The brief answers are an unqualified “yes” and a qualified “no.” I qualify the “no” for creationism because students’ curiosity should be answered, but not as part of the science curriculum. Creationism is a cultural issue, not a science.
I also hedge the answer because not all science educators may have enough background to handle the complexity of this subject; the test would be whether the teacher is familiar with the peer-reviewed science literature.
Indeed, as a college professor and Ph.D. paleontologist, it still took me several years of study and debates with “creationist” spokesmen (yes, they are all male) to understand what I was addressing.
These are not simplistic matters. Evolution is the central unifying tool around which all modern biological and paleontological science is based, and it is also fundamental to parts of biochemistry, geology, anthropology, and even pharmacology (e.g. that’s why we test drug safety on expensive monkeys rather than cheap mice — they are our close relatives).
Never miss a local story.
Each of these sciences has its own specific areas where evolution applies, and they are wide ranging. But central to all is the basic fact (yes, fact) that life and earth have changed over time — which is the definition of “evolution.” How those changes occur, and the complex details, comprise the theory of evolution.
Evolutionary theory has itself evolved — after all, this is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and we have learned a great deal since Darwin. But his basic concept of evolution by natural selection is still at the core of the life sciences.
To answer one frequent question: Yes, we have explicit evidence of what happened in the distant past of life history, even before people witnessed it; that is what we paleontologists study.
To justify the logic of this statement, consider whether you had a great-great-grandmother: Did you meet her? How do you know, and can you prove she existed? Our data from the fossil record is that explicit. Besides observing the changes of past life through fossils, we also now have an extensive fossil record of “transition creatures,” many discovered within the past 25 years (and this is true despite the creationist statements that there are “no transition fossils” — which is flat wrong).
The United States is hard pressed to keep up with the rest of the developed world in science education. The last thing we need to teach is contrarian material to students who may be struggling with actual science.
But we also need to be scholarly, and open-minded, so let us consider the depth of literature that exists in support of the general ideas of “evolution” versus “creation.”
Fortunately, we now have powerful search engines to apply to that question, and if we search “Google Scholar” (which covers peer-reviewed literature), we easily can find over 100,000 citations of research papers with the title or text including “evolution of …” documenting changes to some life form or life process. (In full disclosure, I gave up checking at Google Scholar page 100, after wading through 500+ papers with titles such as: “Breeding systems and the evolution of dioecy in New Zealand apioid Umbelliferae.” The 100,000-plus number comes from determined individuals who have researched this topic).
Now, if you or I type in “creation” or “creationism” in the same Google Scholar search, we come up with … nothing, except reference to a few books and articles about the practitioners of “creationism” itself. There is simply no peer-reviewed science literature that documents any event of “creation.” There are a few refereed papers (literally fewer than five) by creationist authors presenting their philosophy and their critiques of evolution; but those present, so far, no actual data. I call this a meager literature of “No.”
What, then, are K-12 science classes to teach about creationism? Should we teach students that there is mainstream evolutionary science supported by several million scientists, and also a few degreed critics who don’t actually document their data … so let’s give them all equal time?
If we do such, then those students will graduate confused about and deficient in science, because no (literally no) secular universities teach creationism as science. And I have asked many creationist spokesmen: “If you have such powerful information, sufficient to overturn most modern biological and earth sciences, why can’t you present it, or even part of it, in a peer-reviewed format?” I’ve never received a real answer.
One creationist spokesman claimed, in a debate, that they can’t publish the evidence because the peer-review system is biased. I responded that I refuse to accept that information so revolutionary, so important, could be suppressed for 150 years. This becomes especially clear when we realize that the evolutionary sciences consume hundreds of millions of dollars and Euros in research support; surely greed would bring forth hidden truth, if it were so.
By analogy, it’s like a claim that I know how to cure cancer and HIV, and drop 50 pounds, with a simple drug, but I will present the evidence only in an infomercial rather than the New England Journal of Medicine. Buyer beware.