Controversial issues in biology education? You bet! Here are some.
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Evolution
Genetic engineering
Global warming
Sciences education
Sex education
Author: Leonard, Bill
Pub Date: 09/01/2010
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Sept, 2010 Source Volume: 72 Source Issue: 7
Product: Product Code: 8521212 Genetic Engineering NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 245037791
Full Text: The sciences are full of controversial issues, and biology education has at least its share. I would like to identify a few that have been on my mind, some of which have several sub-issues. Why would we want to discuss controversial issues in biology education? First, because they raise questions, especially for biology students, and the questions deserve answers. Second, controversy creates interest and interest can improve motivation to learn biology. Thus, teachers can take advantage of controversy. I will not attempt to resolve the issues listed below but I will attempt to identify the nature of some of the issues that have been on my mind. I will not use references, because this is an editorial representing my own opinions.

1. Evolution. On a media frequency scale, the evolution of life on earth is probably still issue number 1. It has always puzzled me that this seems to be a bigger issue in the United States than anywhere else in the world. A basic issue is that academic research and discussion of modern evolutionary theories contradict literal interpretations of religious writings. Specifics can be found in some of the sub-issues. The most obvious are the differences in perceived timelines for the origin and evolution of life. Frequently published science-based timelines are those of the Big Bang (13-15 billion years ago [bya]), the Milky Way galaxy (11-13 bya), our solar system after a supernova exploded (4-5 bya), and the beginning of early life on earth (3.5-3.9 bya). These are obviously at odds with fundamentalist religious writings and beliefs that life has been here only a few thousand years and that all life appeared at one time as it is today.

Among the other points of contention are the mechanisms (theories) by which evolution occurs: random genetic variation, natural selection, and genetic drift. Although there is overwhelming scientific evidence that these mechanisms contribute to speciation and evolution of major taxa, the fundamentalists still deny them. But evolutionary mechanisms will continue to occur whether they are accepted or not. As to evidence for the origin of life, unfortunately we have only hypotheses.

2. Sex Education. One myth is that the more that young people know about the human reproductive process, the more they will be inclined to participate in it. That is why sex education in school is discouraged in some areas of our country. But our students have a right to factual reproductive knowledge. Sex education also brings up sensitive issues such as sexual orientation and abortion. These do not necessarily have to be dealt with in the biology classroom but I would be inclined to address questions posed by students in these areas.

3. Cloning and Human Genetic Engineering. A very sensitive question here is "Can we manufacture a living organism in the laboratory?" The closer this question gets to humans, the more sensitive it becomes. We might now have the technology to make a human, but fortunately there are regulations against creating new humans other than by natural reproductive means. Part of the controversy here is what kind of human would that be and who are the parents? Legal, moral, and ethical issues become abundant. Nevertheless, scientists have been cloning other organisms for years, Dolly the sheep being a noted example. There were problems with Dolly's clones. They were not entirely normal and did not live long, for some of the same reasons that organisms age and die. Other issues about genetic engineering are "Is this playing God?" and "Why would anyone have the right to copyright DNA sequences?"

4. Global Warming. There is so much evidence that the earth's surface temperature is rising beyond normal cycles of climatic change that the controversial issue seems to be about the causes. The relationship between human population growth, particularly since the industrial revolution, and surface temperature increases of 1[degrees]F or a little more over the past hundred years is just too coincidental to dismiss. Human impact is a likely culprit in global warming.

5. Premature Species Extinction. Extinction is a normal evolutionary event. However, habitat destruction, toxic chemicals, mass hunting (e.g., the passenger pigeon), biodiversity loss, nuclear radiation, desertification, and global warming all seem to point to human activity as the culprit in premature extinctions. The question is how can we bring extinction to within a normal range of evolutionary change?

6. Animal Rights/Animal Suffering. I am reading the very interesting book Do Fish Feel Pain? by fisheries biologist Victoria Braithwaite (Oxford University Press, 2010). Animal rights activists have for some time concentrated on the suffering of higher vertebrates, especially mammals and birds, because their complex sensory systems are capable of "feeling" pain. More recent research has suggested that other vertebrates, perhaps even some invertebrates, can sense pain as well. For example, "Can fish feel a fish hook?" has become a real question, not to mention the associated moral questions such as "Do humans have the right to inflict pain on other organisms?"

7. Human Overpopulation. Some have argued that Homo sapiens has already reached the natural carrying capacity of the planet. Others argue that human ingenuity has been raising the carrying capacity. What is the actual limit? How is this defined with respect to given geographic areas? Only a fraction of the earth's surface is comfortably habitable, and even a smaller fraction is desirable for human living. The vast majority of human populations live near large bodies of water in the mid-latitudes because of the pleasant climate. When is human population growth too much?

8. Death and Dying. The dying process is a very active area of biological research because most people want to live longer. We have only a few answers for why organisms die. There are estimates of the maximum life spans of many organisms, such as 120 years for the human, because there appears to be an upper limit on the number of times a cell can divide and still produce healthy cells. We also know that every time a cell divides, some of the telomeres of the chromosomes are cut off. At some point, genetic information is lost, and we are all too aware of what can result from insufficient genetic information. Is reducing this cutting part of the key to long life? Death and the process of dying can lead to very motivating discussion and investigations in the biology classroom. Individual choice to end one's life is also controversial.

We should be willing to discuss all these issues in the classroom. I invite you to suggest other controversies in biology education through an ABT letter to the editor. I also welcome your manuscripts that may help to address these issues in biology classrooms. As usual, I also welcome your comments.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2010.72.7.3

Bill Leonard

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