution is key to not only making sense of our past but also helping us prepare for the uncertainties that will surely populate our future. From combatting climate change to Covid-19, a knowledge of evolution is central to scientific progress.

Imparting that preparatory knowledge has always been tricky in certain parts of the country though, because of the view that these scientific facts are oppositional to religious beliefs — beliefs that often center on giving mankind top billing as a distinctly divine creation.

This longstanding friction in certain religious circles is particularly perplexing because evolution is accepted as fact not only by research scientists and scientific organizations but also a wide variety of denominations, including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church. But in East Texas, where my mother taught biology, chemistry and geology for about five decades, not a year passed without a hand being raised by a flabbergasted young student questioning the validity of evolution (sometimes with scriptural support), or a call from a parent questioning her bonafides and railing against her failure to give weight to Christian-based parables of origin.

Few said she should “teach the controversy,” although it was certainly implied that many of these folks believed one existed. Since one does not, she always politely declined. And, as a well-worn and well-versed teacher of the craft, she had the clout to just raise a silencing eyebrow, take a deep breath and hold her line. But that sort of pressure from parents, preachers and even school boards can have a powerful and deleterious effect on teachers just starting out, or waiting for contract renewal and hoping to keep their jobs.

A similar 2007 survey of how evolution was being taught by biology teachers in the public high schools found that the evolutionary truth was being denied or severely watered down in just under half of the high school classrooms surveyed. Instead of giving students clear and accurate guidance about this fundamental organizing principle of biology, these teachers instructed students that evolution remained unsettled science, or misrepresented creationism as a scientifically credible alternative to evolution. (Some teachers did both.)

An image from RetroReport
Compared to 2007, many more science teachers are now presenting evolution as settled science. Source: Teaching evolution in U.S. public schools: a continuing challenge.

While the NCSE says these disheartening statistics have improved as more states have adopted stronger state-wide science standards, there remain powerful forces intent upon chipping away at evolution’s much-deserved preeminence.

As Retro Report explained in our 2017 documentary, Raising Doubts about Evolution (above), this is only one of the well-established scientific theories that science skeptics are intent upon toppling. While it’s “gratifying to see that American schools have made progress in their teaching of evolution… roughly a fifth of teachers entirely avoid the question of human origins, and nearly an equal number do not see evolution as a unifying theme for their biology classes,” notes Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University.

“ This means there is still work to be done to assure that every student receives a full, accurate, and complete science education to prepare them for life in the 21st century.”

Are you a teacher? The documentary mentioned in this piece is part of the lesson plan “Influencing Policy: Evolution and the First Amendment,” available for free at Retro Report in the Classroom. Our lesson plans are based on our archive of 200+ short documentaries that show how history shapes our present. Subscribe.