06/13/2016 02:53 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2017

Evolution Education Without Indoctrination

How should we teach evolution? In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, historian Adam Laats and philosopher Harvey Siegel take an uncompromising position.

In fact, they take two uncompromising positions: We must not compromise on evolution education and we must not compromise the rights of creationist students. Recognizing the fundamental principles at stake, their goal is to show how we can fully respect both considerations. The key is to distinguish understanding from belief.

Published by the University of Chicago Press, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides a scholarly treatment of a complex issue. The book is short and readable, however, reaching conclusions that can, and should, be implemented in all biology courses. And it may reassure creationists that their children will be treated fairly.

The first half of the book details the history of the anti-evolution movement in the United States over the past century. Then comes a careful and systematic analysis of the scientific status of evolutionary theory and of various creationist alternatives, including intelligent design. Finally, the authors present and justify an approach to teaching evolution that is scientifically and educationally responsible and fully respects all students and cultures.

A century ago most Americans saw the teaching of evolution as a threat to the Christian conception of divine creation. The 1925 trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution brought the matter to national consciousness but for decades after that there was little teaching of evolution and thus little need to oppose such teaching.

In the early 1960s, however, as part of the post-Sputnik cold war mandate to enhance science education, biology education recognized the central role of evolution in explaining life. Creationists objected but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that laws banning the teaching of evolution were an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Subsequent efforts to legislate equal time for "scientific creationism" or "intelligent design" were also struck down in court.

In addressing evolution education, the authors argue, we should be clear that evolution is a well-established scientific theory with strong empirical support. The same cannot be said for any creationist alternative. Depending on exactly how we define science and what version of creationism we consider, creationist theories are either bad science (because they have been disconfirmed) or not science at all (because they make no testable predictions).

It might appear, then, that science classes should simply require students to believe in evolution, because this is simply a matter of believing the truth. But science education is not a matter of instilling beliefs. Evolution education ought to be aimed at understanding evolution, including the evidence that supports it. This may be expected in most cases to lead to belief in evolution, because the evidence is so strong, but it is ultimately for students to determine what they believe.

Creationism, the authors remind us, is not a scientific doctrine in competition with evolution. Even if some posit what they call "scientific creationism," creationist beliefs are a matter of religion and culture. Science educators want students to understand science, including evolution, and should aim for scientific understanding. They need not and should not require belief. On the contrary, they should acknowledge the limits of science and respect student beliefs.

Science education, thus conceived, is fully consistent with respect for the right of students to determine their own beliefs and with respect for diverse cultural belief systems. Understanding science, a crucial part of education, need not entail indoctrination in particular beliefs or pressure to abandon alternatives. Even if creationism is now the dissenting belief of a minority culture, public schools must respect cultural and religious minorities, including creationists.

The key to evolution education, then, is to aim for understanding, not belief. Students should learn what scientists believe, and why, but the school cannot require them to change their own beliefs. Helping students understand evolutionary explanations, and the associated evidence, is fully consistent with respect for their ultimate right to believe as they will.