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Douglas J. Futuyma, in Evolutionary Biology defined evolution as, "...change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next." (1)
Like most of the population, I've never picked up a copy of Evolutionary Biology and have only recently thought about the most correct definition of the term. The issue at hand is that most people do not reference scientific texts when formulating an opinion about evolution. Webster's Dictionary defines evolution as "...the development of a species, organism, or organ from its original or primitive state to its present or specialized state; phylogeny or ontogeny". Evolution, as I have concluded, is a scientific term, which has taken on a more controversial and politicized meaning in the non-scientific community, due in part to misinterpretation and false or misleading definitions like those presented in common publications like Webster's Dictionary. In our society, is it possible to avoid the politicized issues surrounding evolution by giving the concept a new name?
In January of 2004, Georgia State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox proposed a new biology curriculum for students which would remove the term evolution from the classroom and replace it with biological changes over time. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other regional publications, critics are saying that this change in terminology will weaken students' learning experience. The adjusted biology curriculum would not require a revised textbook, nor would individual public school systems be prevented from teaching evolution in depth if they chose to do so. (2) Yet, even with this flexibility and minimal change to actual curriculum Georgia residents and politicians nationwide are in an uproar. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution online survey found that 12,900 people preferred the term "evolution" as opposed to the 1,783 who were in favor of biological changes over time.
Evolution, according to the most scientifically accepted theories is biological change over time. In What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr presents the same simplified definition, describing evolution as "...change in the properties of populations of organisms over time". (4) If Kathy Cox feels that the theory might be better accepted if it is known as biological changes over time, that is her decision as State Schools Superintendent.
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Terrie Kielborn, a middle school science teacher who served on the curriculum committee, said that the rationale for not including the term evolution was community reaction. The United States, especially the south, is known for its very active Christian Conservative voting block. In the past, this particular group has fought to ban evolution completely in schools, because of its conflict with the Creationist teaching. The Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban evolution on religious grounds in 1968; as such legislation would violate first amendment rights. (3) Cox has been accused of distorting evolution by distorting its meaning in the classroom, I, however, beg to differ. If evolution is, in essence, still being taught to Georgia's school children with only slight modification, it shouldn't matter if Georgia teachers were referring to it as George, the theory of evolution is still be taught.
Cox has described evolution as controversial, and indeed it is. By detaching the community from the divisive term and instead focusing attention to the correct teaching of the theory, Cox has attempted to make a new story for the students of Georgia. Her assertion is that evolution can be taught without the constraints of terminology, however, she was wrong. Despite her attempts to avoid controversy, her curriculum amendments only created further disagreement. On February 5th, Superintendent Cox decided to scrap her plans to remove the term evolution from the curriculum. The Georgia Governor described it as the right thing to do. (5)
The United States is still adjusting to the idea that a theory like evolution can exist in addition to other competing theories and moreover, be taught in schools. Superintendent Cox was merely thinking outside of the box. Despite the supposed eagerness of constituents and politicians to now preserve the biological education of Georgia students, perhaps they are only impeding it? If students, and their parents, thought of evolution in a different way, by reevaluating the terminology or understanding of the theory, perhaps teaching would be more effective. However, the United States is not ready to evolve just yet.
1. Moran, Laurence http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolution-definition.html
2. MacDonald, Mary "Georgia may shun 'evolution' in schools" http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/0104/29curriculum.html, January 29, 2004.
3. "The Closet Atheist" http://www.geocities.com/closetatheist/evolutionclassroom.htm, January 2001.
4. Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Perseus Book Groups, 2001.
5. "Georgia Schools Chief Says 'Evolution' Will Stay" http://www.newsday.com/, February 6, 2004.