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FYI Number 49: April 6, 2005

NAS President Urges Support for Teaching of Evolution

"[O]ne of the foundations of modern science is being neglected or banished outright from science classrooms in many parts of the United States." - Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences

Challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools across the country have prompted National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts to write to all members of the Academy. Warning of "a growing threat to the teaching of science," Alberts calls on Academy members, if such a controversy arises in their state or school district, to take actions against "attempts to limit the teaching of evolution or to introduce non-scientific ‘alternatives' into science courses and curricula."

The full text of the March 4 letter can be found on the NAS web site: go to http://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nashome.nsf/ and select "News" from the left-hand menu, and go to the March 22 item, "Academies Confront Challenges to Teaching Evolution," or search the NAS site for "evolution controversy." Portions of Alberts' letter are quoted below:

"I write to alert you to efforts by the National Academies to confront the increasing challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools; your help may be needed in your state soon.... I write to you now because of a growing threat to the teaching of science through the inclusion of non-scientifically based ‘alternatives' in science courses throughout the country. A recent article in the Washington Post pointed out that there are challenges to the teaching of evolution in 40 states or local school districts around the country today (for more details, visit the website of the National Center for Science Education, http://ncseweb.org)."

"Recent tactics to cast doubt on the veracity or robustness of the theory of evolution have included placing disclaimer stickers in the front of high school biology textbooks (Cobb County, GA and Alabama; proposal before the Missouri House of Representatives), mandating or recommending the inclusion of Intelligent Design in high school biology courses (e.g., Dover, PA; Cecil County, MD, respectively); development of statewide lesson plans that encourage students to examine ‘weaknesses' in the theory of evolution (Ohio), and plans to revisit parts of state science standards that focus on evolution (Kansas State Board of Education). If these challenges have not yet reached where you live or work, they are likely to do so in time.

"A federal judge recently ruled the Cobb County stickers to be unconstitutional and has ordered them removed from all textbooks; an appeal is pending. The courts will soon hear a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of parents in Dover County, PA about whether ID also is tantamount to promoting religion (for additional information about the various forms of ‘scientific creationism' and ID, see http://www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=8). However, these challenges continue unabated across our nation, and the New York Times and Education Week report that even where the controversy is not overt, teachers are quietly being urged to avoid teaching about evolution -- or have decided not to do so because it engenders so much rancor from a subgroup of students, parents, and members of the school board or local community. As a result, one of the foundations of modern science is being neglected or banished outright from science classrooms in many parts of the United States.

"If your discipline is not the life sciences, you may be wondering why I have chosen to write to all members of the National Academy of Sciences. Although the controversy focuses primarily on biology, some who challenge the teaching of evolution in our nation's schools have also focused their sights on the earth and physical sciences. For example, when the Kansas Board of Education first removed portions of biological evolution from their science standards in 1998, they also eliminated statements mandating that Kansas students learn about the Big Bang, that there is overwhelming evidence that the earth is much older than 10,000 years, and the theory of plate tectonics. All of these items were returned to the Kansas standards following extensive pressure from many organizations.... But, as noted earlier, the Kansas Board of Education plans to re-examine their science standards because the 2004 election has again resulted in a majority who favor the inclusion of ‘alternatives to evolution' in the state's science curriculum.

"The National Academies have been involved for many years in helping scientific colleagues, teachers, and concerned citizens in individual states and school districts respond. While these challenges have national implications for science and science education, they are typically viewed as local issues.... As a result, when asked to assist, I have contacted NAS members who live in the state where a specific challenge is presented, enlisting their assistance through the writing of op-ed pieces, speaking at school board meetings and related activities. The NAS also has published three reports, two of which are specifically directed to science teachers to help them understand both evolutionary theory and the social controversies that surround its teaching. Descriptions of these reports and our efforts to confront challenges to the teaching of evolution are summarized in a recent article published in Cell Biology Education (see http://cellbioed.org/articles/vol3no2/article.cfm?articleID=98).

"We stand ready to help others in addressing the increasingly strident attempts to limit the teaching of evolution or to introduce non-scientific ‘alternatives' into science courses and curricula. If this controversy arrives at your doorstep, I hope that you will both alert us to the specific issues in your state or school district and be willing to use your position and prestige as a member of the NAS in helping us to work locally.

"I have asked Dr. Jay Labov, Senior Advisor for Education and Communications in the NRC and a former professor of biology, to oversee the Academies' efforts in this realm. Please address all of your comments, ideas, and requests for assistance directly to him (jlabov@nas.edu; Telephone: 202-334-1458)."

In related news, several reports have indicated that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, John Marburger, has also recently spoken out in support of evolution and commented that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory.

The American Institute of Physics continues to monitor this issue as it arises in various school districts around the country, and in some instances has, in conjunction with a number of its Member Societies, written letters to school boards and other state and local officials, encouraged individual scientists to testify at hearings, issued news alerts, and taken other grassroots initiatives to help defend the teaching of sound, peer-reviewed science in public school science classes.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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