Some mark the passage of time with birthdays, holiday seasons, the New Year, the end or start of school, and myriad other personally relevant and noteworthy events. At The American Biology Teacher we are pleased to continue the tradition started by my predecessor with a theme issue each February to honor the birth of Charles Darwin, paying particular attention to the science of evolution and its place in the teaching of biology.
Many might ignore an event that occurred 207 years ago, but those of us who care about high-quality biology teaching aren't bothered by the awkwardness of this particular number or that of the other anniversary that occurs each year. Let's say “Happy birthday” to Darwin and to the 157-year-old Origin of Species and the revolution it began. You have both held up nicely!
All kidding aside, Darwin's ideas about how life has changed through time have weathered attacks both religious and political, even as they have neatly accommodated new scientific evidence and interpretations. Darwin's work still informs the science of biology so powerfully that it is impossible not to quote the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution in an oft-cited 1973 essay in this journal. This phrase is so widely cited – and so appropriate – that it has its own Wikipedia entry!
Few informed individuals seriously question the reality of evolution – biological change through time – and the validity of the mechanism proposed by Darwin as affirmed, modified, and explored by countless other scientists for a century and a half. However, on this birthday of the man who gave us natural selection and moved biology from natural history to science, all is not well. In this political season in the United States, we hear calls from candidates to question or even reject scientifically established principles such as vaccines, climate change, and, of course, evolution. Unfortunately, we also find that some biology teachers, perhaps leery of offending taxpayers or personally ill prepared to teach evolution, minimize or even avoid the topic.
Fortunately, we have a powerful new ally to support evolution education in the recently released Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), now being considered for use in states across the country. To inform our international readers and remind U.S. teachers, this document represents a major turning point. Education in the United States is the constitutional responsibility of the individual states; until now, no document has informed science teaching and learning in any significant way across state lines. Although we don't know how many states will eventually adopt the NGSS recommendations, it is clear that more students than ever before will be guided in their science learning by a single document. Although some of the NGSS recommendations, such as the use of crosscutting concepts and the engineering elements, will be hard to implement and many wish that nature of science were more prominent, there is much about NGSS that can revolutionize science teaching and learning.
The standards-writing process began with the National Research Council's Framework to guide the process, and evolution has been included from the beginning. In the Framework we find the following statement: “[F]our core ideas, which represent basic life sciences fields of investigation—structures and processes in organisms, ecology, heredity, and evolution—have a long history and solid foundation based on the research evidence established by many scientists working across multiple fields” and, making the point even more strongly, “Evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth” (p. 156). When the NGSS were released, they featured evolution-related content in its own section, “Biology Evolution: Unity and Diversity,” recommended for second and third grades and for more extensive inclusion in middle and high school science classes. The particularly rich secondary-school treatment of evolution includes variation and its genetic basis, descent with modification, common ancestry, natural selection, adaptation, and biodiversity. In those states that adopt NGSS, it will now be impossible to avoid discussion of evolution in the science classroom. In states not adopting these new standards, science teachers will be able to cite NGSS as a model of suggested best practices to support the teaching of evolution.
If there is any single mission of the National Association of Biology Teachers and its journal, it is to encourage and prepare teachers to infuse and inform the biology curriculum with well-established and engaging science. At the same time, we want teachers to avoid the temptation to pander to those who, for ill-informed and inappropriate reasons, want to diminish the study of the life sciences and reduce it to little more than a description of the natural world taught through the “parade of the phyla.” Of course, evolution is the key to understanding why and how life exists as it does. Why do many whales have pelvic bones with no legs to support? Why does the reproductive system of human males take such an apparently random route through the body and yet still function to carry sperm to egg? Why are so many enzymes and biochemical pathways shared across diverse species? Any why, as suggested by scientist Neil Shubin, does it make sense to look for our “inner fish” to understand the vagaries of our own anatomy? For generations, questions such as these fascinate students and have challenged scientists. Imagine the power packed into one notion – evolution – that it could provide answers to these questions and countless more.
Clearly, this extraordinary concept must inform biology instruction at every level. Just as true appreciation for music requires an understanding of how chords, harmony, rhythm, and melody interact, a full understanding and appreciation of the symphony of life demands the theoretical underpinning that only evolution can provide.
Just as nothing makes sense in the biological sciences without evolution, we cannot consider ourselves biology teachers without it either. Biology education is evolution education.