As we continue our journey in 2013, I was fortunate to preview the cover for this month’s American Biology Teacher and was impressed with the picture of Ardipithecus ramidus, given the nickname Ardi. I remember hearing and reading about Ardi back in 2009. Ardi is the most complete skeleton specimen of the early hominids. It has a more complete skull, pelvis, and other bones than “Lucy.” I was reminded how Ardi was about 1 million years older than Lucy, and that both walked upright and were found in Ethiopia.

I read a quote discussing the Ardi discovery: “We thought Lucy was the find of the century,” says paleoanthropologist Andrew Hill of Yale University, referring to the famous 3.2-million-year-old skeleton that revolutionized thinking about human origins. “But in retrospect, it was not.” Samuel Assefa, Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, said about the Ardi find, “The profound point for all of us is a deeper sense of our interconnectedness.” Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, called the publication about Ardi “truly a landmark event in our understanding of human origins.”

Not long after rereading about Ardi, I saw this quote in a signature line of an e-mail: “Nothing Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution.” I decided to go back to the archives of the ABT and read the original essay by Theodosius Dobzhansky, which was first published 40 years ago. The essay was presented at the NABT convention in 1972. I found this essay fascinating. The same need exists today as Dobzhansky discussed 40 years ago: the need to teach evolution.

Evolution currently is, and needs to be, a major theme in biological and science education at all levels. In 1996, the National Science Education Standards stated that “biological evolution” could not be eliminated from the life science standards. In the next generation of science standards, the idea of “biological evolution” is one of the four core ideas for the life sciences. Evolution is one of the four “Big Ideas” in the new AP Biology Curriculum Framework and has been identified as the first core idea in biological literacy in the Vision and Change report.

In the Next Generation Science Standards, there are four major components under the Biological Evolution Core Idea:

  1. Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity

  2. Natural Selection

  3. Adaptation

  4. Biodiversity and Humans

These concepts are the foundational ideas of evolution and should be incorporated to some degree in most, if not all, secondary and postsecondary introductory biology courses.

In 2011, revealing research about the teaching of science and evolution was published. In the 28 January 2011 issue of Science, Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman, professors of political science at Penn State, cited “considerable research that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America’s classrooms.” The researchers studied the data collected by a National Survey of High School Biology Teachers and found that only 28% of the 926 public high school biology teachers sampled consistently introduce evolution and design lessons that utilize evolution as one of the major themes of biology. In addition, 13% of the biology teachers advocate for creationism or intelligent design by spending at least 1 hour presenting it in a positive light. The approximately 60% remaining teachers were “cautious” about teaching evolution, neither being strong promoters for evolutionary biology nor supporters for the nonscientific alternatives.

The two authors, Berkman and Plutzer state, “The nation must have better-trained biology teachers who can CONFIDENTLY ADVOCATE for high standards of science education in their local communities.”

This is where all members of NABT can become advocates for our profession. As members of the biology teaching community, we need to be willing to help our colleagues. I know from my own experience that I learned how to teach evolution more effectively by attending local workshops and sessions at the NABT Conference, and from colleagues within my school district. My fellow educators continue to help me improve my knowledge of evolution and, most importantly, HOW I present well-planned-out lessons to my students. If you are a postsecondary educator, consider asking if any of your local high school and perhaps middle school teachers would like a refresher course on teaching evolution. Finally, colleges and universities should consider requiring a specific course in evolution for all future biology educators as part of the teacher education program.

Proper training and education is only part of the solution. Many teachers will try to avoid a conflict, worry about being supported, and do not know where to find resources to help them teach evolution. In addition, many teachers may not feel they have the proper academic knowledge and background to teach evolution. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “to teach biology without explaining evolution deprives students of a powerful concept that brings great order and coherence to our understanding of life.” This is a great and preventable tragedy.

As NABT members, we have the responsibility to share our position statement with all educators about teaching evolution so they know that we affirm that “biological evolution must be presented in the same way that it is understood within the scientific community: as a well-accepted principle that provides the foundation to understanding the natural world.” If colleagues need more support or additional resources, have them contact NABT or direct them to one of the helpful resources are that are readily available (including the Understanding Evolution site at http://evolution.berkeley.edu/).

We owe it to our students and our colleagues to CONFIDENTLY ADVOCATE for the teaching of all aspects of biology, and that absolutely includes teaching evolution.

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Mark D. Little
NABT President – 2013

References

Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35, 125–129.
White, T.D., et al. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326, 75–86.

Resources for Teaching Evolution