Teaching Evolution as Non-Science: Examples From California's 1990  Science Framework 


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From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (September 1991): 190-193.

Since its initial scientific conceptualization, evolution has been under constant pressure to evolve in a non-scientific direction. Current non-scientific usage covers a broad range: generic ("the evolution of a great beer"); New Age religion ("the evolution of consciousness to higher states of reality"); Darwinist philosophy (the meaning of evolution is that "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind"1). The treatment of evolution in a non-scientific manner has now made its official appearance in K - 12 education with the publication of the Science Framework for California Schools.

Adopted on November 9, 1990, the California Science Framework prescribes how science is to be taught in the public schools. The 220-page document also forms the basis for textbook approval and selection in the State. Other states are expected to follow California's lead, either directly by adopting similar frameworks or indirectly by using textbooks that meet California's new criteria.

While the California Framework contains some excellent statements of what science is and how it should be taught, it treats evolution as exempt from the very principles of science it so vigorously espouses. This paper presents three examples of the Framework departing from its stated rules of science to treat evolution in a non-scientific manner. The examples chosen are: 1. Lack of definition and consistency in use of terms; 2. Failure to discuss both similarities and differences when comparing evolution to other branches of science; and 3. Failure to present evolutionary science as open to challenge and free of dogmatism.

Lack of Definition and Consistency in Use of Terms 

In biology, the word "evolution" has at least three separate meanings. These are 1. change over time, a statement about pattern; 2. Organisms are related by descent through common ancestry, a statement about process; and 3. A particular explanatory mechanism (Darwinism) for the pattern and process described in the first and second meanings.2 

In addition to these generally understood biological meanings, evolution is often used as a synonym for change, development, and the history of natural things. Sometimes evolutionary thinking is extrapolated into a world view, best identified as evolutionism, which claims that the scientific concept of evolution provides a sufficient basis for rejecting the idea of divine origination and governance of natural processes. ("Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.") To avoid bringing ideology into science, it is therefore important that both evolution and theory of evolution be defined and used with consistency of meaning. The Framework makes this fundamental point with forceful clarity as in the following: 

The process of teaching science requires a precise, unambiguous use of language .... (p. 14). Educators must be precise in the use of scientific language because that language is crucial to its teaching (p. 17). For clear communication scientists, teachers, and students must communicate the definitions of scientific terms and use them with consistency (p. 17). 

Unfortunately, the authors fail to practice what they preach. The word "evolution" appears over 220 times in the Framework. It appears as a "fact," a "theory," an "idea," a "subfield" of Life Science, and as a synonym for the "history of life." Neither "evolution" nor the "theory of evolution" is defined or used with consistency of meaning. Sometimes a specific meaning is pointed out such as "change over time" or "descent with modification," but most of the time readers are left with their own flexible interpretation. Sometimes the meaning is obvious; sometimes the meaning is unclear. 

Especially vague and inconsistent is the meaning of the "theory of evolution." After listing observations such as: plants and animals change over time, inherited characteristics are modified and passed on to offspring in plants and animals, genetic and biochemical sequences correspond to relationships inferred from fossils and anatomy, etc., the Framework offers the following reasons why the "theory of evolution" is the accepted scientific explanation for "evolution":

These observations constitute some of the evidence that evolution has occurred; evolution is the most consistent and accountable explanation of these observations. The theory of evolution, like other theories, is more than the sum of the facts from which it is derived. It is the best explanation for the fact, and it has predictive value. How evolution has worked - its patterns, processes, mechanisms, and history -  composes the theory of evolution, which is constantly being modified as new evidence emerges. Like the idea of a fifth force in physics, new mechanisms of evolutionary theory, such as punctuated equilibria, species selection, and periodicity of mass extinction, are current subjects of debate which, if they turn out to be well supported by all the available evidence, will modify current evolutionary theory. Regardless of the existence of a fifth force, apples still fall. And, regardless of whether the changes in plants and animals are gradual or sporadic, the evidence remains that plants and animals have evolved over time. Thus, the theory of evolution is the accepted scientific explanation of how these changes occurred.

If I understand this paragraph correctly, it is saying that the "theory of evolution" is "the accepted scientific explanation" for how the changes occurred because the changes occurred. In my judgment, the Framework authors have drifted away from rigorous science into non-science.3 The solution here is not only to define terms, but also to carefully distinguish between evolution, the theory of evolution, and the study of evolution.4 I also think that it would be wise to distinguish between evolution and the study of the history of life. Patterns of stasis (stability is one of the major themes of the Framework) could thus be studied alongside evolution for contrast.  

Failure to Compare Both Similarities and Differences 

Scientists describe and picture what they observe in various ways, thus communicating their ideas to others so that they can exchange views and interpretations and pass along information. They test what they know against what they do not yet know, comparing features and behaviors for similarities and differences (p. 3).  

There are several places in the Framework where the fact of evolution is described as similar to the fact of gravity and the fact of electricity. Also, the theory of evolution "is an accepted scientific explanation and therefore no more controversial in scientific circles than the theories of gravitation and electron flow" (p. 21). 

Granted there are similarities. There are also very important differences, especially in quantifiability, repeatability, testability and predictability. There seems to be special pleading involved in claiming the empirical status of gravity and electricity for evolution. Evolution ("microevolution") can and should be taught as science. The larger picture, "macroevolution," is basically an historical science, based on non-repeatable one-of-a-kind contingent events. It lacks the repeatable data base of an empirical laboratory science such as gravity and electricity. Integrity and proper modeling of science require that differences be presented alongside similarities. 

Failure to Present Evolutionary Science as Open to Inquiry and Free of Dogmatism.

Nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically (p xi). The character of science is shown to be open to inquiry and controversy and free of dogmatism... (p. 8). The evolutionary and fossil histories of a few representative groups should be presented in life science curricula in detail... (p. 135). 

Contrast these statements with the following restriction placed on the presentation of evidence from the fossil record.

 The evolution of life should be presented to students not [emphasis mine] as a disconnected series but as a pattern of changing diversity united by evolutionary relationships and distinguished by changes in the environment and adaptations to those changes (p. 132). 

What if there are fossil histories that cannot presently be connected by evolutionary relationships? For example, the disconnected emergence pattern of the animal phyla that appeared in the early Cambrian period may signal a need to alter or modify current theory. If we are going to show students how openness has an important role in science, we surely do not want to distort or suppress crucial scientific findings, especially if those findings conflict with orthodox expectations. The practice of science on this issue is stated as follows: 

Negative results - those that do not agree with the hypothesis - must be reported along with those that do agree (p. 18).  Teachers must not be pressured by anyone to distort or suppress science... (p. 20). 


When controversial claims arise concerning evolution, California teachers are advised to inform their students "that they have confidence that every effort has been made to make their curriculum as scientifically accurate as possible" (p. 24). It is my conclusion that this confidence is not warranted because of the treatment of evolution in a non-scientific manner in the Framework

The corrective action for teaching evolution as science is obvious. Teach evolution as science by the simple expedient of following the principles outlined in the Framework. Those outlined in this paper include definition and consistent use of scientific terms, comparing differences along with similarities, and teaching science undogmatically by including evidence at variance with entrenched expectations. It is not enough to state that science is open to inquiry and free of dogmatism. Such openness must be demonstrated by the intentional inclusion of specific unanswered questions and unsolved problems along with areas of well established knowledge. 

Copies of the Science Framework are available for $6.50 per copy, plus sales tax for California residents, from the Bureau of Publications, Sales Unit, California Department of Education, P.O. Box 271, Sacramento, CA 95802-0271 (phone: 916-445-1260).


1George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 345.
2See "The Meanings of Evolution," by Keith Stewart Thompson, American Scientist, Vol. 70. 
3Observers have suggested that polemicists on both sides of the creation/evolution pseudocontroversy deliberately leave evolution undefined in order to win naive people to their position. Biologist David L. Wilcox has applied the term "shell game" to describe this phenomenon. The shell game is popularized in the Gary Cooper movie, Friendly Persuasion, where the con artist hides the pea under one of three different walnut shells. On the tactic of shifting the meaning of evolution to support an entrenched position see P. T. Saunders & M. W. Ho, "Is Neo-Darwinism Falsifiable? - And Does It Matter?" (Nature and Systems, 4, 1982, 172-196). 
4On the meaning of evolution as well as its comparison to gravity and electricity see "The Status of Evolution as a Scientific Theory," IBRI Research Report N. 37, 1990. Write Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, P.O. Box 423, Hatfield, PA 19440.