Is the NABT statement on teaching evolution flawed?

Copyright Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni and anonymous

This post consists of two statements reacting to the statement on teaching of evolution by National Association of Biology Teachers. They are by Paul Braterman and Anj Petto.

Statement by Paul Braterman

Biology teachers, especially in the US, often find themselves called upon to defend their teaching of evolution, on the grounds that it arbitrarily rejects the possibility of supernatural causes, and that since it is a theory it should not be taught as fact. The Position Statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers is meant to address such concerns. In my opinion, it lamentably fails to do so, and indeed gives ammunition to the enemies of evolution science. Regarding supernatural causes, the Statement says that

“[E]ducators should support science education by rejecting calls to account for the history of life or describe the mechanisms of evolution by invoking any non-natural or supernatural notions, whether under the banner of “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design,” or similar designations. Such notions are outside the scope of science, do not adhere to the shared scientific standards governing the collection and interpreting of evidence, and should not be presented as part of the science curriculum.”
In other words, according to the NABT, non-natural or supernatural notions regarding the history of life should be excluded from scientific discussion from the outset, without further examination, although they may be presented outside the context of science.

This is the worst of all possible worlds. It is philosophically inaccurate,1 since “non-natural or supernatural notions” such as extra-sensory perception and the existence of ghosts, have been and should be within the domain of scientific inquiry. Indeed it is only as the result of such inquiry that we are able to state without circular argument that these notions are devoid of merit. Precisely the same is true of supernatural notions regarding the history of life, including specifically the notions of the separate creation of kinds (“creation science”), and of the intervention of a designer (“Intelligent Design”). Finally, it is not the role of NABT to rule about what may be presented outside the science curriculum, least of all to suggest that a notion that is unacceptable in the context of science may nonetheless be acceptable elsewhere. As to why this is important, consider what Phillip Johnson, former Supreme Court clerk to Earl Warren, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, and founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement, wrote about this specific topic in Defeating Darwin by Opening Minds:2

“I agree with the common people [in seeing a role for God in the history of life]. If we are right, the consequences are very, very important. The ruling naturalists know that too, although they may deny it. That is why they are so determined to define words like evolution and science in such a way that naturalism is true by definition.” (pp 22-23)
And again later (p 56):
“Contemporary scientists… consider things supernatural to be outside of science. In other words, scientists start by assuming the naturalism is true, and they try to give purely natural explanations for everything, including our existence.”
Notice how skilfully Johnson uses the NABT’s philosophical error to invoke anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, and to suggest, as he repeatedly does in this book, that scientists accept evolution in the face of the evidence in order to justify atheism. I think it of the highest importance that we should not give the creationists a legitimate opening to do this. We can avoid doing so, while retaining what is of merit in this section of the Statement, by replacing the offending words with a short statement such as “Non-naturalistic notions, such as "Intelligent Design", have not proved fruitful, while separate creation is refuted by numerous lines of evidence" Relatedly, consider what NABT has to say regarding theories:
“Scientific data overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution. Scientific theories are supported by extensive evidence.”
The statement that “Scientific theories are supported by extensive evidence” is sometimes true, sometimes untrue, and claims to the contrary will correctly be seen as self-serving and based on circular reasoning. The study of evolution is a research program containing numerous theoretical and observational components, while common descent, which is what is really under discussion here, is not theory, but fact.

1] ABT is incorrectly imposing Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism on science as an a priori constraint, whereas it should be using Provisory Methodological Naturalism, in which naturalism emerges from the failure of the supernatural under scientific scrutiny. See How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism, Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, Johan Braeckman, Foundations of Science, 15(3), 227–244, 2010; draft publicly available at

2] 2nd Edition, Intervarsity Press, 1997. The current NABT Statement differs in wording from the one that he is attacking, but not in ways that affect his argument.

I thank Joe Felsenstein and Maarten Boudry for useful discussions.

Statement by Anj Petto

The National Association on Biology Teachers (NABT) is one of several organizations that has released position statements over the last few decades on the centrality of evolution in the life sciences and its proper place in life sciences education. Let's frame the issues that NABT faced with its position statements using the A-B-T (And/But/Therefore) model for science communication of Filmmaker Randy Olsen.

Evolution is the foundation of the modern life sciences, and no one can be “educated” in these disciplines unless the instruction is grounded in modern evolutionary science. But, evolution education is considered “controversial” by some members of the general public; they object to its inclusion in the curriculum and they pressure teachers, administrators, political leaders, and community organizations to eliminate, weaken or challenge evolution education in public schools. Furthermore, all the efforts in science education reform in the United States since the late 1950s have had minimal success in convincing the public at large that evolution is real, is a valid scientific theory and research framework, explains the history and diversity of life on Earth, and applies to humans as well as to other organisms. Therefore, professional organizations, such as NABT, issue policy statements and position papers to make clear their support for evolution education, its role in the scientific disciplines that its members teach, and the fundamental role that evolution serves in how we understand the history and diversity of life on Earth.

There is no fundamental disagreement within the sciences on the validity of evolutionary sciences (the AND). The problem, of course, is the public perception that there is such a disagreement, and that science education should include the objections to evolutionary science (the BUT). In other words, after close to 70 years of trying to improve the acceptance and understanding of evolution through science education reform, the nation is still sharply and almost equally divided between those who accept and those who reject evolution.

To address this problem (the THEREFORE), policy statements from national professional scientific or science education organizations have to publicize both the widespread scientific success of evolutionary science and the reluctance of close to half the general public to accept that this could be so. Of course, they need to affirm (and re-affirm) their support of and commitment to evolution education. At the same time, these organizations—especially science education organizations—must avoid making the situation worse for teachers and school personnel working in districts with strong and active religious communities. Many religious communities long ago made a peace with evolution consistent with their doctrines and practices (for example, To force a choice between religious practice and acceptance of evolution runs the risk of alienating potential allies that science educators need to help overcome challenges in their districts.

In a series of revisions to its policy on teaching evolution, NABT (and other organizations) tried various ways of expressing that their intention is not to oppose religious belief per se among their students, but to focus on the natural laws and processes that produce the patterns of similarities and differences that we can observe in living organisms on the Earth in all the places and over all the time that life has occupied the planet; or, in a word: evolution.

Objections to evolutionary science are essentially unchanged since the 1950s. They promote the same arguments and objections to evolution rooted in the original “creation science” movement—evolution reserves no role for an omniscient creator spirit. The newer arguments appear to be different to the general public—for example, invoking an unnamed “intelligent agent” instead of naming a specific deity; showing mathematical formulae or alternative interpretation of geologic observations—and so policy statements need to keep up with the latest iterations.

Revisions in policy statements over time have addressed specific forms that objections to evolution have taken. Newer phrases and reworked arguments raise specific issues at specific points in time, and the policy statement has responded appropriately—if not always effectively—to those objections. We clearly haven't found the “one” policy statement that works: one that will convince communities that evolutionary science is solid and productive; that its track record of successful performance is why it should be included in the curriculum. But the “perfect” statement must always recognize the community context in which most evolution education is practiced; its wording must not alienate or exclude members of the community who would support evolution education by directly (and unnecessarily) challenging fundamental beliefs and values that are not in conflict with the principles of evolutionary science. It is threading scientific filament through the eye of a sociocultural needle.