Should Maine encourage its middle school science teachers to relay misinformation about the connection between evolutionary science and historical atrocities such as the Holocaust to their students? As a Maine science education professor (Miller) and as an evolutionary biologist who has written extensively in the arena of history and social impacts of science (Graves), our answer is emphatically no. That should be the answer of the state as well.

The Maine Department of Education is proposing revisions to the state science standards, which are the ultimate source of guidance for public school science teachers in the Pine Tree State. Among these revisions are a number that are in the spirit of a recently enacted state law requiring the inclusion of African American studies and the history of genocide in history – not science – classes.

The idea is praiseworthy in principle. Discussing relevant historical and social issues in a science class can aid student engagement. And we agree that African American studies and the history of genocide deserve more attention than they typically receive. One of us (Graves), the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology in the United States, has written extensively on this very subject.

But the execution in this case is objectionable. In particular, proposed revisions to the middle school standards claim that misinterpretation of “fossil observations” and of “the ideas of natural selection and artificial selection” produced the “false idea of human hierarchies and racial inequality,” leading to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Maine.

These revisions are simply inaccurate. Nobody ever became a racist as a result of misinterpreting the human fossil record. On the contrary, misinterpreting the human fossil record is often a result of racism, a sad fact that the scientific community now acknowledges and strives to correct. Likewise, ideas of human hierarchies and racial inequality predate the development of the evolutionary sciences.

Moreover, the revisions are also misleading. The causes of the historical atrocities mentioned are complex and to a degree controversial among experts. But no reputable historian would endorse the idea that evolutionary ideas are more important than the prevalence of antisemitism in Europe in explaining the Holocaust. Yet that’s the impression that the revisions convey.


And bear in mind that the affected standards are at the middle school level. The students who would be misinformed about the history of evolution would be 11 to 13 years old. Their ability to learn about evolution – a central, unifying and unrivaled principle of science – will be impeded by their natural reactions to a discussion of the horrific events mentioned in the proposed revisions.

It’s not just the students who would be affected. There is no reason to believe that Maine’s science teachers have the historical knowledge to present a nuanced and accurate discussion of these events or the pedagogical know-how to present them to middle school students in a productive manner. No plan seems to have been advanced to provide teachers with professional development.

At the outset of the revision process, the Maine Science Teachers Association urged that only minimal revisions should be made. That’s because the standards that Maine’s science teachers have been using were adopted only in 2019, and the teachers are still getting used to their demands. Now is not a good time to impose further, ill-thought-out, burdens on them.

All these criticisms have been registered with the Maine Department of Education, which unaccountably seems to be ignoring them. The decision whether to adopt these flawed revisions is now up to the Legislature, which has the responsibility of reviewing the standards. We earnestly hope that the Legislature will do right by science, history, and Maine’s public school teachers and students.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: