Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation
reviewed by Hasan Deniz - July 18, 2016
Title: Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation
Author(s): Adam Laats and Harvey Siegel
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: B01BWMDYFC, Pages: 138, Year: 2016
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Adam Laats and Harvey Siegel provide a highly readable historical overview of the evolution-creationism controversy in their new book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Evolution is not just another scientific topic for many students. The fact that learning about evolutionary theory has cultural and religious implications for defining ones identity makes the publication of this book important for secular and non-secular people alike. The authors make a strong contribution to public understanding of this controversy by approaching the issue from both historical and epistemological perspectives. If the book focused on just one perspective it would not have provided its holistic view of the controversy over evolution education. Readers should appreciate how evolution supporters and opponents exchanged roles concerning evolution-creationism depending on the era under examination.
Chapters One and Two describe the epistemological roots of the evolution controversy from a historical point of view. Before the Scopes trial in 1925, creationists were under the illusion that the scientific credentials of evolutionary theory could be easily undermined. Since the 1920s, evolution supporters gradually established themselves in major research universities and claimed that evolution is the only scientific theory explaining the origin of species on earth. Readers should appreciate learning that the development of academic freedom in major American research universities during the 1920s was inextricably linked to the acceptance of evolutionary theory.
In Chapters Three and Four, the authors explain that the evolution-creationism controversy disappeared from the public arena between roughly 1930 and 1960. In the meantime, evolution supporters further advanced the scientific status of evolutionary theory when Mendelian genetics explained some of the problems with the mechanism of natural selection. After the 1930s, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, and E. B. (Henry) Ford were the leading scientific figures championing evolution. Evolutionary theory enjoyed overwhelming support among mainstream scientists, but did not receive the same level of public acceptance. The launch of Sputnik led to a major science education reform including the development of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), which was being used in almost half of American high schools by the end of the 1960s. The popularity of BSCS fueled the evolution-creationism controversy and BSCS editors were unmoved by the opposition of anti-evolution groups, unlike commercial textbook publishers. As anti-evolution groups lost support in legal and scientific arenas, they started to build institutions during the 1960s where anti-evolution intellectuals taught students with their anti-evolution worldviews. By the 1980s, opponents of evolution were no longer attempting to ban the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools and instead were arguing to include intelligent design alongside evolutionary theory in the curriculum.
In Chapters Five and Six, Laats and Siegel discuss the scientific status of evolutionary theory, creationism, and intelligent design by using demarcation criteria for scientific knowledge: testability, explanatory power, predictive power, and tentativeness. The authors conclude that creationism and intelligent design should not be included in the biology curriculum because they do not meet the criteria for scientific knowledge.
Laats and Siegel scrutinize the relationship between understanding and belief in evolutionary theory in Chapter Seven. When students understand evolutionary theory this might lead some of them to accept it. The authors support the view that the goal of evolution education should be to understand not believe. Laats and Siegel state that it is up to individual students to decide what to do after they understand the evidence supporting evolutionary theory.
The authors frame the evolution-creationism controversy from the standpoint of multiculturalism in Chapter Eight and raise a series of intriguing questions. Does aggrieved cultural minority status provide a good reason for either limiting the teaching of evolution or expanding the teaching of creationism/intelligent design in science classrooms? Should science curricula treat Western Modern Science (WMS) as just one local alternative among others? Should educators teach local ethnic sciences in their classrooms? On what basis, can or should WMS be privileged in the curriculum? These are interesting issues for educators in general and science teachers in particular. After discussing their answers to these questions, Laats and Siegel conclude that creationism and intelligent design should not be included in the biology curriculum even on the grounds of multicultural equality.
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation ends with the recommendation that teachers must be knowledgeable about the historical and epistemological underpinnings of the evolution-creationism controversy so that they can better serve the needs of their students. I think this is something people on both sides of the controversy can agree on.