eBriefing

Evolution in the Classroom: No Dinosaurs in Heaven

Evolution in the Classroom: No Dinosaurs in Heaven
Reported by
Nicole Cojuangco

Posted March 16, 2012

Overview

According to data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, the majority of U.S. biology educators support teaching creationism in the nation's classrooms, 13% explicitly advocate it; conversely, only 28% teach evolution as recommended in the National Science Education Standards. Such statistics shed light on the state of evolution in the classroom. Likewise, they attract much needed scrutiny of the boundaries and concept of academic freedom and of the quality of science education as a whole in our nation's schools. On October 25, 2011, a panel of experts on the issue of creationism (and what many believe is its current incarnation, Intelligent Design) and evolution met for a discussion with this specific focus. After a screening of award-winning documentary filmmaker Greta Schiller's No Dinosaurs in Heaven, this director joined Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, and science education professor Yael Wyner, in a forum of educators, scientists, and students from New York City. The forum aimed to gauge and analyze the perception of evolution in American classrooms, the academic interactions of scientists and religious fundamentalists, and the ethics of disregarding evolution or incorporating creationism when teaching students of biology.

The event began with a viewing of the film, which was first screened at the National Science Teacher's Association Annual Conference in San Francisco in March of 2011. Through the film, Schiller takes the audience on a journey through the Grand Canyon, down the Colorado River, and into Intelligent Design (ID) lectures and NYC classrooms. On the river expedition, creationists marshaled features of canyon geology to support the creationist belief in Noah's flood, an event central to their explanation of life on Earth. By contrast, scientists on the same trip use the same features—albeit radically differently understood—to formulate scientific hypotheses about the earth's past. These geologic explanations are, the film affirms, backed by a wealth of data and aligned to established scientific theories. Despite the vast difference in the aims, cultures, "truths," and practices of these two types of inquiry, both groups—the creationists/ID adherents and the scientists—seem to be dealing with the same "stuff," the same evidence, even when their questions and beliefs about this evidence are worlds apart. The overlap in "evidence" brings home the inherent tension in this situation: Two individuals with different perspectives can look at the same objects and can use them in utterly conflicting ways.

The film continues with snapshots of lectures, interviews, and visits to New York City middle schools and college classrooms, documenting a series of points and counter points presented by educators and scientists, some creationists and others advocates of evolution. As each point is conveyed, the audience catches a glimpse of the arguments in favor of and opposed to the teaching of creationism/ID alongside or instead of modern biology. As the arguments on both sides emerge, the film demonstrates the pressing and important nature of these debates. For those asserting the primacy of evolution, a position the film ultimately supports, the encroachment of religious doctrine or of religion-based explanation into the biology curriculum takes on particular urgency.

The subsequent focus of the film is to determine the ethics of acknowledging creationism or disregarding evolution in the classroom. Schiller evinces how this conflict often finds its way into science classrooms and academic institutions. In the film, she begins by introducing—through reenactments and interviews—the incident that initially ignited her interest in the issue: a science education professor at the City College of New York had refused to acknowledge, much less teach, evolution because of his religious beliefs, much like other biology teachers and institutions nationwide. As conveyed by the film's religious fundamentalists and lecturers, creationists and supporters of intelligent design believe their claims to be theories, grounded in Biblical texts that they deem facts; therefore, they place creationism and intelligent design head to head with the frontrunner, evolution, in the race to explain the origins of life.

Conversely, most of the world's scientific experts and researchers assert that such a competition or rift does not even exist within the scientific community; creationism is not acknowledged as a theory and, as of yet, there is no significant validated "evidence against evolution," as explained by Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and one of the film's central speakers. Moreover, she argues that creationists' "manufacturing" of a non-existent controversy is one of their many tactics used to sway the less scientifically literate public away from evolution. As stated by Scott, a leading expert on but opponent of creationism and Intelligent Design, "it's not science versus religion, it is a set of religious views versus everyone else," a manufactured controversy that Schiller suggests, if promoted, can be damaging to democracy.

This controversy that fundamentalists generated is rooted in the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925, a landmark legal case that initially found a high school science teacher guilty of unlawfully teaching evolution. With this case, creationists were looking to create and tip a scale that undermines the integrity of our national education standards. In the trial and since creationists have tried to represent science as a set of beliefs, when in reality it is a logical process, a way to understand the natural world. Resurrected in the debate over Intelligent Design in the 1990s, creationist beliefs are again being forced into conflict with science by their advocates. This time, the creationists' Trojan horse is a fight for academic freedom. Yet again, as the film and its makers argue, religious fundamentalists are compromising this ever-useful, time-tested process of science and are demanding to infiltrate it with religious beliefs by promoting creationism and anti-evolution in schools. This infiltration, as Scott asserts, is unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court ruling (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987) that teaching creationism in public schools is illegal. The relevance of this Supreme Court ruling rests on the similarity between modern American creationism and its offshoot, Intelligent Design.

After the viewing, a panel discussion was moderated by education professor Yael Wyner of the City College of New York and by Eugenie Scott. All audience inquiries delved into the many facets of whether to permit the tenets of creationism and Intelligent Design as hypotheses, and thereby grant them some of the authority of scientific hypotheses, or to dismiss them as beliefs that has no place in the logical arena of science and public education. Some of the more discussion-stimulating questions addressed how to deal with colleagues who are religious fundamentalists, the value of gaining a more thorough understanding of creationist principles for the sake of satisfying curiosity, the academic responsibility of a biology teacher to understand and acknowledge evolution, and how to improve the teaching of modern biology, in general.

Although the statistics initially presented are alarming, the audience of educators and scientists were left with a more optimistic outlook on the state of evolution in the classroom: when an audience member posed the question, "Are we winning?", Scott referenced a more recent survey, conducted by Fox News, that "showed a statistically significant increase in the percentage of Americans accepting evolution (an increase of 3%–4%). Regarding science education, Wyner mentioned that the National Center for Science Education, affiliated with American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is one of several programs that work to improve the teaching of evolution and of science as a way of knowing. In addition, Wyner provided the update that City College took action after the incident with Schiller's professor. They initiated professional discussions to address conflicts in curriculum content, and they now require that biology teachers take a nature and science class to better comprehend the principles of evolution. For scientists and citizens, there is an urgent need, but also support and resources available, to take action on this issue.

This film presentation and discussion gave voice to perspectives from both creationism and evolution, but they tried to narrow the view on the matter by employing scientific reasoning; Ultimately, panelists agreed, evolution is the organizing principle of biology, and as Scott stated, it is "the inference that makes the most sense." This analysis, which seeks to find the most reasonable explanation for a set of observable facts, reflects a tenet even more basic than evolution, the foundation of science itself, the scientific method. If educators are to teach by example, then these scientists must apply the scientific method to answer all questions, including what to teach and how.

It was the consensus of the panel that permitting creationists to instill their ideas in the youth may be hindering the scientific and social progress of future generations. Currently, the concept of evolution is quite widely accepted when it is applied to living things that are far removed from humans, but the idea of evolution of man from animal brings uneasiness to or is even rejected by some. Pride and cultural or religious bias must be put aside, and as Scott ultimately affirms, "the focus should be what is best for the kids." In a science classroom, what is best is to teach science.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

 

Panel Discussion: Evolution in the Classroom


Moderator: Yael Wynner (City College of New York, CUNY)

Resources

Websites

The Science Scene: No Dinosaurs in Heaven
A report on the event for Talking Science, part of the Science Friday Initiative.

No Dinosaurs in Heaven
The official website of the film.

Films & Journal Articles

Greta Schiller

Schiller G. No Dinosaurs in Heaven. New Day Films; 2010.

Eugenie Scott

Branch G, Scott EC. The latest face of creationism. Sci. Am. 2009 Jan;300(1):92-9.

Branch G, Scott EC, Rosenau J. Dispatches from the evolution wars: shifting tactics and expanding battlefields. Annu. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 2010 Sep 22;11:317-38. Review.

Scott EC, Matzke NJ. Biological design in science classrooms. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2007 May 15;104 Suppl 1:8669-76. Epub 2007 May 9.

Scott EC. Creationism and evolution: it's the American way. Cell 2006 Feb 10;124(3):449-51.

Yael Wyner

Wyner Y, Desalle R. Taking the conservation biology perspective to secondary school classrooms. Conserv. Biol. 2010 Jun;24(3):649-54. Epub 2010 Mar 10.

Berkman MB and Plutzer E. High school biology teachers in U.S. reluctant to endorse evolution in class, study finds. ScienceDaily January 27, 2011. Retrieved January 31, 2012.

Moderator

Yael Wyner, PhD

City College of New York, CUNY
e-mail | website | publications

Yael Wyner received a BS in Biology from Yale University and earned a PhD in biology from New York University through her work at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) studying brown lemur and black and white ruffed lemur conservation genetics. After completing her graduate degree, Wyner served as Content Coordinator on The Genomic Revolution (2001), an AMNH exhibit about the scientific and societal implications of new advances in genomic technology. Following the exhibit opening, Wyner taught for seven years at Hunter College High School, a public school for gifted learners in New York City. She began working at her current position as Assistant Professor of Secondary Education with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Biology at the City College of New York (CCNY), part of the City University of New York, in the fall of 2008. Her research focuses on developing and testing media- and data-driven secondary school curricular resources for linking daily life to environmental issues and ecology. Through an NSF-funded collaborative CCNY–AMNH initiative, Wyner recently completed testing these curricular resources, Ecology Disrupted, in the Living Environment classrooms of 60 New York City public school teachers.


Speakers

Greta Schiller

Jezebel Productions
website

Greta Schiller is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who recently became a science educator as well. Born in Detroit, Schiller has traveled around the world making extensively researched and highly informative documentary films for television, festival, theatrical and educational audiences. The Atlantic Journal and Constitution has written that Schiller's work "makes you glad documentaries were invented." Her films have won multiple National Education Association Film awards and have received over 100 international film festival awards. Schiller was the first recipient of the Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film. She holds a BFA in Film/Video from the City College of New York, and thirty years later she returned to City College to earn an MA in Science Education. Recently she has taught informal science-by-inquiry classes for the Central Park Conservancy, The After-School Corporation (TASC) and the Audubon Society, and conducts professional development workshops for science teachers.

Eugenie C. Scott, PhD

National Center for Science Education
e-mail | website | publications

Eugenie C. Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., a not-for-profit membership organization of scientists, teachers, and others that works to improve the teaching of evolution and of science as a way of knowing. The organization opposes the teaching of "scientific" creationism and other religiously-based views in science classes. A former college professor, Scott is an internationally-known expert on the creationism and evolution controversy and is called upon by the press and other media to explain science and evolution to the general public. The author of Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction and co-editor with Glenn Branch of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for our Schools, she is the recipient of numerous awards from scientists and educators, and has been awarded eight honorary degrees.


Nicole Cojuangco

Nicole Cojuangco is a high school biology teacher for the New York City Department of Education and has been teaching in central Brooklyn for more than four years. Nicole has a BS in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, and has recently earned an MS in Science Education, via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Since 2009, she has been a member of the Academy, through which she finds the opportunity to enrich, develop, and fuse her passions for teaching and for science.