As individuals and societies, we are now making decisions that will have profound consequences for future generations. How should we balance the need to preserve the earth’s plants, animals, and natural environment against other pressing concerns? Should we alter our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources to enhance the well-being of our descendants? To what extent should we use our new understanding of biology on a molecular level to alter the characteristics of living things, including people?
None of these decisions can be made wisely without a thorough understanding of life’s history on this planet. People need to know why living things have the characteristics they do, how those characteristics originated, and whether living things will continue to change in the future. In short, they need to understand biological evolution.
Yet the teaching of evolution continues to be opposed on religious grounds in schools throughout the United States. Opponents of evolution assert that the scientific justification for evolution is lacking, when in fact the occurrence of evolution is supported by overwhelming evidence. Legislators and schools boards insert wording into laws, lesson plans, and textbooks mandating that evolution be taught as a controversial explanation of life’s history, though no such characterization is scientifically warranted. In some places, tremendous pressure has been exerted on teachers and school administrators to downplay or eliminate the teaching of evolution. As a result, many students are not being exposed to information they will need to make informed decisions about their own lives and about our collective future.
In 1998 the National Academy of Sciences, a private, nonpartisan group of scholars that provides advice to the nation on issues involving science and engineering, released a book entitled Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Through scientific examples, teaching exercises, and dialogues among teachers, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science summarizes the observational evidence for evolution, demonstrates how the teaching of evolution can be used to illuminate the nature of science, addresses common misconceptions about the teaching of evolution, and offers guidance on how to choose classroom materials.
Evolution in Hawaii is a supplement to that earlier book. It examines evolution and the nature of science by looking at a specific part of the world—the Hawaiian islands. Islands are especially good places to see evolution in action. When plants, animals, or microbes travel from a continent to an island, they are separated from the other members of their species and often encounter a biological and ecological setting different from what they left behind. If the organisms that reach an island survive and produce descendants, those descendants may evolve along