Has your child's science teacher ever been caught slumming at the zoo and proclaiming, "There but by the grace of natural selection go I?"
If so, he's in the minority. According to a national survey of 926 public high school biology teachers (published in Science magazine), only 28 percent of respondents unabashedly follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is "the unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology."
Thirteen percent skirt various "separation of church and state" court rulings and explicitly advocate creationism. The remainder ("the cautious 60 percent," as the study dubs them) in some way straddle the fence, perhaps by teaching both evolution and creationism/intelligent design and letting the students make up their own minds.
The most rabid evolutionists have responded to the survey results with a call for a witch hunt to identify and fire the teachers who won't whole-heartedly endorse evolution. The milder response of the survey's authors is to demand that all education majors be indoctrinated with a stand-alone evolution course before receiving their teaching certificate. And perhaps at graduation they could replace "Pomp and Circumstance" with "Another Brick In The Wall."
Those most upset about the renegade biology teachers rightly fear that such heresy may spread to other academic disciplines. Somewhere out there lurks a coach bellowing "There IS an 'I' in 'Team'" and an English teacher seducing students to "stay after class and light up a few split infinitives."
A 2007 report published in Science says that the U.S. ranks 34th out of 35 developed nations on public acceptance of evolution (which may have less to do with what is taught than with the American attitude that "If there ain't a cell phone app for evolution, it can't be that important"). I really lose sleep over the taunting from more enlightened nations. ("Ha ha! You're next to last. Uh, how about sending us some foreign aid...and more of your American TV shows...and a missile defense shield...and some green cards...?")
Alas, most of the articles I've seen do not really make a case for HOW squishiness on evolution teaching really detracts from scientific literacy and negatively impacts society. I guess some pharmaceutical company is harboring a "young earth" researcher who exclaims, "I have the cure for the common cold -- but I can't release it until I test it on one of them there nearly extinct dinosaur critters."
The survey will be used to further champion the "settled science" of evolution, but as my wife the college biology teacher tells me, the "settled" textbooks have been completely rewritten in the 20 years since she earned her master's degree. Questions such as "Why haven't bacteria evolved?" continue to haunt us, but extremists on both sides of the issue put teachers between a rock and a hard place.
Let's not rush into an Inquisition of teachers. Court cases can be revisited. (Forty years of precedent aren't that much in a world where life has supposedly existed for 3.7 billion years.) Several organizations are making a good faith effort to reconcile the differences between religion and science.
Perhaps it's good that the survey has opened this can of worms. Good for all but the most doctrinaire evolutionists, anyway. ("Can of worms? Oh, man -- it's cousin Nematode. His branch of the family ALWAYS causes trouble!")
©2011 Danny Tyree. Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org. Danny's' weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.