In a 1786 letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson called for "the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness."1 Jefferson saw clearly what has become increasingly evident since then: the fortunes of a nation rest on the ability of its citizens to understand and use information about the world around them.
We are about to enter a century in which the United States will be even more dependent on science and technology than it has been in the past. Such a future demands a citizenry able to use many of the same skills that scientists use in their work—close observation, careful reasoning, and creative thinking based on what is known about the world.
The ability to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking depends to a considerable extent on the education that people receive from kindergarten through high school. Yet the teaching of science in the nation's public schools often is marred by a serious omission. Many students receive little or no exposure to the most important concept in modern biology, a concept essential to understanding key aspects of living things—biological evolution. People and groups opposed to the teaching of evolution in the public schools have pressed teachers and administrators to present ideas that conflict with evolution or to teach evolution as a "theory, not a fact." They have persuaded some textbook publishers to downplay or eliminate treatments of evolution and have championed legislation and policies at the state and local levels meant to discourage the teaching of evolution.
These pressures have contributed to widespread misconceptions about the state of biological understanding and about what is and is not science. Fewer than one-half of American adults believe that humans evolved from earlier species.2 More than one half of Americans say that they would like to have creationism taught in public school classrooms3 —even though the Supreme Court has ruled that "creation science" is a religious idea and that its teaching cannot be mandated in the public schools.4
The widespread misunderstandings about evolution and the conviction that creationism should be taught in science classes are of great concern to the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonpartisan group of 1,800 scientists dedicated to the use of science and technology for the general welfare. The Academy and its affiliated institutions—the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council—have all sought to counter misinformation about evolution because of the enormous body of data supporting evolution and because of the importance of evolution as a central concept in understanding our planet.
The document that you are about to read is addressed to several groups at the center of the ongoing debate over evolution: the teachers, other educators, and policy makers who design, deliver, and oversee classroom instruction in biology. It summarizes the overwhelming observational evidence for evolution and suggests effective ways of teaching the subject. It explains the nature of science and describes how science differs from other human endeavors. It provides answers to frequently asked questions about evolution and the nature of science and offers guidance on how to analyze and select teaching materials.
This publication does not attempt specifically to refute the ideas proffered by those who oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools. A related document, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, discusses evolution and "creation science" in detail.5 This publication instead provides information and resources that teachers and administrators can use to inform themselves, their students, parents, and others about evolution and the role of science in human affairs.
One source of resistance to the teaching of evolution is the belief that evolution conflicts with religious principles. But accepting evolution as an accurate description of the history of life on earth does not mean rejecting religion. On the contrary, most religious communities do not hold that the concept of evolution is at odds with their descriptions of creation and human origins.
Nevertheless, religious faith and scientific knowledge, which are both useful and important,