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Happy Darwin Day!

On 22 April 1995, over 600 people on the campus of Stanford University celebrated the first Darwin Day with a lecture entitled "Darwin and Human Origins" by Dr. Donald Johanson (American Humanist Association [AHA], no date). Since then, Darwin Day has "evolved" into a worldwide celebration held on or around February 12th, the birthday anniversary of Charles Darwin.

According to the International Darwin Day Foundation (AHA, no date), the mission of Darwin Day is to "promote the public education about science and to encourage the celebration of science and humanity." In other words, Darwin Day is not a day to celebrate the theory" of evolution; it is a day to celebrate the immense benefits that all scientific knowledge, obtained through human curiosity and creativity, has contributed to the improvement of human existence. Darwin Day is a day to celebrate scientific literacy!

The National Center for Education Statistics (1996) has defined scientific literacy as "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." Scientific literacy allows individuals to appreciate the world around them and make informed personal choices regarding a vast array of science-related issues. As science educators, our goal is to help our students become more scientifically literate.

Biological literacy is a subset of scientific literacy, and not a final state that can be achieved within a single biological discipline but a continuum over which an individual's biological understanding develops throughout his or her lifetime (Uno & Bybee, 1994). Understanding evolution is critical to building biological literacy. As Theodosius Dobzhansky argued in the 1973 American Biology Teacher essay "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution," evolution explains the interrelatedness of the various facts of biology, and thus makes sense of biology.

Understanding evolution is critical to the advancement of medicine, to improving crops and livestock, to understanding the effects of global climate change, and to conservation biology, stem-cell research, and human reproduction. Understanding evolution also helps students learn about the nature of science, providing example upon example of the ways in which scientists go about gathering and analyzing information, testing competing hypotheses, and eventually coming to agreement about explanations for natural phenomena.

If evolution is the foundation of modern biological thought, why does teaching it remain so controversial? If you attended NABT'S most recent Professional Development Conference in Minneapolis you may have learned some answers. Invited speaker Randy Moore gave a presentation based on the article "The Creationist Down the Hall: Does It Matter when Teachers Teach Creationism?" In that article, Moore and Cotner (2009) suggested that a student's high school biology courses have a lasting impact on his or her ideas regarding evolution and creationism. They identified six possible links between the high school biology experience and students' subsequent acceptance of evolutionary theory in college.

* Teachers' poor understanding of evolution

* Teachers' religious beliefs

* External pressure

* Lack of consequences

* Ignorance of the law

* Success of the Discovery Institute's "wedge" strategy

Failing to teach evolution or compromising it not only robs students of a basic principle of biology, it also undermines their development of biological and scientific literacy.

Failure to teach biology is not a problem confined to the high school environment. I teach at a community college in the Midwest and worked with a "creationist down the hall" for over a decade. From the moment this individual became aware that I taught evolution, the pressure to stop began. Initially, requests came with the explanation that evolution was a flawed theory, that students were being forced to learn something they did not need to know, and that my actions were personally offensive not only to students but to my colleagues as well. Over time, the attempts became more frequent, more vocal, and more absurd. Requests were made to move a photo of Darwin in my office so that it could not be seen from the hallway. I was told that the Darwin fish on my car was obscene and that it needed to be removed (it disappeared shortly thereafter). Notices promoting evolution-related events were removed from my office door. This individual even stood outside my lecture door and peered into the class while I taught. Eventually, a formal complaint was made to the vice-president for educational affairs, stating that I was violating this individual's religious freedom and harassing him or her by teaching evolution. Litigation was threatened if I did not stop. The subsequent investigation into this complaint revealed that the motivations of this individual fell squarely into the linking factors identified by Moore and Comer. After 6 months of investigation by the Human Resources department, the complaint was deemed unjustified and I was quietly told to continue teaching evolution.

My goal in sharing this information is to demonstrate that biology educators, at all levels, have similar experiences during their careers. Teaching evolution and other controversial topics can cause difficulties not only for our students and ourselves, but also for our fellow educators, administrators, friends, neighbors, and community members. It is easier to avoid the subject completely or to give non-science equal time. But by doing so, are we providing the best possible biology and life-science education to our students?

Participation in NABT can help with situations like these. The NABT community can (and will) provide support and assistance as you pursue your passion to provide students with a sound biology education, one that includes evolution and other controversial topics such as climate change, stem-cell technology, cloning, genetic engineering, sex education, and human overpopulation. Being part of NABT makes you a better teacher, a teacher who is willing to present and discuss these and other controversial issues in the biology classroom. Being part of NABT helps you become a teacher who is willing to stand up to "the creationist clown the hall."

As you celebrate Darwin Day this February, remember that it's not just about evolution, it's about "being the best biology educator you can be."

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.2.1


American Humanist Association. (No date). About the Darwin Day Celebration (DDC) Inc. Available at

Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35, 125-129.

Moore, R. & Cotner, S. (2009). The creationist down the hall: does it matter when teachers leach creationism? BioScience, 59, 429-435.

National Academy of Sciences. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Uno, G. & Bybee, R. (1994). Understanding the dimensions of biological literacy. BioScience, 44, 553-557.

Dan Ward

NABT President-2011
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Title Annotation:From the President
Author:Ward, Daniel
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
Previous Article:Teaching whole science.
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