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The Great Debate: Evolution Versus Creationism in the Classroom

Senior biology major Tracy Day wrote this op-ed piece for the “Writing About Science” class offered in May Term 2012

In 1859, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, instigating a fierce debate between scientists and theologians that continues today in public schools. My parents, a pair of liberal librarians, never dreamed that my first experience with the evolution versus religion debate would occur in elementary school. But it did.

My most vivid memory of second grade occurred when I told one of my classmates, a Southern Baptist minister’s daughter, that humans were related to monkeys. To say my teacher (a Southern Baptist herself) felt threatened by my outburst would be an understatement. At my first insistence, Mrs. Badeau merely reprimanded me, but her lenience subsided when my classmate disrupted class, screeching, “Tracy!!! Monkeys and humans are not related! God created everything just the way it is!” Mrs. Badeau told me I would visit the principal’s office if I disrupted class again.

Scared to be in trouble, I felt confused and questioned to myself, “What does God have to do with this?” In a country, which proudly espouses “separation of church and state,” we cannot justify the teaching of creationism to students who come from diverse religious backgrounds, particularly when creationism remains heavily steeped in Christian religious dogma. For example, proponents of creationism refute evolution by explaining that the fossil record, and the levels of different animals within the fossil record, result from activity of the Great Flood.  Although immortalized in picture books, this argument does not hold up to scientific evidence. Within the levels of the fossil record, we find “primitive” as well as “advanced” forms of organisms (ex. one species of fish without legs and another species of fish with legs) Furthermore, between the levels, we find transitional forms of organisms as would be expected for evolution (ex. an intermediate species of fish with both lungs and gills that forms the link between two different species of fish: one with gills and one with lungs).

As illustrated by their interpretation of the fossil record, creationists often misinterpret scientific theory due to scientific illiteracy, which has been defined by Dr. Jon Miller, a researcher at Michigan State University, as being able to understand at least 20 scientific principles.  A sad commentary on our country, Miller believes that only about 28% of American adults qualify as scientifically literate. This illiteracy, compounded with the fact that American high school students consistently perform lower in science then international students, exemplifies why creationism should not be part of the science curriculum. We need to focus on teaching students scientific theories, so they understand the world around them, get better jobs, and make informed decisions in their daily life. If we teach creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms, we will be impairing students’ understanding of science and the scientific method.

Consider this question: how did  scientists versus creationists develop their theories about evolution? Whereas scientists collect evidence and make conclusions about that evidence, proponents of creationism make conclusions first and look for evidence to support their claims later. The creationist method clearly violates the scientific method, in which scientists propose hypotheses, test for accuracy through experimentation, and designate hypotheses only as theories when they stand up to repeated examination. This raises an important point: why teach children a “theory” in science class that does not stand up to the scientific method?  With regard to science, creationism should be properly called a story, not a theory.         

No little kid should be sent to the principal’s office for relating the scientific theory of evolution.  At the same time, I freely acknowledge that children learn key life lessons from the stories associated with different versions of creationism and that teaching does have a place in a myriad of religious worship centers. By truly keeping a separation of church and state, we will not infringe upon the religious views of students by pushing an alternative explanation for evolution strongly influenced by Christianity. Second, students can learn about faith without mistakenly applying the scientific method and fostering scientific literacy. Fundamentally, creationism conflicts with scientific theory and has no place in a science class. The fierce debate needs to end.