The Theory of Everything, Challenged

By: Connie Cai 

Since 2004, there have been 67 anti-evolution education bills introduced by local governments in the United States (1). Three of those bills have been approved in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. These laws make it legal for public school teachers to criticize the theory of evolution—as well as other politicized topics like climate change—and teach alternative explanations to evolution. The most popular of these alternate explanations is intelligent design, or the belief that natural selection cannot by itself create as complex animals as we observe. The success of this legislation hinges upon the fact that today’s debate about evolution in schools is not so much that creationism should be taught over evolution, but rather, that teachers should be allowed to provide alternatives.

This shift in argument has allowed anti-evolution legislation to successfully gain a hold in our education system. The introduction of these regulations and the way they frame the evolution debate are part of a movement that Nick Matzke, former Public Information Project Director at the National Center for Science education, dubs “stealth creationism” (1). The proposed bills, he says, attempt to distance themselves from any potential religious motivations or undertones; instead, they frame their argument as providing critical analysis of contentious science topics (1). At its core, the stealth creationism movement argues that evolution is just a theory and that students should be allowed to debate its merits.

However, treating evolution as “just a theory” undermines the validity of American science education by challenging one of the fundamental and overwhelmingly evidence-supported tenets of biology. Moreover, it compromises students’ understanding of the scientific process—how evidence is collected, synthesized, and used to create the basic theories through which we understand our world. As James Williams, a science instruction educator, states, “Theories such as gravity [or] evolution are not hypotheses in want of further evidence, but rather the sturdiest truths and descriptions of how the material world works that science has to offer” (2). How the kids of today learn and understand science is crucial for our society’s scientific progress; teaching them alternatives to a theory as well-developed as evolution demonstrates to kids that even facts can be challenged by opinion.


The stealth creationism movement is the most recent development in the long history of evolution in the classroom. In the 1920s, the teaching of evolution was banned in most states. During the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial with Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attempted to challenge the bans. Though the trial did bring the topic of science education to the nation’s attention, the ACLU was unsuccessful. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court ruled that bans on teaching evolution in the classroom were unconstitutional. More recently, a United States federal court ruled in the 2004 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case that teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional because intelligent design could not be separated from its creationist and religious precedents (3). In that court case, the Dover Area School District required high school teachers to teach intelligent design through a textbook called Of Pandas and People alongside evolution. In contrast, the aforementioned laws in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi do not require teachers to teach intelligent design, but rather protect their right to do so in the classroom.

The support for intelligent design and other evolution alternatives has had a largely religious base. For many fundamental Christians that grow up in communities where the line between church and state is often hazy, it is no wonder that the topic of evolution—which is taught in the last years of high school after years of deeply ingrained religious teachings—does not settle well. While these communities form the basis of voter support for anti-evolution regulation, political groups and think tanks like the Discovery Institute take that support and lobby on behalf of the stealth creationism movement. The Discovery Institute is a secular think tank, but in their mission statement, the Institute writes that it supports the “role of faith-based institutions in a pluralistic society” (4). The Institute funds intelligent design research and educational programs; for them, protecting intelligent design is a question of academic freedom and free speech. The logic of anti-evolution legislation follows similar premises—stealth creationism’s success relies on framing the argument as one of academic freedom. However, a debate on the validity of evolution is not truly academic freedom. Academic freedom applies to the realm of what is true or of seeking what is true; academic freedom is not a space for unsubstantiated data.


Allowing a debate on evolution under the misguided assumption of academic freedom has dangerous consequences. In a study conducted by Technical University Dortmund, researchers found a strong correlation between “acceptance of science” and “acceptance of evolution” (2). This illustrates the strong tie between what we teach and how we understand the world; additionally, the research stresses the importance of having a well-developed and accurate science curriculum if we want a society that trusts science again. In addition, the debate surrounding evolution fits into a much larger cultural context and the growing alternative facts movement. Recently, more politicians have been vocal about their distrust of the scientific community. Current political dynamics seem to be moving away from evidence and data-based policies; a clear example of this is persistent climate change denial and the refusal to enact legislation regulating fossil fuel consumption. In these times, how we teach science and how we encourage scientifically literate citizens are becoming ever more pertinent questions. Moreover, the mounting skepticism from politicians and the public has mobilized the scientific community. In April 2017, the first March for Science was held to address these issues; over one million people across the world participated in the rallies that sought to celebrate science and the role that science has in our society, as well as to call for more evidence-based policymaking and science funding.

The March for Science, while a prominent rallying symbol for the scientific community, also demonstrates how politically charged science has become. Based solely on evidence, evolution is undebatable; politically, evolution is a hotly contested and controversial topic. Because it has become politicized, addressing the issue of evolution is not one that can easily be fixed by presenting the multitude of supporting data for evolution.

Yet fixing our current science curriculum and confronting the recently passed legislation are extremely important tasks to undertake. Allowing the laws to stand as is will have potentially dangerous consequences for the role of scientific truth in our society; as of now, the success of the bills in certain states has inspired copycat bills elsewhere.


Though it will be difficult to have an immediate effect on the current political climate, certain proposed changes may increase the acceptance of evolution and other contested science topics. First among those changes is teaching evolution at a younger age. Currently, evolution is not formally taught until high school, and in the eyes of many researchers and science instructors, that is too late. Kids learn about other aspects of biology, but evolution is, for myriad reasons, postponed. Williams, a science education instructor, states that “To me, [to hold off on teaching evolution] is odd—it’s like trying to teach chemistry but not putting atoms at the center (2). The argument for teaching evolution sooner is that it helps introduce the concept in students’ minds and prevents them from forming misconceptions about evolution. After all, most of the students who come in not believing in evolution have never been formally taught it; what they know about evolution is given to them by their parents or religious communities. As Dittmar Graf, a researcher at the Technical University, explains, “When somebody has a misconception in science, if it’s embedded, it’s incredibly difficult to change” (2).

Secondly, it is important to recognize stealth creationism for what it is and understand that intelligent design supporters are relying less on religious arguments. It is crucial, in this case, to make clear the distinction between science and nonscience in the classroom: true science must be rigorous, widely accepted, and evidence-based. In a statement made by the InterAcademy Panel (a global organization that represents numerous national science organizations), countries agreed to make “decision-makers, teachers, and parents educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science” and that there were clear “evidence-based facts about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet” (2).

Building up trust at the intersection of politics, science, and society is a difficult but paramount task for our nation’s progress. It all begins with a solid foundation in the classroom—controlling what is taught in the classroom shapes the minds of future generations. Though the debate surrounding evolution has always been seen as a contest between science and religion, in our current times it is shaping into a debate about what constitutes scientific truth and the collective societal understanding of science. Change may be slow, but the truth matters—and everyone deserves to know the truth. Connie Cai ’21 is a freshman in Grays Hall.


[1] Jaffe, E. The Evolution of Teaching Creationism in Public Schools. The Atlantic [Online], Dec. 20, 2015. (accessed Sept. 4, 2017).

[2] Harmon, K. Evolution Abroad: Creationism Evolves in Science Classrooms around the Globe. Scientific American [Online], Mar. 3, 2011. (accessed Sept. 4, 2017).

[3] National Center for Science Education. Kitzmiller v. Dover: Intelligent Design on Trial. library-resource/kitzmiller-v-dover-intelligent-design-trial (accessed Sept. 20, 2017).

[4] Discovery Institute. (accessed Sept. 20, 2017).

[5] Matzke, N. Science. 2016, 351(6268), 28-30.


(The following notes relate to the images in the print copy of the article.)

Fig 1. These are embryo drawings of Ernst Haeckl, one of the first developmental biologists. The similarities he notices between the embryos of different species was used to support the theory of evolution, as it demonstrated shared ancestry between different species and a common evolutionary theory. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Fig 2. Proponents of intelligent design often use the watchmaker analogy. A watch (a working system) must be designed by a watchmaker; similarly, nature (a working system) implies a designer. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

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