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The Evolution Debate Continues

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a fascinating article, "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash" by Amy Harmon, about David Campbell, a Florida science teacher. Campbell, who teaches Biology 1 in a Florida high school, is dealing with the difficulties of teaching evolution in a district where many of the students come from creationist families.

As many of you know, I'm both a scientific rationalist and a person of faith, and I've been fascinated (and, I should add, horrified) by the attempts to block evolution from public schools that we've seen in the United States over the past few years. I blogged about the final ruling in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case a few years ago, and I've recently been reading every book I can find about the case and the debate.

I used to be a science teacher, and now I edit science textbooks. What makes Campbell's problem interesting to me is that I, thankfully, never had to deal with the issues he deals with. It's true that my teaching career was limited to private schools and religious schools, but no matter where I taught, I had complete freedom to teach science the way I wanted to teach science.

Campbell is not as lucky. Oh, he does get to teach evolution exactly as he wants, and he even helped author the Florida science standards on evolution. But one of his colleagues explicitly states that she thinks God steps in to create life forms that appear wholly different from each other – and she essentially teaches that to her students, although she doesn't mention God. Campbell also deals with students who want to reject evolution in favor of creationism, which leads to a fascinating discussion in which Campbell points out why and how the question "Is there a God?" is not a scientific one.

As I read the article, I thought more about what I had learned reading about the Dover case. In particular, I found myself annoyed again at the way the creationists in Dover – the ones who wear their religion on their sleeve – broke the commandment against bearing false witness against their neighbors when giving testimony in their deposition and the courts. Campbell is a churchgoer, and yet he, like many other religious folk, has no problem reconciling evolution and faith in God, and it annoys me when creationists refuse to accept the idea that someone could both accept the fact of evolution and be a religious person.

In the end, though, I am heartened by one thing. One of the books I read on the Dover case noted that in the wake of the Kitzmiller case, the high school's science department had revised their biology curriculum. The way they saw it, Dover, PA, became the safest community in the entire country in which to teach evolution, and so they made evolution the cornerstone and major thread of their biology class. Now students start with evolution, and throughout the school year, everything they study in biology hearkens back to evolution. I'm glad to see that Florida basically decided to do the same thing, and I'm hoping that as the school year begins, more and more school science departments will be courageous when it comes to teaching evolution.


I think their main problem often comes with the question of the evolution of human beings. They seem to have an atavistic antagonism to the idea that humans and apes are so closely related.
This makes me feel better about living in Jacksonville. Proud even.
Which was, of course, the entire reason I posted a link to the article. :-)
I just finished reading that article myself, and found it hopeful and depressing at once. I find it fascinating that evolution deniers often get so hung up on "we're not apes!" I mean, first of all, what kind of weird insecurity do you have happening that you're so hung up on that, and secondly, have you ever SEEN an ape, or a gorilla, or a chimp, in action? Because if you have, how can you NOT see that we're related? It's downright uncanny sometimes.

And the fact that chimpanzees and human beings share something like 98% of our DNA...
Judaism and its related religions (Christianity and Islam) take the idea that human beings are distinct from other animals as an important element of faith. Critical in this is the idea of the soul. If human beings and simians are essentially the same critter, the implication is that human behavior is similar to animal behavior.

One may argue that this is so and that one proves the other, or not. But you are unlikely to understand your opponents if you do not take the trouble to do so.
You know, despite being Creationist myself, I've never had a problem with evolution being taught in school. Even if you teach creationism, you need to teach evolution; it's just plain WRONG to allow children to grow up without knowing the dominant paradigm in biology.

I have problems with evolution, mostly being that I've never seen a bird turn into anything other than a bird, and no one's been able to show it to me either. On the other hand, I've never seen a photon, and I'm quite convinced of them; my only hold out on evolution is really less with evolutionary process and more with the starting point of, well, everything; and I run into that with all the sciences so I feel that I'm at least on firm ground there.

I was always a physics person myself; biology has always seemed 'messy' to me. And I don't think it helped that my Philosophy of Science professor in college didn't even think of biology as a real science. (!) (Although I admit, at the moment, I can't recreate his arguement without access to notes.)

I dunno, I felt the need to ramble on in your comments, apparently.
Ramble away.

The simple problem I have is that when creationists want evolution taken out of the classroom, or taught along with their creationist viewpoint, they're asking for their particular brand of religion to be taught as science.

Regarding your comment that you've never seen a bird turn into anything other than a bird...well, no. Evolution doesn't work like that. No one creature ever turns into another creature. And the time scales are so huge that it's hard to see evolution take place at our size.

But...we have seen colonies of bacteria evolve in response to their environments, and we do have a fossil record that shows, for example, how an arm can eventually become a wing.

The key point, for me, is that science is what we ought to teach in science class.
It seems to me that one of the first things a teacher should do before teaching evolution per se is to teach the scientific evidence for a world older than 6,000 years.

In particular: dendrochronology and carbon-14 dating give results that are consistent with one another, and these can be used to date the Çatalhöyük settlements as over 9,000 years old.

Do any textbooks or curricula take this approach?
I don't know if there any Biology books that start with the evidence for a world older than 6000 years, but such evidence is usually included in a discussion of fossils and carbon dating.
Evolution tends to get taught in biology. That stuff is geology.

The idea of teaching evolution in basic biology is sound because the interelatedness of life is critical to an understanding of biology on a basic level. But it is not about "proving" evolution because it is taken as a given along with the idea that the brain is the seat of intelligence or feeling the need to disprove Aristotle.
Thanks for this -- interesting and thoughtful. I'm also a person who has no difficulty reconciling evolution and religious faith. Not as a scientist, but as a scholar of the nineteenth century, I taught a mini-class on The Origin of Species at an adult education institute run by a mainstream Protestant church. I only had one horrified student drop out when she realized that we were going to look at Darwin objectively and not punitively; everyone else was there because they felt like it was something they should have read and just never had gotten around to. The Norton Critical Edition of Darwin's writings contains, in the contextual documents, a number of statements from mainstream Jewish and Christian groups expressing that the group in question does not find conflict between evolutionary theory and religious faith.

Of course, Darwin himself did lose his faith, but there was an epidemic of that in the mid-Victorian era.
it annoys me when creationists refuse to accept the idea that someone could both accept the fact of evolution and be a religious person.

But many scientists and atheists (usually ex-Christians with an ax to grind) also claim that you can't be both. And usually, they're the louder and more obnoxious of the evolution bunch (why, hello there, Richard Dawkins). The media likes that, the clearly divided lines in this "war" and nobody wants to make things ambiguous by admitting it's possible to be both religious and believe in evolution. All the people on BOTH sides who need it black and white in order to make their case wouldn't like that. So Creationists feel bullied and threatened and like someone is trying to destroy their faith so they bully and threaten right back. That's what you do when you think you're backed into a corner.

It's not very Christian but it is human nature.

The parents are scared that if their kids learn evolution (which the parents weren't taught, this tends to happen the most in places where people are poor and not well educated) they'll come home with all sorts of questions about how to reconcile that with faith, and the parents won't be able to answer. This will make them look stupid in front of their kids, and will cause the kids to think that faith has no answers and they will desert religion for those who are able to give them concrete answers. Because people are convinced that both science and religion are here to provide us with concrete, never changing answers.

And teachers are not supposed to address the religious aspects in school, so they can't even reassure the kids that it's okay to believe in both. Creationist kids get taught at home and in Sunday School that if they try to bring up any other side, people will laugh at them so they enter the class already uncomfortable and resentful.

I'm not a Creationist but I can still understand where they're coming from.

brief add on

You also have to remember that Creationism develops in Christian denominations and individual churches where the people aren't taught anything about the *Bible* either.
I suspect that people on the creationist side are playing up militant atheists who support evolution, because they want to cast evolution as a fundamental threat to their audience's religious faith.
It wasn't until I read Kenneth Miller's book Finding Darwin's God that I discovered the point you made. It was eye-opening for me to realize that the same scientists who were, on the one hand, stating that evolution was not in conflict with religion, were also, on the other hand, crediting their atheism to their studies of evolution.

It does seem to me, though, that it is a poor sort of faith that feels threatened by the teaching of evolution.
For faith to be threatened by evolution, it requires one of two things.

1) A literal belief in the Bible, which evolution makes difficult.

2) The fact that an alternate theory makes religious belief unnecessary. If you believe that people believe in God because the universe could not have occured otherwise, the presence of an alternate explanation is threatening.

As you say though, I find it a rather poor faith that must guard its believers from alternate explanations.
I'm a Christian and I'm an evolutionist.

The latter does not reduce my faith in the former.

I have no problem with believing that the method that God used to create us was evolution.

Faith is faith and science is science.

I put things in the proper column. At least I like to think so.


December 2016

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