Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education. Branch is co-editor, with Eugenie Scott, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools, and the author or coauthor of numerous articles on creationism and evolution in such publications as Scientific American, The American Biology Teacher, and Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics. This post originally appeared on the NCSE blog.
A two-and-a-half-minute video with Bill Nye discussing the creationism/evolution controversy went viral, garnering over 2.5 million views in its first week on-line. Posted on August 23, 2012, on the YouTube channel of Big Think, under the title "Creationism is not appropriate for children," the video reiterates the centrality of evolution to the life sciences and laments the prevalence of evolution denial in the United States. In it, Nye remarked, "And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine, but don't make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future."
Nye later toldCBS This Morning (August 28, 2012), "My concern is you don't want people growing up not believing in radioactivity, not believing in geology and deep time. You don't want people in the United States growing up without the expectation that we can land spacecraft on Mars. You want people to believe in science, this process, this great idea that humans had to discover more about the universe and our place in it, our place in space. And I really want to emphasize, I'm not attacking anybody's religion, but science, if you go to a museum and you see fossil dinosaur bones, they came from somewhere, and we have by diligent investigation have determined that the earth is 4.54 billion years old."
NCSE's Steven Newton was interviewed on KPCC (August 29, 2012) for its story about Nye's video. Nye's remarks were fully in step with the views of the scientific community, Newton explained, adding, "Science teachers around the country are pretty much in sync with scientists around this country in understanding that evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences, and as such, it should be part of the curriculum and it should be taught," citing the courageous teachers in Dover, Pennsylvania, who in 2005 refused to read the evolution disclaimer mandated by the school board there. "Intelligent design or overtly biblical Creationism — all of them have the same root [in] a denial of evolution and how science works," Newton commented.
A Supporter of NCSE, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" was the host of the popular science education television programs Bill Nye the Science Guy— which won eighteen Emmys — and The Eyes of Nye; he is currently the executive director of the Planetary Society, the world's large space interest organization. The video was by no means Nye's first excursion into defending the teaching of evolution: in 2011, for example, he toldPopular Mechanics, "it's fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don't believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don't believe in science, that's a recipe for disaster. ... the main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong."
Summers tend to be blessedly slow at the nonprofit where I work, the National Center for Science Education. That’s because NCSE’s primary mission is to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and when the schools are out of session, the school boards are taking a break, and the state legislatures have adjourned, the creationist onslaught on the teaching of evolution slackens—even if it never entirely vanishes. So it’s a good time for me to catch up on my reading.
Of all the education books I read this summer, the one that impressed me the most was Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer’s Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010)—although, to be fair, I wasn’t reading it for the first time. At the center of the book is Berkman and Plutzer’s careful national survey of high school biology teachers, who were asked about what they thought and what they teach about evolution. The results were disquieting: as they summarized in the January 28, 2011, issue of Science, “The data reveal a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology,” with only 28% of teachers deemed effective educators with respect to evolution—and with as many as 13% of teachers explicitly advocating creationism.
It wasn’t all bad news from Berkman and Plutzer, though. In chapter 6 of their book, they analyze the changes in the treatment of evolution in state science education standards, concluding, “... the content of state standards in the year 2000 reflected public opinion. But the nation’s major science organizations were successful in encouraging many states to redraft their standards, so that, by 2007, many more reflected the goals and priorities of the scientific establishment.” Battles over the treatment of evolution in state standards still rage in places like Texas and Florida, but overall the defenders of evolution are winning. And a set of model national standards, now under development with the guidance of the National Research Council, properly emphasizes evolution as one of the “disciplinary core ideas” of the life sciences.
The statistical rigor and scholarly detail of Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms was bracing, certainly, but it wasn’t exactly a book that I wanted to take to the beach or share with my ten-year-old son. That honor was clearly reserved for Jay Hosler’s Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth(Hill and Wang, 2011), illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon. A charming graphic introduction to evolution, the conceit of the book is that it takes place not on the earth, but on the planet Glargal, inhabited by intelligent aliens that vaguely resemble sea cucumbers. The squinches, as they call themselves, are facing a genetic crisis, and as part of their efforts to combat it, a squinch scientist, Bloort 183, has been researching life on earth and is now explaining evolution to the Glargalian monarch and his heir.
Both Hosler and the Cannons are old hands at explaining biological ideas in comics. Hosler is responsible for a string of comics on evolutionary themes published by Active Synapse, Clan Apis, The Sandwalk Adventures, and Optical Allusions—probably the best National Science Foundation-funded comic around! The Cannons previously illustrated Mark Schultz’s The Stuff of Life (Hill and Wang, 2009), which introduced the squinches while explaining the basics of genetics. The result of their collaboration, though, is something special: Hosler’s gift for narrative and the clever and appealing illustrations of the Cannons make learning about evolution the most fun you can have without donning a cape to fight crime. Don’t take my word for it, though: there’s a sample chapter, in which Bloort 183 explains extinction, posted on the NCSE website.
I’m looking forward to having time to read a number of forthcoming books on the teaching of evolution, including Jeffrey P. Moran’s American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science(Oxford University Press, 2012), which promises to analyze the historical roles played by race, gender, and regionalism in the controversies over the teaching of evolution. Is it any wonder that sometimes I wish that the summer could last the whole year long?