A Controversial Christian Guide for Teachers

Editor's Note: Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, published last October by the American Scientific Affiliation of Ipswich, Mass., a "fellowship of Christians in the sciences," has been distributed to more than 50,000 high school biology teachers in the United States. According to the organization, the 48-page booklet "represents a broad middle ground respecting both science and religion" and "

By | May 4, 1987

Editor's Note: Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, published last October by the American Scientific Affiliation of Ipswich, Mass., a "fellowship of Christians in the sciences," has been distributed to more than 50,000 high school biology teachers in the United States. According to the organization, the 48-page booklet "represents a broad middle ground respecting both science and religion" and "shows how to untangle legitimate religious questions from scientific questions so that origins can be taught with both openness and scientific integrity."

According to many scientists, the 2,000-member group has created its own controversy by issuing a slick publication that appears balanced, but actually contains misleading, biased information. Articles calling attention to this have appeared in several publications and a group of practicing scientists in the relevant disciplines is preparing a reply to the booklet.

Juilana Texley, a high school biology teacher, and David Wake, a professor of zoology, express their differing opinions of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy in the following reviews.

Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy: A View From the American Scientific Affiliation. David Price, John L. Wiester and Walter R. Hearn. American Scientific Affiliation. lpswich, MA, 1986. 48 pp. $4.

Each day, science educators face the challenge of conveying complex theoretical constructs to students who lack the logical skills necessary to understand them. In public education, the challenge often extends beyond the classroom, to concerned parents and boards who may have been away from a discipline for years. When an issue such as the teaching of evolutionary biology reaches community debate, misconceptions are more often the rule than the exception.

For these reasons the newest publication of the American Scientific Affiliation represents a far more insidious threat to scientific literacy than it first appears. Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy has found its way into thousands of school mailboxes in the last several months. Carefully written to avoid the overt claims of scientific creationism, it threatens to undermine the advances made in biology education in the last three decades. Since a great number of the biology classes in the country are taught by non-majors, the potential for a unified professional response is dim.

The first few chapters contain much that both classroom teachers and their critics will find valuable. It urges teachers to avoid being arbitrary or intolerant, to admit with their students that science has limitations, and to respect the view of all in the finest American tradition. It compliments the scientific endeavor for its se'f-correcting nature, and it recognizes that scientists have a particular way of looking at the world. In the context of the public pressures that have been directed toward science education recently, the reminders will be especially attractive. Unfortunately, the booklet never urges teachers to adopt the most valid teaching method—to stick to science.

Buried in succeeding pages are increasingly inaccurate misrepresentations of modern evolutionary biology, all the more damaging since they will be beyond the understanding of many of the nation's biology teachers and students. Like critics of Darwin for the last 100 years, the authors cite the many gaps in the fossil record. Yet there is no balanced discussion of the wealth of biochemical, genetic and geological information that has been amassed (in the years since many of today's classroom teachers left college). The book cites the so-called "Cambrian Explosion," ignoring the relatively recent evidence for great variety in Precambrian life. And while Stephen Jay Gould is quoted out of context at one point, his complex yet widely discussed hypotheses about the rate of evolution are ignored.

Like many lay publications, the text moves from a quick description of the familiar Miller-Urey experiments to an analysis of the problems associated with abiogenesis, ignoring decades of intervening research (just as most secondary textbooks do). The nature of chance as it is understood in physical science is grossly misrepresented—an error that will escape all those readers who lack a background in higher mathematics and quantum theory.

By the time the authors turn to a discussion of human evolution, they are bold enough to assert that "Too many problems remain unresolved and too many pieces of evidence are missing to say with certainty that we share a common ancestry with the apes." They suggest that anatomical and biochemical similarities might simply be attributed to convergent evolution, a term every Star Trek fan will find familiar.

The publication never claims that dinosaurs and humans were contemporaries. It acknowledges a great age for planet Earth. Its concessions to physical evidence make its conceptual misrepresentations all the more difficult for classroom teachers to refute. An understanding of the nature of science and the processes by which theories are built is so grossly lacking in most biology students and their parents that the publication will be difficult for the unprepared to oppose.

By far the most potentially dangerous information in a publication such as this is what's between the lines. "If the stars 'only just happened' … human beings are … devoid of intrinsic worth," the authors assert. They clearly imply that one must take the alternative (non-scientific) viewpoint in order to realize the obligation to "treat each other with dignity and respect." Like the mad scientist in an old movie, evolutionary biologists are blamed for much. The "either-or" viewpoint of the authors' affiliation is infectious, and teachers across the nation will be asked to take sides on an issue that is not at all dichotomous.

For many classroom teachers, the appearance of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy may escape notice amid the pressures of teaching. They would, however, be well advised to give this cover-to-cover reading, and to bolster their preparation with background reading. When this covert attempt to incorporate a particular type of religious dogmatism into public science education reaches the community, what they don't know can hurt them.

Texley teaches biology at Richmond High School, Richmond, MI 48062. She is editor of The Science Teacher, the publication of the National Science Teachers Association.

Science teachers in public schools are under attack from creationists who exert unrelenting pressure to avoid discussion of evolution, or at least to "balance" current ideas on evolution with so-called "creation science." There is a growing awareness that many creationists wish to abolish all education in natural science. Teachers who are well informed in general science resent being told that they are teaching untruths, and many respond effectively. Others, however, are deeply confused as to what to teach and bow to respond to the pressure.

A committee of the American Scientific Affiliation, a "fellowship of Christians in the sciences committed to understanding the relationship of science to the Christian faith," produced this small booklet in a goodwilled attempt to provide guidance to teachers.

The booklet strives to promote the view that there is a broad middle ground in which creation and evolution need not be antagonists; teachers need not take sides, it argues. Rather, the booklet advises teachers to present the subjects of origins and of biological evolution with accuracy and openness, avoiding the "ideological arguments of strong attackers or defenders of evolution."

An introductory section entitled "Coping with the Creation/Evolution Controversy" is followed by the heart of the report, "Teaching about Origins." The topics include: Did the universe have a beginning? Did life on Earth arise by chance? Where did the first animals come from? And do we share common ancestry with apes? There is a brief conclusion: Your role as teacher.

While many researchers in evolutionary biology will recoil from such statements as "at present no consensus exists as to how evolution occurred," it is refreshing to read that "most scientists agree that a 'creation science,' based on an Earth only a few thousand years old provides no theoretical basis sound enough to serve as a reasonable alternative." Microevolution is accepted, except in relation to the origin of man, and clear statements are made that some who believe in a creation are able to envision macroevolution as God's means of creating new life forms. The fundamental issue of concern relates to origins—the origin of the universe, life and man.

The pamphlet deals in a forthright way with the Paluxy river man-tracks controversy, but also dredges up Piltdown man. There is a great emphasis on "balance," and concern is expressed that Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences (1984) erred in glossing over "missing links," which are still missing as far as this publication is concerned.

Who can argue with such statements as "the confidence expressed in any scientific conclusion should be directly proportional to the quantity and quality of evidence for that conclusion"? I, for one; evidence has different meanings for me than for the authors. How can they remain skeptical that we share a common ancestry with the apes, when the evidence is so overwhelming? Even T.H. Huxley (Evidence as the Man's Place in Nature, 1863) had the critical evidence, and it has built inexorably since. What do they accept as evidence? On the very day I read that "no trace of newly appearing or extinct galaxies" had been detected, the discovery of a spectacular new supernova was announced.

So, goodwilled or not, most scientists will find this work to be biased and doubting. Yet it is better than I expected from this group and their consultants, none of whom appear to have more than modest credentials as research scientists. It is a start in what I believe could become a positive movement in a long-overdue reeducation process, and it might be very useful for embattled teachers.

Wake is professor of zoology and director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, 94720.

Popular Now

  1. Running on Empty
    Features Running on Empty

    Regularly taking breaks from eating—for hours or days—can trigger changes both expected, such as in metabolic dynamics and inflammation, and surprising, as in immune system function and cancer progression.

  2. Gut Feeling
    Daily News Gut Feeling

    Sensory cells of the mouse intestine let the brain know if certain compounds are present by speaking directly to gut neurons via serotonin.

  3. Athletes’ Microbiomes Differ from Nonathletes
  4. Government Nixes Teaching Evolution in Turkish Schools