November 12, 2018, was a date worth celebrating. It was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson v. Arkansas, which struck down a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Arkansas’s public schools. In his opinion for the court, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “there can be no doubt that Arkansas has sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive doctrine as to the origin of man,” finding the law in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
In the wake of the Epperson decision, anti-evolution campaigners regrouped with efforts to “balance” the teaching of evolution in the public schools with various supposedly scientifically credible alternatives: biblical creation, creation science and intelligent design. None of these efforts survived constitutional scrutiny, with these various forms of creationism defeated in such cases as Daniel v. Waters (1975), McLean v. Arkansas (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005)—all citing the Epperson decision as a crucial precedent.
That’s why the preferred strategy is now to belittle evolution, while remaining silent about any supposed alternatives. In Arizona, for example, although the superintendent of public instruction favors teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in public school science classrooms, she refrained from inserting intelligent design in a new set of state science education standards. Instead, she arranged for the treatment of evolution to be downplayed, even recently appointing a creation science advocate to a committee charged with revising the portions of the standards addressing evolution.
Why is it important for state science standards to present evolution properly? Partly to encourage teachers themselves. Sadly, evolution remains socially controversial. Indeed, in a rigorous national survey of public high school biology teachers conducted in 2007, more than one in four of the respondents reported experiencing pressure to downplay evolution. The more accurate, complete and forthright the treatment of evolution is in their state science standards, the easier it is for these teachers to teach evolution properly, even in the face of such pressure.
The benefits of a set of state science standards with a good treatment of evolution aren’t confined to beleaguered science teachers. State science standards provide guidelines for local school districts to follow in developing their science curricula. They determine the content of statewide science examinations. They are consulted by textbook publishers while developing their biology textbooks. And they set the agenda for the training of teachers, both in their own education and in their professional development. So, the content of state science standards makes a crucial difference.
A good set of state science standards isn’t going to be the only ally of teachers who want to teach evolution properly. With 99 percent of active research scientists accepting evolution and a host of scientific organizations explicitly endorsing the teaching of evolution, the scientific community is behind them. With their professional organizations like the National Science Teachers Association and the National Association of Biology Teachers fully committed to supporting the teaching of evolution, the educational community is behind them, too.
And in a controversy dominated by a polarizing science-versus-religion stereotype, it is often insufficiently appreciated that a substantial portion of the faith community also supports the teaching of evolution. Entire denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have issued statements affirming the compatibility of their faith and evolution, for example, while more than 16,000 individual clergy of the Christian, Jewish, Unitarian and Buddhist faiths have joined a grassroots effort to do the same.
Even time is arguably on the side of teaching evolution. Adapting Theodore Parker’s majestic words, the philosopher Barbara Forrest recently wrote, “The arc of history bends toward teaching evolution.” American attitudes, she suggests, are changing in a way that offers hope for the increased acceptance of teaching evolution. And survey results support her argument: in 2017, Gallup reported that acceptance of creationism is at its lowest point measured in 35 years, with only 38 percent of Americans believing that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
But success is not inevitable. It took the efforts of a host of dedicated science teachers—Susan Epperson in Little Rock, Arkansas, and before her, John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, and after her, Donald Aguillard in Lafayette, Louisiana, and hundreds and thousands of unsung heroes of science education in the background—to ensure that evolution is taught as well as it is today. It will take the efforts of their successors to ensure that it is taught even better in the future. And it will take the support of all of us who value the integrity of science education to enable them to do so.