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Review and Comment on Draft Position Statement: Teaching Evolution and Climate Change

AGU is revising two updated draft statements on Earth and space science education. The task force relies on comments by members to finalize the draft statements, which are then approved by AGU’s Board and Council.

The comment period is now closed.

A separate statement draft on ESS Education is available for review here.

Statement Draft

Teaching Evolution and Climate Change is Essential to Understanding our Past and Shaping our Future

The American Geophysical Union supports high quality, scientifically accurate, inclusive teaching of climate change and evolution as central elements of education for all. Throughout Earth’s history, climate change and biological evolution have fundamentally altered our world. These principles of scientific understanding are supported by extensive evidence, are non-controversial within the scientific community, and are critical to informed decision-making that will shape our future.

Challenges

The study of evolution shapes our understanding of life on this planet, from viruses that mutate to exploit new hosts, to the ways in which humans shape the environments we live in, and how those environments in turn shape us. The study of climate change and its impacts on the Earth, space and human systems provides a critical knowledge base for humans to understand and cope with the effects of climate change. The scale of impact of human activities requires a response at local, national and global levels to justly manage the consequences of these actions (Position Statement on Climate Change | AGU). Earth and Space Science education is fundamental to developing the capacity for society to develop and implement these responses.

Opportunities for all people to learn about evolution and climate change underpin our individual and collective ability to act in ways that mitigate current impacts and increase resilience in the face of future challenges.  In addition to building an informed and active society, this education develops the present and future workforce needed to mitigate and adapt to change.

It is well established that environmental and health impacts, including those driven by climate change, are disproportionately borne by communities of color and low-income communities.  Thus, ensuring that members of these communities have full access to high quality ESS education, including the study of evolution and climate change, is particularly important.

ESS education faces significant challenges to its role in meeting these critical needs of our times. Some of these challenges are institutional within our governmental and educational systems.  Many teachers have not had any formal coursework on climate change or are unaware of the causes of recent global warming, and some do not teach it because they are concerned about parent complaints.  Although the landscape in this area is improving, some United States high school biology teachers still avoid teaching evolution, or present it with mixed messages.

Additional challenges result from broader societal forces and habits. Enhanced ESS education must be promoted in the face of the increasing politicization of science. Efforts to undermine the scientific process are not new, and have formed the basis of attacks against foundational, strongly supported scientific principles such as plate tectonics and evolution. The attacks have now expanded to challenge a broader array of evidenced based scientific principles, including climate change. This requires widespread capacity in communities and citizens to differentiate the parts of decision making based on science or other evidence from those based on opinions or values. This must be an essential outcome of ESS education.

Consequences

Teaching climate change and evolution across the educational spectrum, from primary school to lifelong learning, is fundamental to understanding our past and shaping our future. These areas are interrelated: both rely on extensive scientific evidence from the distant past as well as from our dynamic present to help us prepare for our shared future on Earth. Evolution and climate change are not controversial within the scientific community. All life on Earth evolved through natural selection over our four and a half billion-year history, and all life is adapted for and interrelated with the climate of the planet. As society moves forward, all people must learn about the history of life and the place of humans in the interconnected natural world, develop an understanding of Earth processes and their relationship to resilient communities, and be able to apply this knowledge appropriately to decision making. This education is critical to recognizing, preparing for, and solving problems of economic, scientific, medical, and technological significance and to be good stewards of Earth for future generations.

Recommendations

Making informed decisions requires an understanding of Earth processes as well as system-level interactions that have shaped Earth and space and will determine our future.  Earth and space scientists have a particularly important role to play in ensuring that primary, secondary, and higher education, professional development, and informal education for lifelong learners all address the full range of ESS topics, including those that are politically charged, and that they do this in robust and equitable ways.  AGU recommends actions that will: 

  • Further public understanding of the importance of robust science education and the importance of evidence-based decision-making, including with respect to climate change and evolution 
  • Advocate for policies, opportunities and resources that enable education on climate change and evolution
  • Promote engagement of Earth and space scientists with both formal and informal education on climate change and evolution

AGU urges support for educators, students, decision-makers, and the public to better understand climate change and evolution.

Original statement

The scientific theories of biological evolution and history of the Earth should be central elements of science education

Scientific theories of Earth history and biological evolution are fundamental to understanding the natural world, are supported by extensive evidence, and are non-controversial within the scientific community. These principles of scientific understanding must be central elements of science education.

AGU affirms the central importance of including scientific theories of Earth history and biological evolution in science education. Within the scientific community, the theory of biological evolution is not controversial, nor have “alternative explanations” been found. This is why no competing theories are required by the U.S. National Science Education Standards. Explanations of natural phenomena that appeal to the supernatural or are based on religious doctrine—and therefore cannot be tested through scientific inquiry—are not scientific, and have no place in the science classroom.

Evolution through natural selection is one of the great unifying theories of biology. It explains the myriad forms of life—including human—that have originated from simple beginnings early in Earth's four and a half billion year history, and it emphasizes the interrelatedness of all living things. It is a theory in the scientific sense—a body of knowledge that has accumulated through testing of hypotheses, by observation and by experiment over a long period, so as to become accepted by the scientific community as an explanation of natural phenomena. Although there is broad agreement within the scientific community, the theory of evolution, like any scientific theory, is subject to revision as our understanding improves. Indeed, science seeks to unravel innumerable unsolved problems in the natural world, including the evolution of the universe itself.

An increasingly complex and competitive international economy calls for a scientifically literate public. The theory of biological evolution is one of the most important foundations of the science enterprise, and therefore education of the future workforce in evolution and other pillars of science is essential.

In addition to the practical benefits of understanding evolution, there is an aesthetic one: the gaining of a sense of awe and wonder at the beautiful complexity of our dynamic planet and the integral role of its evolving biological component throughout much of its history. To deny students a full understanding of the theory of evolution in the context of Earth history is to deprive them of an important part of their intellectual heritage.

AGU urges its members to help the public better understand the scientific process, including biological evolution and the history of the Earth, as foundations of science.

Adopted by the American Geophysical Union December 1981, Reaffirmed May 1990, May 1994; Expanded and Reaffirmed December 1999; Reaffirmed December 2003; Revised and Reaffirmed December 2007, February 2012; Reaffirmed September 2016.

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