Teaching Evolution

An historian of the life sciences, Farber worries about U.S. schools’ lackluster record on teaching Charles Darwin’s world-rocking discoveries.

Most textbooks treat evolution as “just another topic” rather than as the overarching theory that ties life systems together, says OSU Distinguished Professor Paul Farber. “Evolution, which synthesizes the disparate disciplines of the life sciences, rarely emerges in biology courses or texts as the unifying thread that makes sense of all the material,” Farber wrote in The American Biology Teacher, May 2003.

This approach, he argues, misses a rich teaching opportunity.

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Charles Darwin’s personal quest to understand life’s most fundamental principles is the subject of stories told by Paul Farber.


An historian of the life sciences, Farber worries about U.S. schools’ lackluster record on teaching Charles Darwin’s world-rocking discoveries. He laments the findings of a 2000 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, showing that 19 states do a “weak to reprehensible job,” 12 omit the word “evolution,” and four skip over biological evolution altogether. Despite court rulings upholding evolution’s rightful — indeed, central — place in science classes, countless children are denied instruction in this linchpin of biological principles because it contradicts the religious tenets of certain conservative congregations and communities.

“If we can move the study of biology toward what excites biologists and away from that makes students’ eyes glaze over, we shall have accomplished an important and valuable task.”
Paul Farber
chair, OSU Department of History

The debate over life’s origins and transformations is as divisive today as it was during the famous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, when a Tennessee teacher was tried for suggesting that humans evolved from apes. But the way Farber sees it, evolution offers a perfect platform for exploring the fundamentals of scientific investigation with students — and in the process, shifting their thinking on this highly charged question.

It begins, he says, with an understanding of the nature and history of science. Students should be taught that science is not a rigid set of explanations to be memorized but a dynamic process, changing over time as a “lineage” of questions is posed and tested. Farber posits that if students better understood how scientists derive facts, hypotheses, theories and laws, they might better distinguish between various ways of knowing — that knowledge built upon a chain of evidence is of an entirely different sort than that contained in, say, scriptural texts.
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Students should learn, too, that today’s titanic clash of beliefs about evolution is not inevitable. Many leading theologians and scientists of Darwin’s day found natural selection to be perfectly compatible with Christianity. “The majority of the American biologists who accepted evolution in the late-19th century did not believe it posed any threat to religion, but, quite the contrary, felt their religious beliefs were strengthened by it,” Farber notes. “It is not an either/or situation: science or religion.”

Once students see that “there are many ways to reconcile evolution with religion,” he concludes, “they realize that evolution is not the flame-breathing dragon of atheism, but a theory that explains biological phenomena, that relates bodies of information, and that guides research, and like other aspects of science, is open to many philosophical and religious interpretations.”