David Jackson's life straddles all the fault lines in the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Jackson is a professor of science education at the University...

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David Jackson’s life straddles all the fault lines in the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Jackson is a professor of science education at the University of Georgia’s College of Education in Athens. He believes to his core that science has proved valid Charles Darwin’s theory of how life on Earth developed from a common ancestry and why life has such diversity.

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About half the students he teaches to become middle-school science instructors — and to teach evolution themselves — believe God created Earth 6,000 years ago, he said. Scientist friends tell him not to teach those students, because anyone with those beliefs “shouldn’t teach.” But he tells them it is his job to make sure that his students understand evolution, not believe it.

“Most of the scientists on my campus think I’m totally crazy,” Jackson said.

The thickets through which Jackson wades are emblematic of the continuing controversy over the teaching of evolution.

Eighty years after John Scopes, a high-school-biology teacher, was charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee, the social and intellectual values that imbued that trial with such meaning continue to stir emotions, prompting challenges in school boards and state legislatures, courthouses and schoolrooms.

About 40 states are dealing with some sort of challenge this year to the teaching of evolution at the state level, local level or both, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools.

For example, a federal judge in Atlanta is expected to rule soon on a suit filed on behalf of six parents in Cobb County — Jackson’s part of the country — who objected to a disclaimer the school board affixed to ninth-grade biology textbooks. It says, in part: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

It received plenty of headlines, as have other challenges. Drawing less attention are people caught in the middle: students who are not learning the lessons they need to understand the world.

“The science classroom has become the battleground,” said legal scholar Charles Haynes, of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. “Because we are paralyzed by this debate, the decisions are not often made on the basis of what is good for science education. They are made on the basis of what might win in court, or political considerations, or sometimes religious considerations.”

The vast majority of scientists agree that evolution is a proven major unifying concept in science and should not only be included in science education in kindergarten through 12th grade but also better embedded in school standards. Many scientists grow infuriated at evolution challenges by people they believe are trying to infuse religion into a strictly scientific process.

At the classroom level, many scientists say, evolution too often is taught as its own unit when it should be the guiding foundation for everything that happens in biology.

“We could describe orchid shapes, but it’s much more accurate and much more interesting to recognize that orchids and insects that pollinate them co-evolved,” said William McComas, director of the Program to Advance Science Education at the University of Southern California.

Teachers don’t teach that way for several reasons, he and other educators and scientists agreed.

Many don’t fully understand the complicated process of evolution because of deficiencies in their education. And some feel intimidated by their communities, which may not support evolution, according to the National Science Teachers Association.

The strongest challenge to evolution, Haynes said, may be from advocates of “intelligent design,” a hypothesis that suggests an “intelligent cause” for some features of the natural world, rather than an undirected cause, such as natural selection.

Advocates of this approach — including John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle — don’t say what that cause is. Scientists believe it is a circuitous way of injecting God into the debate and is a form of creation science, which holds that God is responsible for life’s development and diversity.

“Intelligent design is the contender that has the most chance of making inroads in the curriculum,” Haynes said.