This editorial first ran in the Anchorage Daily News:
Without much fuss, the Alaska Board of Education put an essential bit of science back into the state science standards last Friday. That was thanks to more than a bit of civil discussion that took place the day before.
Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau and Anchorage science curriculum director Gail Raymond helped lead the way. They asked the board to upgrade the theory of evolution from a grudging parenthetical reference to its central role in the life sciences. The Anchorage School District proposed changing the last part of the life science standard to: "... an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection and biological evolution."
And the state board, to its credit, did just that - unanimously.
Speakers on Thursday did a good job of sorting through the history of the debate, the evidence for evolution and the role of scientific theory and state educational standards in the teaching of science. That gave the state board a good occasion and plenty of public credibility for doing the right thing.
Nationally, "teach the controversy" is the reasonable-sounding appeal of creationist or "intelligent design" thinkers who want their distinctly minority view to be smuggled into science classes with some kind of parity against the theory of evolution. They have a point, but they're applying the idea to the wrong classes.
Schools should teach the controversy over evolution and intelligent design in classes on history. Or social studies. Or philosophy. Or mythology, in the best sense of that term. They should teach about religion, society and education. They should examine creation stories from many religions and cultures. They should study the moral and literary merit of religious texts, especially but not exclusively the Bible.
In those classes, the controversy over evolution and intelligent design is an interesting study in values, politics, religion and conflict. Stepping outside the argument to study the conflict from a detached point of view would do students good - they'd have to consider at least some of the ways the world is diverse and challenging to every point of view, how people of faith and people of science come to their convictions and commitments, how all those things may overlap or conflict or agree in different minds and different communities. This is one of the best functions of education.
But to teach the "evolution vs. intelligent design" controversy in science classes would give too much weight to ideas that haven't earned their scientific keep. There are better challenges to evolution on scientific grounds.
That does not mean evolution is only a hypothesis. As speakers at last week's Alaska Board of Education hearing on state science standards pointed out, the theory of evolution is as sound scientifically as the theory of gravity. Both raise unanswered questions, but they are generally accepted in the world of science, acted upon in real life and, most of all, supported by the preponderance of evidence.
The serious scientific challenges to evolution or Darwinism are not from creationists or intelligent design theorists who draw their inspiration from faith, but from scientists who draw their conclusions from evidence. Evolution is sound theory, not fixed dogma. It can both withstand and profit by continued scrutiny and revision.
Let the professionals, including that splinter minority of scientists who hold with "intelligent design," carry on a thriving scientific argument in books, speeches, journals and the like. Let students in the public schools be exposed to the questions and challenges in fair proportion to their weight in the scientific debate.
Most of all, let the public schools teach the best available science, as the Board of Education chose to do. The board deserves Alaskans' thanks; this was a step forward for education.
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