Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, also known as evolution or evolution by natural selection, is the process by which organisms can change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. These traits are the expression of genes that are passed from parent to offspring during reproduction.
Natural selection is the process of differential survival and reproduction of organisms because of differences in their genetics. Through natural selection, organisms adapt to their environments to better help them survive and produce more offspring. This is sometimes referred to as “survival of the fittest.” The scientific theory of evolution was conceived by Carrels Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-19th century. At the time, Darwin was unaware of how genetics worked. The incorporation of genetics and Darwin’s theory is called “modern evolutionary synthesis.
The Theory of Evolution has two main points: all life on Earth is connected and related to each other and the diversity of life on Earth is the result of modifications of a population by natural selection. Evolution is one of the best-substantiated theories in science, supported by several scientific disciplines such as geology, paleontology, genetics, and developmental biology.
Despite the wealth of evidence supporting evolution, people still question its validity. Some religious leaders and politicians denounce evolution, attributing a higher being (i.e. a God) as the designer and decider of Earth’s living things, especially humans. Some people with deeply-rooted religious beliefs, however, all accept evolution. Some people believe that the theory of evolution can be taught along with other ideas such as creationism or intelligent design.
Teaching evolutionary has caused plenty of controversy among U.S. states. Even within the past two decades, questions about what students should be taught about evolution have been debated in more than half of the state in the U.S. and at every level of state government, from local school boards to state legislatures.
Some states have previously banned the teaching of evolution or required that it be taught alongside creationism; however, several landmark Supreme Court cases have blocked these options. Several states have considered giving teachers the option to question scientific theories such as evolution, with such laws passing in Louisiana and Tennessee. Bills for this type of proposal were introduced in Colorado, Florida, and several other states but did not pass.
Those who support these types of bills say that they allow students and teachers to think critically and question long-held scientific explanations. Opponents of these types of vill say that they could replace scientific fact with religiously-based ideas, leaving students with a lesser understanding of life’s origins and development.
Several U.S. states have made moves to teach creationism in schools, whether as a replacement of evolution or alongside the theory. No state currently bans teaching evolution entirely. Below are a few examples of states in which evolution has stirred controversy and debate.
In the mid-1990s, Alabama’s Board of Education voted to place stickers on textbooks that were a disclaimer about evolution, instructing students that evolution was “controversial.” In 2015, the Board unanimously approved that evolution and climate change should be required material for the state educational curriculum.
In 2010, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the Association of Christian Schools International et. Al. v. Roman Stearns et. al. The decision let a ruling stand that determined the University of California was justified in deeming certain science courses in Christian high schools that didn’t teach evolution as insufficient preparation for college.
On February 19, 2008, the Florida State Board of Education adopted new science standards that explicitly require the teaching of evolution in public schools. This is the first time this was required.
In 2002, Cobb County placed stickers on biology textbooks instructing students that evolution is a theory and not a fact after over 2,000 parents signed a petition complaining that alternative theories to evolution were not being taught in public schools. In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the stickers were unconstitutional. Cobb County school board removed the sticks and appealed the ruling, but withdrew its appeal after a settlement with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).
Since 1999, the Kansas Board of Education has rewritten its science guidelines several times In February 2007, the board voted to remove language from the science curriculum that questioned the theory of evolution. In 2013, the board adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which were guidelines that indicate that students should be able to “communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are support by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”
Kentucky passed a state law in 1976 that states public school teachers who teach evolution may also teach “the theory fo creation as presented in the Bible.” The law was re-adopted in 1990. In 1998, the Board of Education voted to insert the word “evolution” into the science curriculum guidelines for the first time. A year later, “evolution” was replaced with “change over time.”
In 1981, the Louisiana Balanced Treatment Act was passed, stating that whenever evolution was taught in public schools, creation science must be taught with it. In 2008, the Louisiana Science Education Act was signed into law, allowing public school teachers and school boards to provide supplemental educational materials to help students understand, analyze, and critique scientific theories in an objective manner. Opponents of the law argue that the “supplemental materials” could allow the teaching of creationism.
In 2006, the Michigan Board of Education voted to pass new science standards that ensured the teaching of evolution but not of intelligent design or creationism. The new standards require that students be able to explain how a species evolves through the evolutionary process of natural selection.
In 2002, the Ohio Board of Education was asked to adopt intelligent design as part of its standard biology curriculum by proponents of intelligent design. Later that year, the Board adopted a proposal that required critical analysis of evolution in classrooms but did not mention intelligent design specifically. In 2006, the decision was reversed.
In October 2004, the Dover school board inserted a disclaimer that included brief instruction in intelligent design. A group of parents led by the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school board and a federal judge ruled in favor of the parents in 2005. The federal judge described intelligent design as “a religious view… and not a scientific theory.” In 2006, a newly elected school board rescinded the disclaimer.
In 2006, new science standards required high school students to “summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” Critics argued that this might allow religion to be taught in public school science classrooms. New proposed guidelines specified “an understanding of biological evolution.”
Tennessee passed a law in 2012 stating that the teaching of some scientific subjects, including evolution, can cause controversy and that teachers can help students understand, analyze, and critique existing scientific theories. Critics say that the law could enable the teaching of creationism.
In 2009, the Texas Board of Education approved new science standards that removed a clause requiring teachers to address the “strengths and weakness” of scientific theories like evolution and added language instructing teachers to examine “all side of scientific evidence.” While this seemed to play both sides of the issue, Texas later approved lessons teaching the principles of evolution and, in 2013, approved a biology textbook that presents evolution as the only explanation of life on Earth.
Wisconsin public schools are required by state law to teach evolution, but districts may determine the specifics of their own science curricula. In 2004, the Grantsburg school board became the first in the U.s. to allow “various theories/models of origins” to be taught in its public schools. The guidelines were revised in 2004, stating “students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.”