Sunday, February 15, 2009

An Alternate Take on Evolution in the Classroom

Paul's post from Thursday on Darwin's birthday and classroom approaches to evolution raises a lot of hot-button topics: public opinion on evolution; continuing battles over scientific curricula in public schools (and the freedom of speech/religion implications that are involved); and the relationship between faith and reason. None of these topics are areas of strength for me, but I want to generally discuss my thoughts and where I differ from Paul.

When we think of the phrase "culture wars," the two political issues most likely to come to mind are abortion and gay marriage. There's a good reason for that, considering the energy, finances, and polarization surrounding both issues; Proposition 8 in California continues to provide a strong example. Yet we often overlook public opinion on evolution as a significant part of the culture wars, which is a huge mistake. Paul cites recent Gallup and Pew Research Center polls where more than 40% of Americans favor creationism, which Gallup defines as agreement with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in the present form." The Pew Research Center indicates that these numbers (according to Gallup) have remained consistent for over the last quarter-century.

Historian Paul Harvey notes that "America has a very peculiar history with the idea of evolution," and public doubt about the validity of evolution is nothing new. But such strong poll numbers in favor of creationism--which also holds that the earth is no more that 10,000 years old or so--remains remarkable. In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll identifies that evangelicals have been responsible for the rise of creationism since 1960, and that their efforts resulted in "one of the great innovations of recent evangelical history." Noll argues that after the 1961 publication of the seminal creationist text The Genesis Flood, evangelicals capitalized on several factors--including, most notably, the belief in a "simple" or "literal" reading of Scripture--to create a groundswell of support for the doctrine. Historian Ronald Numbers elaborates that by the late 1970s, creationist political advocates adopted the strategy of arguing for a "two-model" approach in public classrooms, one that would provide a "balanced approach" towards both evolution and creationism.

Though the Supreme Court banned such "equal time" efforts in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), creationists turned to the burgeoning intelligence design (ID) movement to advance their causes. Though prominent ID supporters such as Michael Behe have attempted to distinguish their work from creationism, evidence demonstrates that the two doctrines are intertwined. One example emerged in the hearings during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), which centered on the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania's attempts to mandate the teaching of intelligence design in its ninth-grade biology curriculum. The textbook that the school board chose for its biology classrooms, Of Pandas and People, was the first pro-ID pedagogical text of its kind. Yet the Of Pandas authors (Dean H. Kenyon and Percival Davis) "had originally conceived their book as a scientific brief for creationism," according to Numbers. Moreover, the plantiffs in Kitzmiller discovered that after the Supreme Court ruling in Edwards, Percival and Davis replaced the term "creationists" with "design proponents" throughout the book. An error in one of the newer drafts--"cdesign proponentsists"--became a key piece of evidence that helped lead to the ruling against Dover's school board.

Nevertheless, Numbers writes that the ID movement's " 'wedge' strategy"--as they exhibited in Kitzmiller--has "succeeded beyond all but their own expectations in convincing the public and press that a serious scientific controversy existed about the status of Darwinism." And journalist Laurie Lebo documents that it is this strategy that lies at the heart of Louisiana's recent "academic freedom" bill. The bill (and its use of the term "strengths and weaknesses") implies a "controversy" where there is none, scientifically speaking, and is intended to deceptively disguise the promotion of a religiously motivated and unscientific doctrine as a freedom of speech issue. This is where I would disagree with Paul. It's reasonable to expect classroom debates to exist along the lines of what Amy Harmon profiles for the New York Times from last August, where students grapple with understanding and accepting evolution. But when we legally claim that teachers are exercising academic freedom by officially debating evolution's "strengths and weaknesses" as part of a science curriculum, we are opening the door to violating church/state separation, bearing in mind that the current "alternatives" to evolution are explicitly religious in origin.

Besides its legal implications, I'll admit that this issue is a personal one for religious reasons. As a teenage member of a conservative Methodist church, I remember watching a video during our youth meeting on evolution. The video dramatized a scenario where, upon hearing her science teacher present the case for human evolution, a girl runs out of the classroom, protesting that she didn't believe in such a thing. The message was clear: Christian belief and evolution were antithetical to each other. Not caring enough to seriously challenge this view, I became a supporter of creationism, and wondered at points if humans and dinosaurs co-existed together. It took many years--and a shifting of viewpoints on several other topics--before I really accepted that theism and evolution, faith and reason, could co-exist together.

My story is hardly unique, of course; determining the relationship between faith and reason when it comes to evolution is a common difficulty for religious believers, and especially so for those from theologically conservative backgrounds. Creationism and ID, however, oversimplify this process to an "either/or" decision, where one must choose to be either on God's side or the side of secularism. Without going into a lengthy theological argument, this demonstrates bad faith as well as being unscientific. Noll is particularly unsparing on this point, bluntly stating that creationism has obscured clear thinking about "human origins, the age of the earth, and mechanisms of geological or biological change." As he elaborates, "... if the consensus of modern scientists, who devote their lives to looking at the data of the physical world, is that humans have existed on the planet for a very long time, it is foolish for biblical interpreters to say that 'the Bible teaches' the recent creation of human beings."

Across the nation, young high school students are sitting in introductory biology classes, encountering evolution for what may be--or is likely--the first time. From a legal standpoint, these students have the right to hear scientific truth from their teachers, to learn in an environment that is absent of religious motivations. From a religious standpoint, they deserve better outside-of-class help in determining how evolution will fit into their faith backgrounds than from reductionist and dishonest doctrines.

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