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Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes

An important article by Cornelia Dean in the Science section of the February 1, 2005, issue of The New York Times details a common, but rarely recognized, form of evolution censorship in the United States: self-censorship. In her article, "Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes," Dean interviewed educators and education experts about the phenomenon of teacher self-censorship, where public school teachers feel forced to avoid the topic of evolution in order to avoid the wrath of antievolutionist parents or administrators. Dean interviewed several educators in Alabama, the only state with a statewide evolution warning label required in all biology textbooks. According to John Frandsen, a former chairman of the committee on science and public policy of the Alabama Academy of Science, a teacher confided to him that "she simply ignored evolution because she knew she'd get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it," adding, "She told me other teachers were doing the same thing." Later in the story, Frandsen remarked, "You can imagine how difficult it would be to teach evolution as the standards prescribe in ever so many little towns, not only in Alabama but in the rest of the South, the Midwest -- all over."

Dean observes that "There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that all living things evolved from common ancestors, that evolution on earth has been going on for billions of years and that evolution can be and has been tested and confirmed by the methods of science." Yet according to Dean's interviews, organizations of scientists and science teachers continually get requests from their members for support when their teaching of mainstream science offends parents or administrators. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott was quoted as saying that she hears "all the time" from teachers who do not teach evolution "because it's just too much trouble" or because of pressure from school administrators. And Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association said, "many members of his organization 'fly under the radar' of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts of the science curriculum." However, the efforts of organizations such as the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Center for Science Education may slowly be making progress, the article suggests: in 2001, a National Science Foundation survey found that, for the first time, a majority (53%) of the U.S. population agreed that humans evolved from animals.

The United States is unique in the industrialized world for its level of antievolutionism, according to Jon Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University. Miller told the Times that whereas Americans are, and have been, split 45%-45% on acceptance of evolution (with 10% unsure), 80 percent or more of the population of other industrialized countries typically accept evolution, with most of the others saying they are not sure and very few rejecting the idea outright. American antievolutionism is manifest even among biology teachers, the article notes; Gerald Skoog, a former dean of the College of Education at Texas Tech University and a former president of the NSTA, was quoted as saying, "Data from various studies in various states over an extended period of time indicate that about one-third of biology teachers support the teaching of creationism or 'intelligent design.'" The popularity of antievolutionism in the United States may be due to "the marketplace environment" of religion, suggested Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which contributes to "the politicization of issues like evolution among religious groups." NCSE's Scott commented, "People have been told by some evangelical Christians and by some scientists, that you have to choose," adding, "That is just wrong."