Should Evolution Be Taught In High School?
    By T. Ryan Gregory | February 24th 2008 10:37 AM | 80 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About T. Ryan

    I am an evolutionary biologist specializing in genome size evolution at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Be sure to visit


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    Microbiologist Carl Woese is well known as an iconoclast. Indeed, few biologists have so thoroughly shaken the tree of life as he did when he proposed that there are not two major branches -- prokaryotes, whose cells lack nuclei, and eukaryotes who possess nuclei, including all animals, plants, fungi, and protists -- but rather three. "Prokaryotes", Woese argued, do not represent a cohesive category, and should be split into two deeply divergent lineages: the Bacteria, with which everyone is reasonably familiar, and the Archaea, superficially similar organisms that are less commonly encountered as many of them reside in extreme environments. What's more, studies of genetic data suggested that the Archaea are actually more closely related to eukaryotes -- including humans -- than they are to bacteria. Three-domain tree

    Woese's three-domain tree of life. From Wikimedia Commons.

    At 79 years of age, Woese is still shaking things up. Most recently, he stated in an interview with Wired that,

    My feeling is that evolution shouldn't be taught at the lower grades. You don't teach quantum mechanics in the grade schools. One has to be quite educated to work with these concepts; what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teachers don't understand.

    Woese is no supporter of so-called "alternatives" to evolution, and has no patience for "any intrusion of religious ideas in the name of science". Rather, his point is that evolution -- the foundational principle of modern biology -- is too complex to be dealt with reliably at junior levels, and should be introduced at the college level where it can be addressed more appropriately.

    Woese's proposal surely will raise the ire of many scientists and teachers alike. And while I disagree strongly with his conclusion, I am sympathetic to the frustration apparent in his premise.

    In addition to carrying out research in genome evolution, I teach an upper-year university course in evolution. In that capacity, I interact predominantly with biology majors who have completed a minimum of two years of undergraduate education in the life sciences. This means that I can expect them to possess at least a working understanding of genetics, cell biology, anatomy, physiology, and ecology by the time they get to my course. I then have almost 30 hours of lecture time to explain the basics of evolutionary theory to them. I like to think that my students leave the course with a reasonable comprehension of evolutionary science, but when we part company at the end of the semester we all know that ours has been an exercise in surface-scratching at best.

    In fact, much of my effort is devoted simply to clarifying serious misconceptions about evolution that these educated young adults inevitably bring with them to the class. Each semester, I fully expect many upper-year biology majors to be surprised to learn, among many other examples, that:

    • Humans are not descended from chimpanzees.
    • Scientific theories are well-supported explanations of scientific facts.
    • Individual organisms do not evolve in response to environmental challenges.
    • Animals do not do things for the good of their species.
    • Natural selection is the opposite of random chance.
    • Not every feature of an organism represents an adaptation.
    • Vestigial does not mean non-functional.
    • Modern frogs are not more closely related to modern fishes than mammals are.
    • There is no progressive pattern in evolution leading to humans as the pinnacle.
    • Although humans are now the only living members of the group, several species of hominids co-existed in the past.

    My experience in this regard is not unique. In an article published in the scientific journal Evolution in 2002, Brian Alters and Craig Nelson noted that the issue of false preconceptions about evolution is a major barrier to understanding among students. Various studies show that students tend to misunderstand basic concepts such as natural selection and phylogenetic trees, and that this impacts their ability to correctly absorb new information about evolutionary biology.

    Woese evidently believes that many of these misconceptions stem from the cursory or even inaccurate treatment of evolution at the high school level. His solution, as noted, is to leave evolution out of early education if it cannot be dealt with adequately, and to leave it to people like me to introduce the topic in a more advanced way to undergraduate students.

    An obvious objection to this suggestion is that only a tiny minority of people will ever enroll in a university course in evolution. This means that most people would receive no education in the subject whatsoever and would instead develop their (mis)understanding of the topic based on what others tell them outside of an academic setting. In many cases, this would mean that their view of evolution would be instilled by anti-evolutionists, whose grasp of the science generally is non-existent. Of course, this is already far too common a condition -- and one for which a proper education is the only available antidote. Given how important evolutionary ideas are both in modern biology and in an increasingly broad spectrum of socio-economically relevant applications from combating pathogens to conserving biodiversity, a policy of intentional ignorance is not only academically irresponsible, it is dangerous.

    Evolution is undoubtedly a special case in light of the (non-scientific) controversy surrounding its accuracy as an explanation for the diversity of life, but it is not entirely alone. Physicists have also noted that basic concepts in their field are often poorly understood among incoming students. For example, it has been shown that many students maintain the more intuitive views of motion proposed by Aristotle rather than the accurate interpretation provided by Newton, sometimes even after an attempt has been made to correct these misconceptions. This would not be an argument for removing basic physics education from high school, it would indicate that additional effort should be spent on clarifying such misunderstandings as early as possible. So it goes for evolutionary biology.

    High school teachers have an opportunity to exert a profound influence on how well their students understand the world around them. Scientists have a responsibility to help them do so. Fortunately, more and more bridges are being built across the divide between scientists and teachers. Examples include the newly developed journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, the outstanding Understanding Evolution web resource from the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and numerous free publications from the National Academy of Sciences.

    The problem of misconceptions about evolution is clear. However, omitting this critical component from junior education is no solution at all. What is needed is just the opposite: a renewed effort to properly convey some of the general ideas to students at a level that is both comprehensible and accurate. Time spent directly addressing and clarifying the most common misconceptions about evolution would be well invested, and would require no distorting simplifications of the topic.

    If students could be liberated from entrenched misconceptions of humans descended from chimps, organisms changing to meet perceived needs, or complex organs arising by chance, then a good deal of progress will have been made.



    Humans are not descended from chimpanzees

    You may want to speak to Ken Miller about this?

    Perhaps a good example of why I think my upcoming series may prove useful.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    "Humans are ..." The only "people" that I have heard saying that are religious nuts who apparently cannot read. If you are going to spout ignorance, please at least post a clear warning as a preamble to you trash.
    Oh- by the way. I am a Christian- whereas you are merely a fool making every other Christian look bad.

    I was very disapointed in this article. I thought this was about why evolution shoudnt be taught in public school. As a high schooler with a 4.0 in my AP science class I feel that after reading this article that I could have written a better one. The fact that you are opinionated is very clear! What you fail to realizeis that science will never be fact! Science fails us all the time because we can not know everything so scintific findings can be proven wrong. God is the only one who doesnt fail us,we fail him. He still loves us, even poeple who hate him. I hope that you can use real science, in order to see thst we need ac creator. Cause we have never seen an animal change into a different one and neverwill! Life cannot be created niethrr can energy! Sorry about my spelling and grammer my nook kedpad doesnt like me

    Gerhard Adam
    What you fail to realizeis that science will never be fact!
    ... and you have a 4.0 ???
    Mundus vult decipi
    Yes I do. I am homeschooled and am going through an Apologia Science book. I think that if you read it, you would learn something. I am a junior in highschool, and last year got an almost pefect score on the the required science test. What about you, how well would you have done? I am not just a dumb opiniated teenager, I am a Christian, and I take that seriously. Your theory takes more faith than mine. You believe that humans used to be rocks, dont say you dont, cause you do!I believe that created the world, not through evolution, but in 7 days. Read Genesis, if your not too stuborn to open a Bible. He loves you, and wants you to believe in Him. If you dont, than that is your choice. I dont really care about your faith, but God does.

    Gerhard Adam
    Look, you can have whatever religious belief you like, but don't pretend that it's science.  That is just dishonest.  You're on the internet using the technology that was developed by scientists over the years, and yet you have the audacity to suggest that it is your religious beliefs that produced this?  Don't be ridiculous.

    You should also pay more attention to your own religious teachings.  You sound silly when you make comments like "You believe that humans used to be rocks".  If you had read Genesis, then you'd know that humans were made from dirt according to your belief.  So, don't get so high and mighty about your education and your opinions.  If you want to be religious, then study your religion.  If you want to be scientific, then study science.  However, if you want to present your religion as science, then just go away.

    If you think that science is about a belief in God, then your 4.0 doesn't mean very much because it is clear you don't understand anything about science.  Keep those two views separate and you'll have no problem.  If you insist that religion trumps science, then you're just another fool peddling their religious views on a science site.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I did not say that religion trumps science, but rather that people put to much faith in science. You worship science, like I worship my God. Only science fails us, because we are not able to understand everything. I might sound dumb, because I am a bad typist, but I am a good student, and sciece is not taught as a fact. You should know this, your THEORY is NOT A FACT! Sorry, but that is just the way it should be.

    Gerhard Adam
    Wow, do you have a lot to learn.
    You should know this, your THEORY is NOT A FACT!
    ... and your religious belief is?  Where do people learn this kind of rubbish?  You don't even know what a "fact" is, so don't use it in an argument that you don't understand and can't formulate.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sorry about my spelling and grammer my nook kedpad doesnt like me
    Can you  explain something to me.  You obviously consider that you are making an important point, indeed in a later post you explain that you are concerned for one of the posters' souls.  You mention your academic credentials to add weight to your post. Presumably you could have used a different device to enter your post and taken more care in writing your post.  If spelling and grammar are really a problem, you might have thought that it was better to leave it to someone else to make your point.  But you didn't do these things, implying that it doesn't worry you that the errors in your post will reflect badly on the message which you are trying to put across.  Why not?
    Okay, I have a 4.57 GPA and I take 4 AP classes, two of which include Bio II and Physics. Since, even though I did not really feel it necessary to disclose this information, but only did so you understand I am a "high schooler" about an equivalent status to you, and well all I really have to say is the main reason you are disappointed in this article is that you came to read why evolution "shouldnt be taught in public school"....but if you'd scroll right back up to the top of the page, the title of the article never specified it was AGAINST it being taught. The problem is in high school you are not educated on all of the complexities of this theory to actually have a full opinion on it. Honestly, only those who have thoroughly studied it during their college years can. Science is not a simple subject, it never has been and never will be. You have failed to learn science is never proven with observation alone. You may not have have seen a new species develop, but it doesn't mean it did not or will not. Science does not fail us all the time, if it did much of the nice technology (such as your nook), modern medicine, and methods of transportation would not exist.

    I am a Christian. My kind was never monkeys, nor trees, rocks or anyother thing evolutionists believe. They are wrong, their theory is wrong. The smarter evolutionists know this, but they are too stuborn to believe in God. Too bad, God wants more believers in heaven. How does believing in evolution help you when you die? It elps you evolve right into Saten's house, with am everlasting lake of fire. I rather be safe with God, and maybe be wrong in the end, than believe in evolution and go to hell!

    Gerhard Adam
    No problem.  So why are you on a science site?  It certainly isn't to discuss science.
    My kind was never monkeys, nor trees, rocks or anyother thing evolutionists believe. They are wrong, their theory is wrong.
    OK, this is the second time you've said this and now you just sound stupid.  Your Bible indicates that people came from dirt.  If you have a problem with that, then take it up with your religious leaders.  Insisting that such a view originated with biology is simply dishonest and silly.
    "Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky."
    Genesis 2:19
    "until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;
    for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
    Genesis 3:19
    So, before you go on about science and people/animals coming from rocks, you'd better read your Bible again.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Well if you want to get into a biblcal dabate I have 5 min. You are right, God did say" the Lord formed the man out of the dust of the ground-and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being. Gen. 2:7
    The breath of life was not the dirt, but God's form of life! Look at the verse!

    Gerhard Adam
    Well if you want to get into a biblcal dabate...
    LOL.  You've got to be joking.  You come on to a science site and look to stir up trouble or controversy.  Is that what they teach Christians these days?  Of course, you can justify it by claiming that you just want to bring God's message. 

    Then you want to claim that I'M trying to get in to a biblical debate?  You've done nothing but spout religion since you posted.  Are you also a dishonest Christian?
    Mundus vult decipi
    No I am angry at the theory of evolution. If I have offended you, I am sorry. I just wanted you have a chance of not going to hell. But since you dont seem to care if you die, I give up. May God put someone else in your life that will over come your theory, in a better way than I have. Go research and find out more, with a Christian that can be more patient than I. Sorry.

    Gerhard Adam
    No, what offends me is that you will criticize and be "angry" at the theory of evolution, and yet when you get sick you will take the medicines and go to the doctors that use the information provided by science and biology.  You won't hesitate to take advantage of the science when it suits you, but then you want to argue when it doesn't fit your view of the world.  That's what's offensive.

    Your life today depends a great deal on the information gained by biologists over the years in everything ranging from antibiotics, to organ transplants, to potential cures for a variety of conditions and diseases that killed people.  However, you don't want any of that ... instead you want science to continue in the vein of primitive superstitious people that live in fear of the spirits that inhabit the world.  Well, you can have whatever belief you like.  But the next time you're hurt or you're at the doctor, just ask yourself where his knowledge came from ... and if it isn't the Bible, then you owe a lot of scientists an apology.
    Mundus vult decipi
    What you fail to notice is that Evolution is NOT A SCINTIFIC FACT!!!!!!!!!!! No real scintist says that it is fact, they know that it is only a theory, because they have failed to produce life from a nonliving object, and until they do, it will ALWAYS just be a theory. That is basic science, I learn that in 7th grade!

    Hey I am done talking to you, if you refuse to open your mind to other scintific, Christian veiws. However if you like these talks and want to know more I am glad to give you more information about what i believe. I think that is wrong that public schools make students think that Evolution is the only way, they are worse than churches. They dont tell them that other scientist believe in Creation. This make me kinda mad, but sad at the same time. I hope that you can at least correctly see my veiw point, because I see yours everywhere!

    Gerhard Adam
    You've obviously learned nothing.  You know even less.  You're demonstrating that your just another jerk that parades their ignorance around like a banner to be proud of. 

    If you had the slightest sense of what it even meant to be a Christian, you wouldn't be such an obnoxious little twirp.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I just wanted you have a chance of not going to hell.
    So, you apparently thought nothing of lying several times.  You begin by arguing about science and pretending that it is simply a dispute about evolution, and then claim that it was only to save my soul?  Well, that's certainly a flexible standard of truth-telling.  Let your conscience be your guide.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You dont even know me. If you did, you would know that I AM NOT LYING. I thought that if I used science you that you could see that you could be wrong about evolution. But you didnt seem to care about what I said, so I tried the Bible, and You didnt seem to care about what it really said, so I gave up. You can believe in enything you want, just know that bad things could happen if you dont have the right respect for the authories. God, is the main authoriy, look at basic laws..Dont kill, dont steal, listen and obey your parents, they all come from the Bible, and most people dont even know it. Do you know what I am talking about? The ten commandments, look them up, how many apply to America's Law today?

    Gerhard Adam
    Your even ignorant about your own religion.  Perhaps you'll learn not to run your mouth until you've actually acquired some knowledge regarding the subject you intend to preach about.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Wow, come on, youre totally NOt reading what I write. I have said that science can fail, but God cant. Believing in Him is the ONLY way to Not go to hell. I care about your eternal salvation, more than you do. Why? Because God tells me to tell people like you, about Him. I can, and will fail at this, but He wants to do it anyway. Hey I have to go I have the PSAT tomarrow, and it is 10pm. Think about what your next responce will be, cause it seem like your defensivness is getting in the way of this conversation. Why do you feel like you have to be defensive? Is it because that deep down you know that God is the only way. He says that he is, do you think that God is wrong?

    I just realized that I wasn't reading a page concerned about biology, but more bible study group. My goodness how stupid can people be. You Americans drag religion into everything and actually believe it to be science. Grow up it is your problem that you have a religion and being a hypocrite about it. (How many people go to church and as soon as they walk out commit another sin or pretend other people don't exist) Evolution exists, science has proven it and the same church has agreed it to be thru.

    remember the following:
    Just because you can't do something or don't understand a concept, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist or that it can't be done. It just means that your brain is too small and that you are not smart enough. Learn to live with that.

    You bible huggers have to understand that science is a fact as well as religion.

    just going to say i have had my time with christianity and ive read and learned FROM THE BIBLE and eventually got to the point of where it no longer made sense and THIS IS NOT MEANT TO BE OFFENSIVE but if you are a christian then you wouldnt be sayin things such as "-CAUTION !-!-!-! YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ARENA OF A COMPLETELY IGNORANT "PERSON"- MY RANTINGS SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS ANYTHING INTENDED TO BE RATIONAL !-!-!" i mean comeon thats where you went wrong man you just JUDGED HIM HE WAS CLEARLY STATING HIS OPINION nothing he said in anyway was meant to be offenssive but this is what are you thinking straighten your self before you can look at someone and say oh HES JUST MAKING ALL US CHRISTIANS LOOK BAD "Oh- by the way. I am a Christian- whereas you are merely a fool making every other Christian look bad." but dont get me wrong i got no problems with christains but i dont like hypocrites (some one that preaches to other people about stuff they do when they do it themselves) and keep in mind im fourteen so ive clearly thought this through

    I have never seen a conflict between the theory of evolution and a belief in God.Why couldn't God have created evolution? I believe that is what happened. If God created the universe, then everything that happened following creation was God's plan including evolution. That said (and my personal opinion), as an educator I will look at the subject of the article. It is about education. I think that the education for students of the 20th century should be an education in learning how to learn. We live in an information age.Students on the high school level or the college do not need to learn facts. Facts are too easily accessed on the internet. They might better learn how to determine the accuracy of the facts they can so easily access. They need to learn the reasoning skills for that. So my point is that perhaps some of our education is outdated. I would like to clarify that there is change occurring in many schools who are making this effort to keep up with our technological era.

    Gerhard Adam
    Well said.
    Mundus vult decipi
    T Ryan Gregory
    John, please indicate where Dr. Miller says humans are descended from chimpanzees. Be sure he does not say the correct point, i.e., that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. This is why we need to teach the basics to students.
    Be sure he does not say the correct point, i.e., that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees.

    Miller indeed said: ".....we share a common ancestor with the great apes, chimpanzees, gorillas and the orangutan"

    That was my mistake after viewing the video late last night for the first time. I thought it was rather odd, but apparently in my sleepy perception, that is what came through.

    Thanks for posting that.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    Hank wrote:

    Getting rid of evolution in lower grades would get us back to science and make not a bit of difference in the quality of entry-level biology.

    and Ryan responded

    I don't know what you mean by that, but as worded I could not disagree more strongly.

    I was going to leave a comment here but I used a last-in first-out comment system and you saw the short version there first.

    There are two reasons:

    First, I don't think the quality of high school evolution education is all that great. What teacher is not stumped by the most basic of objections, primarily because there's no way to make it simple enough?

    I think this leads students down a bad path of skepticism that's unfounded. I had the usual skimming of biology - zoology, botany, genetics, etc. and didn't have any real grounding in evolution per sé and I think I was fine without it. To a young person, explaining why a missing link is unnecessary is a difficult thing. Anyone taking even a basic course in genetics, though, has evolution follow naturally from it.

    Second, I am not sure the controversy is worth it. There are a few people who are just anti-science zealots, of course, and they can be dismissed. We certainly would never cede scientific ground to them just to shut them up. But there is a whole subset of American culture (and it's obvious why, given the history of America) who see evolution as being a government education fiat. A mandate. And a lot of Americans really dislike government mandates. To the rest of us, data is data and evolution stands on its own without the mandates.

    In Canada you have a different culture. You came into existence more quietly and were not populated by government outcasts. Heck, it was 20 years ago you asked for permission to change your constitution to not have to ask permission to do things and you still keep the Queen on your money - that's pretty quiet about government interference. In Canada, there is no controversy about this.

    Do you think a solid education in biology that doesn't get into the nuances of evolution will result in lesser quality biology students reaching the college level? It's not like biology education was non-existent before 1925.

    You're in the education business, of course, so in my mind you have more votes than I do on the issue, but that's where my thinking is. In all the noise of a controversy that needn't exist, we seem to be educating high school students politically more than we are scientifically ( on evolution - in physics, we can drop things on them and show that gravity works).

    I know you disagree with Woese but you don't say why. If we can't do it properly (in high school) then why not stick with what we can do properly, like genetics and zoology, etc. ?

    T Ryan Gregory
    First, I don't think the quality of high school evolution education is all that great. What teacher is not stumped by the most basic of objections, primarily because there's no way to make it simple enough?
    No one is disagreeing that what is taught is insufficient. I made that point in my post. It does not follow that we should stop trying to improve the situation. My argument is that scientists should help teachers to better comprehend the topic, and the emphasis should be on clarifying misconceptions at that level.
    I know you disagree with Woese but you don't say why. If we can't do it properly (in high school) then why not stick with what we can do properly, like genetics and zoology, etc. ?
    I think I addressed this in the post. Most people won't take an advanced course, which means they will not understand even the basics. You may be an exception, but a single person does not a dataset make. What we need to do is to confront and correct misconceptions, as our own Mr. Fiorentino has kindly illustrated this above. The problem, as much as anything, is that people think they understand the subject when they don't. This is true right up to biology majors in Canada, and it starts because misunderstandings aren't dealt with early on. As I said, the same happens in physics where misconceptions brought to the classroom remain unless they are confronted. The earlier this happens, the more effective it can be. As to this all being a holdover from the American revolution versus Canadian submissiveness, je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.
    As to this all being a holdover from the American revolution versus Canadian submissiveness, je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.

    I would never be dumb enough to argue with Laplace!

    However, not considering the culture we are talking about, be it Canadian, Japanese, American, whatever, is to miss the opportunity to most effectively deal with it.

    I don't go to Japan and do things the American way. Any number of failed businesspeople have tried that.

    T Ryan Gregory
    I think reducing things to cultural vestiges of revolution is simplistic in the extreme. For one thing, there is no "American" attitude about evolution, nor a "Canadian" one. Both countries are diverse. Moreover, there are many differences between the USA and Canada (and western Europe, where acceptance of evolution is ever higher), including what gets taught in schools. Have you considered that perhaps many Americans reject evolution because they don't understand it? If they think scientists suggest that eyes arose by chance, or that a human was born of a chimp, then I can see why they would reject it. Those are two misconceptions that could be corrected readily at the high school level or even earlier.
    Trying to teach a good high school biology curriculum without evolution would be as bad as trying to teach high school chemistry without mentioning protons, neutrons, and electrons. To take just one narrow example of a key field in modern biology: comparative genomics.

    This is a really active field right now, important for understanding our own genomes, and high school students can profitably be taught about it. But it will make no sense without evolution - how do you get kids to understand the scientific merit of sequencing lots of genomes without teaching them about evolution?

    And good high school biology curricula are not out of reach - Ken Miller's own high school textbook is very good. If you teach evolution the way it is presented in there, you give students a solid grounding without introducing a lot of confusion. You can't separate it out from the rest of biology. In physics, maybe we don't teach kids about the Schroedinger equation or matrix mechanics, but we do teach them about electrons, orbitals, and nuclei. The same thing applies in biology; we won't teach them hard-core population genetics, but kids can still learn profitably about phylogenetic trees, natural selection, genetic drift, etc.

    Oh sure, team up on the guy with the B.S.

    But you both make some fine points. Still, if it's that fundamental (staying Newtonian, gravity is easy to demonstrate and any dumb jock can understand a coefficient of restitution when I throw a baseball at the wall) then why isn't it taught better?

    We have what we have, educationally. How do we make it work? We can't hire all new teachers.

    Both 'evolution' and 'mechanics' are part of the english lexicon. I see 'evolution' 10 times a day (give or take) in advertising and common speech so clearly everyone knows what it means. If an advertisement says "This is the next evolution in auto engineering" no one says they don't believe in cars so we clearly have a disconnect somewhere.

    The main reason it's not taught better than, let's say physics, (meaning, let's leave the issue of poorly trained teachers out of this), is because it generates so much resistance. Poll after poll of teachers by organizations of teachers, or of biology teachers (I can't keep track of all the different organizations) show that a lot of teachers have avoided teaching evolution because they felt strong pressure from parents and administrators, who object on religious grounds, to avoid it.

    If Newtonian physics had been subject to the same kinds of lawsuits and school board fights that evolution has experienced (just browse the 2007 news at NCSE for a sampling of the constant barrage), you can bet that it would be poorly taught as well. (And physicists would be just as fed up and frustrated as the biologists are.)

    It will work once teachers can just teach, without backlash from parents and administrators, the kind of basic stuff that is in normal high school biology textbooks (the Miller and Levine book being a great example).

    T Ryan Gregory
    Both 'evolution' and 'mechanics' are part of the english lexicon. I see 'evolution' 10 times a day (give or take) in advertising and common speech so clearly everyone knows what it means. If an advertisement says "This is the next evolution in auto engineering" no one says they don't believe in cars so we clearly have a disconnect somewhere.
    This is part of the point -- people do not understand evolution. Your example is a prime example of this: "the next evolution in..." badly misconstrues what evolution actually is. And advertisers can do this only because that misconception has not been corrected. Since most people won't take university science, the chance to do it is in grade school. I'm not talking about advanced evolution -- as I said, I don't even get into much advanced material in 30 hours of upper-year university lectures. How do we improve the situation? By improving teacher understanding with help of scientists, and focusing on understanding basic aspects and clarifying misconceptions rather than listing trivia that people do not see as relevant. It isn't just a problem for evolution, it applies to all sciences, but it is especially significant for evolution because, as you noted, the ideas are (mis)used frequently.
    You and Mike both make interesting points I hadn't considered. Surely there are no lawsuits over teaching gravity and if that neuters evolution teaching it's a very bad thing. Public school teachers are in a union in the US - unless they run down a kid in the parking lot they can't be fired - so I assumed they had a little more independence and fortitude about how they taught.

    I also thought having evolution as part of the lexicon was a benefit. If even I am unclear on what it is and isn't because of common misperception - and I have read a few biology articles in the last year - the problem is deep.

    The disconnect, and we certainly do have one extends beyond the bounds of the traditional educational system itself. As an example Miller in his talk said:

    We in science "suck" at getting our message across to the public. We are terrible popularizers.

    Miller asked:
    "How many people in the audience were aware of the discovery of the "fusion" of human chromosome #2?

    He also stated some of the reasons he felt those in science were not partcularly good communicators on this subject, among them he mentioned "self-absorption" and the "self-destructive tendency" to look down on "popularizers."

    Among the popularizers he mentioned was Carl Sagan.

    I also think some employ a rather heavy-handed approach when they indicate that essentially the idea that someone (a layman) might be actually able to offer something constructive after 150 years of study by scientists is ludicrous.

    First, I can provide specific examples of laypeople who have done just that in other areas of science,(I will include myself in there) and I also think that train of thought doesn't sit well with what is done here at SB on a daily basis.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    And let me just reply to my own reply and offer just two examples where "laymen" have not only assisted but directly contradicted the professional scientists and have been shown to be correct.

    1 is my friend Steve Barber who demonstrated beyond any doubt that the PhD scientists (3 of them) who studied the Dallas Police dictabelt of purported "gunshots" relating to the JFK case were essentially all wet. Steve assisted the NAS in their review of that tape.

    And, I am proud to say, my own rebuttal to be published in the peer-reviewed Annals of Applied Statistics relating to the NAA analysis, also in the JFK case.

    I took on a gaggle of PhD's and also demonstrated rather conclusively, that their "paper" was more "poopie" than science.

    So, it can be done, and indeed has been done.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    John, professional scientific research is not the same thing as routine (or even non-routine) forensics. Do you seriously believe that a layman, who doesn't even know what a tensor is, is going to find some undiscovered flaw in General Relativity? Or that someone who does not know the difference between a synonymous and non-synonymous mutation is going to come up with a better interpretation of the DNA data than current ideas about human-chimp speciation?

    Scientists get heavy-handed when confronted with the same bone-headed ideas from one self-described genius after another who thinks that, without any background knowledge whatsoever, he has overturned a field that thousands of undergrads every year struggle to learn in difficult classes. The fact that you, without second guessing yourself, thought you heard Ken Miller say humans descended from chimps shows that you really have not had enough exposure to the field to avoid really, really basic mistakes.

    It's not about who's smarter, or who has more degrees. It's about whether you put in the mental effort to at least understand the sophsticated claims mainstream scientists are making before you go off and show them how mistaken they are.

    The fact that you, without second guessing yourself, thought you heard Ken Miller say humans descended from chimps shows that you really have not had enough exposure to the field to avoid really, really basic mistakes.

    First, this is very disingenuous. Frankly Dr. I know and knew last night that the theory of evolution does not indicate we descended from chimps. My problem was one of perception, (as indicated) and not knowledge. I made a mistake. Have you ever done that? I also admitted it, Have you ever done THAT?

    And I'll state this for the record, and frankly don't give a rats patoot if you like it.

    Your own ability to read and comprehend what is being said, at least in my experience with you is sorely lacking.

    As to the rest of your mush, I think it's just that.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    I don't think that comment is taking us all to a good place.

    I don't either. And Dr. White's comments are?

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    And, it would appear that Dr. White feels the science of acoustics and also neutron activation analysis are not areas of "scientific research."

    He also likes to insult:

    It's about whether you put in the mental effort to at least understand the sophsticated claims mainstream scientists are making before you go off and show them how mistaken they are.

    Inferring of course that this is either my failing, or my intent.

    Gee, Dr. and I was going to ask you to comment and assist me with my unfortunate.

    Why don't you wait until you see what I have to say before you criticize it?

    That's the way professionals do things.

    John FiorentinoFiorentino Research

    Actually, I think Ryan's example of Newtonian physics is even better than my proton/electron example. Unlike quantum mechanics, that's a subject you can treat somewhat quantitatively in high school, and it's a tricky subject, easily subject to misunderstanding. But it forms a core part of the physics curriculum - you wouldn't have much physics left to teach in high school if you left out Newtonian mechanics.

    T Ryan Gregory
    It's not really my example, nor a hypothetical one. See for example, Halloun, I.A. and D. Hestenes. 1985. The initial knowledge state of college physics students. American Journal of Physics 53: 1043-1055. Halloun, I.A. and D. Hestenes. 1985. Common sense concepts about motion. American Journal of Physics 53: 1056-1065.

    Just as an aside, I saw this commentary on another site.

    In taking a look at the rest of his site, he seems to fall into the rather classic striation I've seen in the last few years - conservatives and christians versus liberals and atheists. I don't remember this kind of faction mentality when I was in college(*). There was no evolution 'controversy.'

    These are strange bedfellows to me. In American political thought, conservatives claim they believe in individuality and liberals seem to believe that society is better served in groups working toward a common good.

    What's more anti-government than evolution? I very much doubt Reagan did not believe in evolution. He even said he evolved from Democrat to Republican.  :)

    (*) Which does not mean it didn't exist. In trying to research this I found this fascinating timeline of teaching evolution in Time magazine.  

    You can point to any subject and say that children will not fully understand it. You start out slow and simple and build on it. You don't (usually) try to teach writing until kids can talk, and you can't fully teach evolution without a lot of incremental education about biology. But you can introduce the concept early and add to it. Also, the fact that there is opposition to teaching evolution on religious grounds is no reason not to teach it. The only way to combat ignorance is by education. scott
    Education- the teaching of facts to a subject. How does evolution fit into that? It has NOT been proven fact, but rather is seen to scientists as a very senitive, impossible theory. Sorry about my spelling, I am more of a science person than a writer. Look at the position of the earth. If it changed at all, life would die. How is it so perfect?
    We need the sun, we also need the Son. God loves you, I have a harder time, but am trying to obey my savior. He is more patient with you than I ever will be, which is good.

    Gerhard Adam
    Great!  Wonderful!  Take your religious views and enjoy your life.  However, if you come on to a science site and expect us to accept your religious views as being scientific, then you're just a fool.  You have no business talking about what's proven or not, nor do you have any basis for claiming the silliness of your views regarding how "perfect" the world is.  As I said ... enjoy your religion and believe whatever you like.  There's no problem with that.  If you expect it to replace science, then you're barking up the wrong tree.
    Mundus vult decipi
    T Ryan Gregory
    Please be advised that rambling nonsense comments will be deleted. It is not censorship, it is quality control. Any reasonable commentary, pro or con, is of course welcome here.
    Thank you!

    Georg von Hippel
    Well said!

    -Evolution should be mentioned, but not taught until the students have learned the basics first.
    -Evolution is too wide of a subject to fully understand in 12 years of education.
    -Evolution is a hypothesis, not a theory.
    I think thats all I got out of the mini-article. I'm a terribly blunt reader...

    However, the last point you made at the end, "If students could be liberated from entrenched misconceptions of humans descended from chimps, organisms changing to meet perceived needs, or complex organs arising by chance, then a good deal of progress will have been made," turned a dozen lightbulbs in my head.

    Well said.
    I wish you were my bio teacher.

    Um, no. We have not made much progress at all! Come on, look at this world! We are going backwards. Have we created life through a chemical reaction, NO! I dont know everything, but I am not dumb! If I can see this, you should too.

    Gerhard Adam
    I dont know everything ...
    Well, that's certainly an optimistic appraisal.  But, hey ... it's real simple.  Instead of criticizing what you don't understand, why not simply provide your explanation (i.e. your hypothesis) for how life/evolution works.  Then we can all see whether you have any idea of what you're talking about.

    However, if you do that, let's keep in mind that criticizing other theories without replacing them with your own doesn't count.  It's just stupid.  Similarly, I'm not interested in what you think is wrong.  Just explain how you think it all works.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Evolution is a subtle scientific idea, the main reason why the philosophy of biology is very nontrivial. It took Darwin to come up with it, and the current understanding of evolution did not emerge until 1930-60. Until Crick decyphered how DNA codes proteins, circa 1960, the theory of evolution was littered with what physicists call "black boxes." Biological organisms on Earth are the most complex things we humans know anything about, and that alone makes biology very challenging.

    Meanwhile, a lot of kids graduate from high school not really able to read and do arithmetic. I know, because I teach economics to undergraduates in a university with minimal admission standards. I read much biology in my long ago youth. My passion now is cosmology. My main qualification for thinking about science education is that I have edited a lot of Wikipedia entries on basic physics.

    I surmise that only the best 10% of students should be exposed to evolution in high school. For the others, it's a waste of time and a misallocation of scarce educational resources. Nothing would stick. I agree with Woese.

    We scientific literates need to accept that evolution is controversial among the ordinary run of people in much of the English speaking world. Evangelical Christianity sees the theory of evolution as the camel's nose of atheism poking into the tent of middle eastern monotheism. (Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church has formally stated that it is at peace with evolution.) Many conclusions of evolutionary reasoning strike many voters as highly counterintuitive and morally counterproductive. The only realistic response is to tone down discussion of evolution in high school texts. Were I high school biology teacher, I would be happy to say no more than "There has been life on Earth for probably at least 3 billion years. Over that time, life has gradully become more complicated and more diverse. If you want to learn about how that happened, study biology in college." It is true that what I propose will result in a large majority of adults knowing nothing about evolution. The way to address that is to write short clear cheap books for lay adults. More telegenic college professors should give lectures distributed as DVDs and on cable channels. (I eagerly await the day when an entire semester of lectures will fit onto 1-2 DVDs.)

    I do not wish to single ou the theory of evolution here; there are other science topics that are just as important and even more poorly understood by nonspecialists: thermodynamics, for example. Worst of all is the emerging consensus that physics is grounded in an isomorphism between symmetries and conservation laws (Noether's theorem). This can be verbally exposited without mathematics, but who wants to mention that in high school physics, given how nervous high school students are about physics anyway?

    Nearly all of modern science cannot be taught in high school except in magnet schools, honours courses, and private schools with serious entrance requirements. Most kids can only learn description and taxonomy, the hydrological cycle, sexual reproduction in plants, the family tree of vertebrates, the very basics of tectonics and continental drift. I look back in bewilderment at having been taught the Krebs cycle when I was 14, and the Bohr theory of the hydrogen atom when I was 15, at figuring out the duality of differentiation and integration while learning basic mechanics at 16, before learning basic calculus when I was 17.

    Gerhard Adam
    I would agree that evolution should not be taught in high school.  One of the key problems with evolution is that it seems so readily reducible to catch phrases, so there isn't the intimidation factor one encounters with quantum physics.

    As a result, the average person thinks it quite reasonable to have an opinion about evolution regardless of their background, while they would never think to offer an opinion about Schrodinger's Cat. 

    Since evolution seems so accessible, it is also subject to quick and gross misinterpretations by under-qualified teachers.
    Mundus vult decipi
    We definitely should not teach evolution.
    Schoolkids already have a strong understanding of science and can handle a little religion mixed in.
    A recent poll showed that kids thing Isaac Newton invented Fire.
    Surely, without religion, we wouldn't have civilization, right?
    Maybe we should teach religion in English class too, as we do in History.

    For those who were studying religion in English, Google "satire".

    Evolution as a concept with little detail should certainly be taught in highschool no matter what level of biology is taken.  While schools certainly have different levels in each subject.  The lower level would be introduced the the basic idea that like geology species change over long time periods.  The highest level taking AP bio could be introduced to the full theory.   I don't see why not. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    I disagree! Evolution is the central concept of biology; it just becomes a mass of details without it. I taught high school biology for more than 30 years and included it as the main organizing thought structure in the subject. Would you teach high school chemistry and leave out atomic and molecular theory?
    Now it does happen that many students of various religious backgrounds come to class with an attitude that they have been preconditioned not to accept the theory of evolution. It simply needs to be explained to them that an educated person learns how others, who disagree in some fashion, are still worth clearly understanding. I found most students were unable to grasp the difference in biblical time and the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. Almost everyone I meet does not understand how large a billion really is. The lesson on a billion is what I now hear about most often when meeting a grown ex-student. They tell me that my class really opened their eyes to all kinds of mind-expanding ideas. Evolution is the second most topic they mention. I invented a game that we played, early in the class - and when we later saw a movie on natural selection, they responded by repeating the name of the game. They were preconditioned to understand the idea by an experience that made sense before the formal lesson.

    I graduated HS 1953, in Richmond, VA. The word 'evolution' was never mentioned in any of my biology or other science lasses, as far as I can remember. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer every morning in homeroom, and although being anti-religious myself I did not participate in the Prayer, I was perfectly happy to stand still and keep quiet while the others around me did their thing. It would have been just as bad for me to intrfere wit other's ceremonies as I felt it was for those religious zealots to keep trying to persuade me to believe in their god, telling me I was destined to spend eternity in some imaginary hell because I didn't go to their church! In those days, pretty much everybody minded their own business, except for the Tract-Bearers, and everybody else thought they were crazy.
    The Big Thing that year was everybody trying to figure out how to maintain Segregation in the face of that Idiotic Supreme Court Decision, which everybody knew would be overturned by some More Supreme Court, if we could just find out what it was. And anyway, the Governor said the Virginia State Supreme Court was superior to the U S Federal Court, so we needn't worry about it.
    Save Your Confederate Money, Boys, The South Shall Rise Again!

    Let me tell you about 'Separate but Equal'
    In Hanover County, Virginia, it worked like this: The county was divided into geographically equivalent school districts. The Eastern and Central Districts, near Richmond, were pretty populous, while the Western District was sparse, mostly agricultural. The White Schools had eleven grades, 1-8 and three years of high-school. There was a Colored School in each district, grades 1-6. In Beaverdam District, the far west district, there was a Colored Highschool. Colored kids were supposed to quit school and go to work in the fields after sixth grade, so they (some of them) could read and write a little, and make change, so it was difficult, BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE, for a few colored kids, (Uppity the-N-word) to further their education. So the kids from the Eastern District had to ride an hour and a half on a rattle-trap rickety old school bus to go to school beyond sixth grade, BUT THEY COULD, so the Virginia Educational System was Separate But Equal! Our Governor, and the State Supreme Court said so, and so did U S Senator Bobby Byrd, a very powerful member of Congress.
    Needless to say, misguided displaced Yankees like me were shouted down, and even punched and mud-puddled, if we opened our mouths on the subject. I learned well and quickly, never opened my mouth again until I got to college.

    Okay. My thought on evolution, if we evolved from a single cell organism then why to this day are we fill not evolving from single cell organism. And why do we not have new species from bees single cell organism that we claim to have evolved from. Looking at intelligent design shows that a single cell organism had to come from somewhere. Would we call that a higher power I would. I do believe in evolution because without evolution we would still be doing the same thing we did thousands of years ago today but as we learn new things and grow to me that is what is called evolution not a single cell organism the created the world.

    Gerhard Adam
    Your comment is simply recursive and indicates that you don't understand evolution.  This isn't something that is subject to a vote or popular opinion.  If you want to claim a "higher power", then invariably one can always claim that there must exist an even "higher power" to account for the one you're claiming.  It answers nothing and simply pushes the problem back in a recursive manner.

    If you choose to believe for religious reasons, then do so, but don't confuse it with science.  It offers no explanations and is simply wrong when one examines all the things that were supposedly "designed" and then co-opted for different uses.
    ...if we evolved from a single cell organism then why to this day are we fill not evolving from single cell organism.
    I'm sure you'll realize how foolish that statement sounds if you think about it.  Do you think that Boeing builds 777 aircraft by first having to build the Wright Brothers plane every time? 

    ... and please don't use that previous example as an excuse to invoke intelligent design. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Okay so this is what I'm hearing you say that because we have evolved from rias story times but those little teeny tiny single cell organism still floating around in the universe still floating around in the world are not reproducing why because you say so because we have evolved how do they know not to evolve because we have evolved you are a moron science is science can prove to me that per some reason it be single cell organisms, smart not to stop evolving I will believe that evolution from a single cell organism is possible on tell bad that single cell organism had to come from somewhere definitely not your brain

    Gerhard Adam
    I have no idea what you're talking about, beyond the fact that you clearly have no idea what evolution or natural selection is.  I don't particularly care what you believe and I'm always surprised at the number of people that think that somehow science has an obligation to prove something to THEM, personally.

    No one gives a damn whether you choose to inform yourself or remain ignorant.
    Mundus vult decipi
    When Darwin talks about his theory of evolution and how the single cell organism came to be it was just that a theory or hypothesis nothing that actually meant anything. That Cannot be proven or denied if you can prove to me that evolution started from a single cell organism in your scientific world then I will believe you. But Intel then it just like Darwin's theory is just that a theory

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't care if you believe me or anyone else for that matter.  No one owes you an explanation beyond that which science has already provided.  If you choose to remain ignorant, then feel free to do so, but don't expect to gain any respect on a scientific site.

    Even your statement about a "theory is just that a theory" indicates the profound level of ignorance you're expressing.  Why do you insist on bothering those of us interested in studying the world?  Do you always have to contaminate it with your superstitious rhetoric?
    Mundus vult decipi
    I just want to throw my two cents worth in here. I know Gerhard you really don't care what other people think because you are GOD and everything that is RIGHT. Well sorry to burst your bubble you are not GOD and not completely right. Yes I do believe in a lot of the science stuff but then again there is something that is greater. If there wasn't how did everything come to be????? I feel there is something of a greater power that created everything and made man smart enough to do the things we do and teach. Then there are IDIOTS like you that think they know everything. So do us all a favor and get off your high and mighty horse and actually do some research before you keep going and telling the Christians and everyone else that they don't know what they are talking about. Thank you and have a great scientific life.

    Gerhard Adam
    How about we make a deal?  You take your ideas and go to some other site where science isn't expected.  Otherwise, you're just another ignorant individual that wants to argue scientific principles essentially unarmed, except for a barely functional set of wits.

    Go away.  Why do you insist on preaching to those not interested?

    BTW, your statement about "believing in alot of the scientific stuff" is stupid.  Everything you depend on to live is based on that science, but you're simply too close-minded to see it.  Instead you'd rather attribute everything to some superstitious belief.

    So, you're lucky because you aren't actually held to your beliefs when it comes to life.  You can still take advantage of modern science, technology, medicine, etc. regardless of how stupid your own ideas are, because others have taken the time to study to make sure you get the best help available whether or not you understand where it comes from.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Wow aren't you just a self righteous ass. You think that everyone should believe what you do regardless if it is fact or not. I really don't care what you or anyone else thinks. I just think you need to stop being the ass that you are to people and degrading their beliefs. This is america and everyone has the right to believe what they want to. Maybe you need to go to some third world country where people can be easily brainwashed to think the way you do. I have met some pretty arrogant people in my life but YOU really take the cake. Take a step back and look at the whole picture and people's beliefs and stop degrading them. Stop making people feel like they are stupid because of what they believe in. I think you made this site just so you can compensate for your inadequacies. There are doctors that will enlarge that for you.

    Gerhard Adam
    OK, enough is enough.  Your bullshit about what people can believe has no place in a scientific discussion.  You want to talk your superstitious nonsense, then go somewhere else.  Science is NOT a democracy and it certainly isn't subject to every nitwit that wants to come along and spout off about a belief, especially one that they likely don't understand themselves.

    Your statement is the epitome of idiocy in discussing a scientific topic.  You can be a smart-ass and as insulting as you like.  It does demonstrate just how shallow your religious views are.  You're a typical hypocritical Christian.  No doubt you'll be devoutly praying in church on Sundays while you spew your vile rhetoric at other times.  Yes ... a true Christian.  You should be proud.
    There are doctors that will enlarge that for you.
    Oh my ... are you twelve years old?  You obviously have neither the brains nor the creativity to be any more insulting than that? 

    I don't go to a religious site and argue with them, so why do you insist on coming to a science site?  Believe me ... I know which one of us is feeling inadequate, so don't push it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    At least she didn't make fun of the cowboy hat. Usually that is the fallback position.
    Gerhard Adam
    Give it time .... that will happen next when they try to make the connection to my being a conservative red-neck, etc.   I hope you're keeping score, because I'm losing count.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Okay Gerhard I never once said I was a christian. All I said is that YOU need to stop making the people that are feel like they are stupid. Everyone has their own opinion regardless if they believe what you say or not. You can call me stupid or childish what ever makes you feel better about yourself I really don't care.

    To Hank: I would never dis the cowboy hat because some of the rednecks are smarter than this ass. At least they let people have their own opinions and not make them feel like they are stupid for what they believe in.

    Gerhard Adam
    So this site is called Opinion 2.0?  What part of science don't you understand?  When people come on to a science site and think nothing of insulting whole cadres of people for their studies and hard work, especially when that work has extended over several centuries, you think they should be treated politely?

    I'm sick to death of people living their lives dependent on science and then disrespecting it every chance they get.  Science is not infallible, and there's plenty to dispute and discuss.  However, that isn't going to happen when people don't even bother to educate themselves to the minimal levels.  Instead they think that they can just spout off an uninformed opinion and that they should be entitled to it.  Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.

    Someone wants to post on a blog about evolution, their belief in intelligent design then they're going to get blasted.  It's that simple.  There isn't even anything to explain, since it is obvious that the individual hasn't done the most cursory research, or reached the simplest level of biological education.  If people feel stupid for being uninformed, then they can correct that or they can keep quiet.  However, ignorance should never be rewarded.

    Consider what things would be like if science were practiced as you suggest.  Suppose you went to a doctor with a severe infection, but the doctor said that this was based on the germ theory of disease, and since "it's only a theory", it amounted to little more than an opinion.  So since your opinion was as good as his, you might as well go and do an internet search to figure out what's wrong with you.  Just think.  All opinions are equal, and everything is "just a theory" so that nothing is known.  Would you like that? 
    Mundus vult decipi
    One Question for ALL you fanatical religious believers!

    **********************************RELIGION IS ORGANIZED CRIME
    An "atheist" SCIENTIFIC PHYSICIST NIKOLA TESLA gave the WORLD "Alternating Current", "Radio", "Radar",
    "Television", "Remote Control", "Fluorescent" & "Neon" light", "Wireless Transmission of Electricity" and so many
    other devices that most of us would have difficulty living without!
    What can you say "Religion", or any "Religious" person, has given to the world?
    And, When & How did you first learn about "Religion'?