Do you need evolution in every biology class?

Human Ape had a very angry response to my recent post on creationism in Ohio.  Apparently I’m a “god-soaked uneducated moron who denies the established truth of evolution because it threatens the magic fairy who hides in the clouds.”  Hahahaha! That was precious.  I have no clue who this guy is, but he cracks me up.   It’s a shame that his talent for personal attacks doesn’t help him with simple research.  He could have read my short bio before commenting.  I won’t assess my own intelligence (I have been called a moron before!), but I’m pretty sure that having a Ph.D from Stanford disqualifies me from the uneducated.

In the midst of his semi-coherent screed, Human Ape somehow managed to raise an interesting point:
“Where did you get the idea that evolution takes up only 3 weeks of a biology class? Any competent biology teacher would make evolution a major part of every single lesson every single day of the class. It’s impossible to properly teach biology any other way.”

Now there’s no doubt that evolution is the central theory in modern biology, and one of the most central in all of science.  But including it in every lesson would be more confusing than illuminating.  Anatomy, biochemistry and microbiology can and should be taught without referencing evolution.  There’s really no reason to explain the circulatory system from natural selection.  Given that its basic mechanisms were discovered centuries before Darwin was even born, it is demonstrably false that we need evolution.  I bet that most high-school biology can be discussed without it.  In my case, Darwinism was no more than about 3 weeks out of the entire year.

None of this undermines the idea that we should teach evolution at some point.  That’s a fair argument, and one I may agree with.  But it’s spectacularly wrong to insist that including it in every class is the only way to teach biology.  Good pedagogy often requires obscuring underlying theories and principles.  No one I know teaches Maxwell’s Equations from particle physics.  I’ve personally had to teach Maxwell’s Equations several times, and can confidently say that doing so would be a VERY bad idea.

We really shouldn’t even discuss all this without first clarifying the purpose of science education.  You can say, for example, that science education must primarily impart practical knowledge.*  In this case we may eliminate evolution and biochemistry entirely, and instead focus on topics like health and nutrition.  But the various justifications for science education is a topic for a different post!

*See Benjamin Shen, Science literacy and the public understanding of science, Communication of Sciencetific Information, Karger, Basel 1975, pp. 44 – 52.


  1. Praj,

    You are absolutely correct about theories of evolution being wholly unnecessary to the teaching of very nearly all matters of biology; this non-necessity is completely irrelevant to the truth of evolution. Personally, I would go further than you have, and I would even deny that evolution is “central” to modern biology inasmuch as virtually all biology can be taught, learned, and investigated without (reference to) evolution. And, even my denial of this centrality in no way suggests the falsity of evolution, nor does it in any way suggest that evolution should not be taught.

    My problem with the teaching of evolution regards the way it is taught: as a fact. And this statement, too, neither denies nor doubts the truth of evolution. Instead, this statement is a way of criticizing what seems to me to be a too preponderant manner in which science is taught; it seems to be too often presented as nothing much more than a catalog of natural facts and cookbook-type steps for doing science. Better than presenting science as a mere catalog of facts would be to emphasize science in terms of the identification of – and the attempts to solve – problems.

    In this light, evolution should not just be taught, it should be celebrated as an example of very imaginative thinking; it should be celebrated for its being interesting, where “interesting” indicates the opening up of more avenues for possible investigative pursuit. It is the opening up of such avenues of pursuit (such tangents) which are, frankly, of more ultimate concern to the sciences, generally speaking, than is an ever-growing list of “facts”.

    I am not even sure that evolution is all that interesting (in the sense used here) as compared to other scientific theories; my impression is that evolution is actually more interesting for theology than it is for science. But, for introducing students to the transforming effects that can come of imaginative thinking (and not just in science), there may well be no better issue than evolution.


  2. Hi Michael.

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked my post. I agree that too much of science education focuses on the rote presentation of facts. The theory of evolution is similar in that regard.

    I like your suggestion on the importance of imaginative thinking. But stressing imagination and creativity would, in my view, undermine any talk of “the” scientific method of “the” way that science is done. Imagination rebels agains a single, prescribed approach to all problems. And unfortunately, that’s the idea I think we promote when speak of the scientific method.

    Thanks again.

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