Are you looking for a new science curriculum? Wondering how to decide?

If so, you might have noticed curriculum options that advertise themselves as “neutral” when it comes to evolution. The idea is that secular families need not worry about having to cut out creationist content, while religious families can add in faith-based teaching. Does this solution actually work?

Sadly, it does not. Leaving out evolution, or presenting it as a “viewpoint” that some people “believe,” is simply not accurate. Here are a few key reasons that your science curriculum must incorporate evolution in order to achieve its goal: helping your child learn science!

What is evolution?

Evolution is a rich, diverse field with many sub-specialties. Scientists might look at fossils, genes, comparative anatomy, relationships between predators and prey, and many other clues to how living things have changed over time. We can even observe evolution occurring today!

Put simply, evolution is “descent with modification.” Organisms alive today are descended from living things of the past, but they are not identical to their ancestors. These changes can occur for a variety of reasons and through different mechanisms, such as natural selection.

Evolution is a unifying concept that allows scientists to explore how life got to be the way it is today, and how life continues to change and adapt – or go extinct.

Evolution provides the “why” of science

“Neutral” curricula take the view that evolution is optional to understanding science. However, it cannot be left out without also leaving out huge swaths of biology, geology, and astronomy. Not only that, but the material left out includes the most important aspect – the “why.”

“Why?” is a young child’s favorite question. Why do insects have six legs? Why don’t penguins fly? Why are some frogs brightly colored, while others are camouflaged? Why can life flourish on the surface of Earth, but not Venus? A good science curriculum should not shut the door tightly on these vital questions, but encourage them.

Unfortunately, in order to avoid discussing evolution, a “neutral” curriculum cannot delve into these sorts of questions. Any question that gets at “why” or “how” organisms develop over time will venture into the territory of discussing evolution. Therefore, a “neutral” curriculum will have to veer away from delving too far into these meaty questions, or supply an inaccurate explanation such as by saying that organisms were “designed” for a particular environment.

Unwillingness to discuss evolution indicates that an unscientific philosophy is at work. A truly scientific viewpoint would collect evidence and form conclusions based on it, rather than starting with a conclusion and dismissing evidence that does not support it.

Evolution makes sense to children

Children will often come up with evolutionary explanations spontaneously as they think about what they are observing in nature. For example, even young children can understand that a well-camouflaged frog will survive better than a poorly camouflaged frog, or that a faster deer can run from a predator better than a slower deer. These initial understandings should be encouraged by your child’s curriculum, not squashed.

Over time, your child’s understanding will deepen to include more complex ideas, but only if their science curriculum isn’t actively thwarting them by ignoring, suppressing, or deliberately underplaying foundational principles.

Understanding how the world works

Evolution is a fundamental concept of science because it puts each organism in context, both with its physical environment and with other living things. Without it, we are asking our children to appreciate interesting but disjointed facts that actually have a deep relationship to one another.

It’s hard to imagine being able to have a full, rich understanding of how life on Earth has gotten to be the way it is without being able to at least open the door to discussing how organisms change over time, influence one another, or fail to adapt and go extinct.

Evolution is easy to observe

Although evolution is commonly discussed as happening over thousands or millions of years, involving animals that have been long extinct, it’s possible to observe it in action today. In fact, our ability to combat diseases is dependent on understanding how evolution works.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an excellent example of why it’s important to understand evolution on a practical level. When a person takes antibiotics for an illness, most of the bacteria are wiped out. However, if the antibiotics are discontinued too soon, some of the bacteria can survive and continue to reproduce. This leads to the drug-resistant strains that cause so many health problems today.

Why is evolution controversial?

It’s very common to find misunderstandings about what evolution is, and what its implications are. Faith-based teachings may want to emphasize that life was creating directly by a deity, and their unique features did not develop through chance or reactions to their environment. Some faiths also teach that the Earth is much younger than evidence suggests, which would mean that organisms did not “have time” to evolve.

As a science teacher in both secular and religious settings, I heard many “reasons” for not “believing” in evolution. Some students rejected any information that conflicted with their interpretations of various holy books. One child told me, 100% seriously, that all the fossils in the natural history museums were elephant bones that had been taped together. I’m not sure that even seeing and touching the fossils in person would have convinced him otherwise!

A science curriculum that goes out of its way to cater to such customers would not be a good fit for any secular family that actually values science.

“Neutral” curricula have an agenda

Unwillingness to discuss evolution indicates that an unscientific philosophy is at work. A truly scientific viewpoint would collect evidence and form conclusions based on it, rather than starting with a conclusion and dismissing evidence that does not support it. Therefore, “neutral” curricula are not actually neutral, but have an agenda to prevent evolution from being taught or to devalue it in favor of “intelligent design”, creationism, or some other unscientific philosophy.

Finding a secular science curriculum

When evaluating a potential science curriculum, ensure that it discusses evolution openly and seeks to accurately represent the current state of scientific knowledge, not hide or discredit science that can conflict with religious beliefs. REAL Science Odyssey by Pandia Press is an example of secular science curriculum that portrays science accurately in a developmentally appropriate way.

Lisa is a homeschooling mom, science educator and curriculum developer with classroom experience ranging from pre-K students to 7th grade. After almost 20 years in traditional school settings, Lisa currently works as a curriculum consultant to schools and families. She also teaches weekend, after-school, camp programs, and graduate courses for science teachers at the American Museum of Natural History. Lisa blogs at  Inquiring Minds Homeschool.