Saturday, April 30, 2011

Teaching Evolution: Are Geoscience Teachers Helping or Hurting?

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is promoting a position statement on evolution issued by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) [Geoscience teachers add their voice for evolution]. Apparently NCSE thinks this statement is good enough to include on their website and and publish in the next edition of Voices for Evolution. The statement can be found on the NAGT website: Position Statement - Teaching Evolution. It was published in 2006. I'm reproducing it below in order to get your opinion.

Is this statement helpful in understanding evolution and in teaching the concept correctly in high school science classes? I don't think so. I think it only adds to the confusion by conflating biological evolution with all kinds of change including geologic change. I think there's a big difference between understanding how the Hawaiian islands might have formed and why all living species have descended from a common ancestor. I think the "scientific theory of evolution" refers to biological evolution and it doesn't help when high school science teachers equate that to geologic change and cultural change.
The National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) recognizes that the scientific theory of evolution is a foundational concept of science, and therefore must also be a cornerstone of science education. Evolution in the broadest sense refers to any change over time. The study of Earth's evolution provides society with the time and space perspectives necessary to understand how Earth's physical and biological processes developed, provides insight into the natural processes active on Earth, and shapes our view of Earth's future.

Evolutionary studies apply to most branches of science, including organic evolution, cosmic evolution, geologic evolution, planetary evolution, and cultural evolution. Each of these subdisciplines of science provides evidence that evolution is pervasive: galaxies have changed, stars and planets have changed, Earth has changed, life forms on Earth have changed, and human culture has changed. Evolution is therefore factual and is a unifying concept of the natural sciences. For this reason, the National Science Education Standards (NRC), Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS), numerous national education policy documents, and individual states, through their published science education frameworks, all recognize that evolution is a unifying concept for science disciplines and provides students with the foundation to help them understand the natural world. NAGT fully agrees with and supports the scientific validity of evolution as reflected in the position statements of the numerous scientific societies that unanimously support evolution on scientific grounds. NAGT further maintains that the scientific theory of evolution should be taught to students of all grade levels as a unifying concept without distraction of non-scientific or anti-scientific influence.

Published and reaffirmed position statements on the scientific validity of evolution by all of the scientific societies clearly demonstrate that the modern scientific community no longer debates whether evolution has occurred. Scientific investigation of the mechanisms of evolution and the interconnected "details" of mechanism, process, history, and outcome remain at the current scientific forefront of evolutionary studies. This is the nature of scientific inquiry itself: to continually evaluate scientific theories with an eye towards improving our scientific models and adding more details to our understanding of the natural world. Scientists often disagree about explanations of how evolution works, the importance of specific evolutionary processes, or the patterns that are observed, but all agree that evolution has occurred and is occurring now. Global change will be the future projection of past and ongoing evolutionary processes. While evolution is factual, evolution is also a "scientific theory", which is an explanation for the observed changes. This usage of theory should not be confused with the non-scientific usage of theory as an ad-hoc idea unsupported by testing or evidence.

In science, disagreements are subject to rules of scientific evaluation, and this includes the methodologies of teaching scientific concepts. Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment, observation, and evaluation. Sound practices of scientific education are tested and evaluated much the same way. NAGT recognizes that invoking non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, often guised as "creation science," "scientific creationism," or "intelligent design theory," are not scientific in character, do not conform to the scientific usage of the word theory, and should not be part of valid science curricula.

As stated in NAGT's Constitution, the purpose of the NAGT is to foster improvements in the teaching of the earth sciences at all levels of formal and informal instruction, to emphasize the relevance and cultural significance of the earth sciences, and to disseminate knowledge in this field to educators and the general public. The NAGT fully accepts its role in the evaluation and betterment of the teaching of scientific evolution in formal and informal educational settings, with the explicit goal of helping everyone to understand the scientific merit this fundamental concept has in modern science. The Journal of Geoscience Education publishes papers related to research concerning the pedagogy, assessment, history, philosophy and culture of teaching and learning about the geosciences, especially of fundamental concepts like geologic time and faunal and stratigraphic succession, all aspects of evolution.


  1. I don't have any issue with the statement. They clearly lumped together all kinds of evolution, not just biological one. Granted, geologic and cultural evolutions are not anywhere near the conceptual beauty of the organic, but there still a point to be made:

    Nothing in Nature stands still, panta rhei. The important thing to get about the change that happens over time is that it 1) is spontaneous and 2) obeys laws of our physical universe. So the specific mechanisms differ for different kinds of evolution, yet the share very basic things. E.g., there is always a large randomness factor but on a grand scale it still seems predictable and not that random.

  2. I agree that they left quite a bit of very important stuff out, but as someone who used to believe in Ken Ham's brand of lunacy, it seems to me that this statement strikes near the heart of what creationists deny: the idea that the world and the universe has changed drastically over the past several billion years.

  3. Geoscientists tend to see evolution of the earth and evolution of it's inhabitants as being tightly interrelated. We see changes in climate and terrain reflected in the fossil record, associate the stresses of environmental change with triggers for speciation, and our interest is in the geologic changes that may have prompted the environmental change. But to us, it's one big interrelated history.

  4. I don't see any conflation. The fossil record is traditionally studied as part of geoscience, not biological science. Many supporters of sound science education point to the fossil record as evidence supporting evolutionary theory. Thus it makes sense for geoscience educators to send a strong message supporting the teaching of evolutionary theory.

  5. I dunno... Geologists have been using the word 'evolution' in a non-biological sense for a long time.

  6. The Ottawa centre of the Royal Astronomical Society published a position statement on Science and Evolution several years ago:

  7. In I have Landed, essay 18 "What does the dreaded 'E' word mean anyway?", Steven Jay Gould spends a lot of time talking about the two different meanings of evolution and how confusion can arise as a result.

    The original use of "evolution" was to describe a process that unfolds, such as the evolution of a star, for example.

    I agree that the statement of the NAGT is confusing because it uses both the "Geoscience" meaning of evolution along with the biological meaning of evolution without any distinction.

    When, as you point out, someone tries to equate the evolution of a geological process (for instance) with "the theory of evolution" that person is WRONG. The theory of evolution will tell you nothing of geological processes.

    The NAGT is confused. So terribly confused. This statement is not helpful in promoting the teaching of the theory of evolution.

  8. I think the statement is a good one; while most think of evolution as pertaining to biology, in fact many systems evolve over time. And there are theories within various disciplines to explain these evolutionary trends, whether in biology, geology or physics.

    I think that a unified stance on the part of scientists across disciplines to oppose supernaturalism in education is helpful and that trying to claim "evolution" for biology only would be unhelpful. I believe that over time creationists have opposed geological evolution nearly as vigorously as biological evolution and that if the got past those two, cosmic evolution would be next on the agenda.

  9. I don't like that statement at all.

    We already have creationists who confuse biological evolution with stellar evolution, and who think that Big Bang cosmology is part of evolution. The geoscience statement is likely to make this worse.

  10. This may play right into the hands of those creationists who still ask stupid questions like "Try to explain the Grand Canyon with evolution!" They might find justification for their willful ignorance.

  11. I don't see how we can object to an accurate, correct, truthful statement because it 'may lead to confusions'. If anyone is confused, that's there problem, not the NAGT's.

    There IS geological evolution, just like there is stellar evolution and biological evolution. The word 'evolution' doesn't belong to the biological sciences, and if some can't accept that, well, again, they're wrong, and that's their problem.

    Also, since people like political arguements: IF you can't talk about any 'evolution' other than biological evolution, THEN the NAGT and orgs like it can not make statements in support of evolution, because it is outside of their ambit.

    "Is this statement helpful in understanding evolution and in teaching the concept correctly in high school science classes?"
    I think that it is. One the one hand, it illustrates the tight connections between biological evolution and geology. On the other hand, it allows biological evolution to be part of an earth science curriculum. Indeed, biology and earth science classes are often the only science classes, especially at the high school and undergraduate level, that deal with biological evolution. We definitely should not prohibit or restrict biological evolution from the earth science curricula, and its hardly ever going to appear in chemistry and physics or social science curricula (excepting 'chemistry of dna' and 'biochemistry' type classes (and sometimes its hardly even in biochemistry too)).

    "it only adds to the confusion by conflating biological evolution with all kinds of change including geologic change. "
    Does it really conflate the two though? It mentions them together yes, but it does state that they are seperate, it even refers to different 'levels of usage' for the term evolution (evolution in the /broadest sense/, etc). I don't think a person could like at that statement and reasonable say 'Plate Tectonics can be studied by examining changes in allele frequencys'.

    "the "scientific theory of evolution" refers to biological evolution "
    I agree here, if there is anyplace that they have erred, it is here, they state that the scientific theory of evolution is a foundational concept in science, when it isn't, its a foundational part of biological sciences, but it is not a foundational part of geology. However, in-so-far-as modern "Earth Systems Sciences" is different from 'old' Geology, in that it includes the lithosphere AND hydrosphere And atmosphere AND biosphere and importantly systems within and between them, then yes Darwinian 'biological evolution' does again become important; it becomes something that you have to study in order to get a proper understanding of Earth Science (again, even if we agree that you could get 'old school geology' without referencing biology).

    I would also, make another criticsm of the statement, even though I think its a good statement and an important one for teaching biological evolution; part of the statement reads:
    "Each of these subdisciplines of science provides evidence that evolution is pervasive: galaxies have changed, stars and planets have changed, Earth has changed, life forms on Earth have changed, and human culture has changed", which makes it seem like there is something called Evolution Science, or Changeology, which of course there isn't, certainly not at the High school, undergraduate, or even graduate levels. I mean, the only person who studies change as change would be like Parmenides or someone like that (and he said nothing changes, so thats that).

  12. I don't believe geologists are trying to usurp the biological sense of evolution. When I was studying geophysics at UH we used a book titled "Evolution Of The Earth" by Robert H. Dott jr. and Donald R. Prothero for Geology 101. The book is very good and discusses the changes through the various Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs. Geology students get a heavy dose of evolution in their first semester. It's how we preliminary estimate dates in soil horizons that contain fossils. We use the term in the more general sense of change over time, earth changed.

  13. Dennis says,

    We use the term in the more general sense of change over time, earth changed.

    Europeans have gotten taller in the past 500 years. Is that an example of biological evolution?

    Babies get older and eventually become children and adults. Is that an example of biological evolution?

    In biology, the mere fact of change is NOT equivalent to biological evolution. The change has to be due to change in the genes. Also, in biology it's populations that evolve, not individuals.

    You make it hard to get these fundamental concepts across to students if you equate mere change with biological evolution. That's a bad thing.

  14. Schenck says,

    There IS geological evolution, just like there is stellar evolution and biological evolution. The word 'evolution' doesn't belong to the biological sciences, and if some can't accept that, well, again, they're wrong, and that's their problem.

    I wouldn't have a problem if the geoscience teachers made it clear that they were talking about several very different kinds of evolution. I strongly suspect that they don't really understand the difference between biological evolution and the kind of changes they talk about in their Earth science classes.

  15. Is a view of progress wide-spread in geosciences? One very common misunderstanding of biological evolution is an idea of progress, that organisms or populations are evolving towards some goal.

    Biological evolution has a fairly specific set of circumstances that must be satisfied before it can occur, involving replication with errors, differential survival, and sampling error associated with finite population sizes. Does geological evolution have a similar set of restrictions, or is any change considered evolution?

  16. TheBrummel,
    from what I've been taught (I'm still a student, subject to my committee signing off on my MS thesis) there's no sense of "progress" in geology. Things change, and they change on all sorts of time scales. Continents move, collide, separate. Mountains rise and erode away. Ice ages happen. Animals and plants evolve into new species, then into new genera, then... you get the idea. It's all part of What Happened. And that's our goal: figuring out What Happened.

    We tend to celebrate the diversity of biological forms for, among other reasons, they allow us to date the rocks they were found in. :-)

  17. I am just an electrician, but I think this statement does get across the importance of the vast amounts of time that stuff has been around for and the way things are always a changein'.
    I always have to come back to the way the elements have been cooked up in stars and nova and coalesced into planets to put the whole abiotic chemical creation of life on this planet into perspective. Time and change and it is inevitable that some sort of life will turn up.

    This planet is not tuned for our type of lifeform. Our type of lifeform is tuned for this planet.