Taking a Stand for Science

Interview with Brian Alters by Mark Reynolds

Brian Alters, Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, is founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre, a collaboration between McGill and Harvard universities. A prolific author and award-winning teacher, he was one of six expert witnesses, and the only witness from Canada, called to the stand, testifying for the plaintiffs in the high-profile US federal trial on intelligent design, Kitzmiller v. Dover. The trial became known as Scopes II, a reference to the famous 1925 case on the teaching of evolution. In late December 2005, the judge ruled that the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board could not order the teaching of the theory of intelligent design in classes discussing evolution.


What brought you to research on evolution education in particular?

As a child I was taught that evolution was not only scientifically inaccurate, but fundamentally evil… However, while in high school, I took local community college classes where I learned the science of evolutionary theory. This caused a dissonance between what I was being taught in college versus high school and at home. I thought how incredibly interesting that so many people are so divided on the issue.

If, as you stated several times in your testimony, the scientific debate on the occurrence of evolution is over, why is it necessary to research the teaching of biological evolution?

The scientific debate concerning whether evolution happens ended long before I was born, although scientists certainly do have serious arguments over how evolution occurs. What we do in science education research is explore how people learn about evolution, how misconceptions are engendered and how to best correct them.

Not only does evolution appear to be counterintuitive or religiously offensive for many, there is also a powerful anti-evolution industry working to discredit evolutionary science. Shockingly, about half of North Americans reject evolution—they seem to feel that the teachers, textbooks and scientists are dead wrong. As the biggest problem in science education, evolution should be of great concern to science education researchers.

Why have we not seen similar debates in Canada?

The debates are certainly in Canada but don’t receive as much attention as in the US, where the more decentralized education system has allowed small groups to cause great commotion in local school districts. At McGill’s Evolution Education Research Centre, we get calls from teachers across Canada about anti-evolution problems. We sense a de-emphasizing of evolution by teachers because of pressures they are experiencing or believe they may receive. A recent poll by the Globe and Mail indicated that about one in four Canadians feel intelligent design should be taught in public schools.

Is the difference in educational values between the US and other countries in the world part of the research mandate of your centre?

Yes; we are definitely concerned about evolution education worldwide. For example, we recently received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to investigate how Muslim teachers, students and parents understand evolution in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, as well as in Muslim communities in Canada. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, including here in Quebec, yet most of the West knows little about Islamic thinking on the foundational issue of evolution.

What was it like to be cross-examined?

You don’t have the luxury of knowing what will be asked nor of thinking for 10 minutes about your reply. Your responses are expected to be almost instantaneous—and extremely accurate. After spending about six hours in sworn deposition and another three hours on the stand testifying, I tell people the best words I’ve heard lately are, “Dr. Alters, you may now step down from the stand.”

What was it like being in the centre of such a media storm?

It’s been a blast! I get interview requests from around the world and have encounters that would be exceptionally rare without the trial experience. For example, recently, I was at a play in New York about the Scopes trial starring Ed Asner, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning former president of the Screen Actors Guild. He had been told that I was an expert witness in the intelligent design trial. After the play, we met and he surprised me by saying, “It’s an honour to meet you.”