Human Origins at the Smithsonian

What should we do to teach evolution better?  ILYBYGTH contributor David Long addressed that topic a little while back at the Smithsonian Institution.

The panel discussion was part of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s Broader Social Impacts Committee.  Long, a science education specialist and anthropologist at George Mason University, discussed some of the implication of his work, including his must-read book Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography.

David spoke for about thirty minutes.  Then the assembled panel offered reflections.

Panelist Connie Bertka of the Smithsonian committee asked the smart question: “What can the scientific community do?”

Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association offered a striking example of the deep misunderstandings of creationism among outsiders.  Edwords made the point that a good education requires that students emerge different from when they go in.  Naturally.  But Edwords did not seem to recognize that the nature of this educational transformation is precisely the question at issue.  How should education transform young people?  Should education affirm or challenge existing religious or ideological commitments among the young?  Edwords seemed to assume that any good education would lead to a transformation in favor of evolution, in favor of challenging religious traditions.

Nancy Howell, who teaches about religion and science at a Methodist seminary, made the important point that denominational background can’t really be used to predict affinity for creationism or evolution.  That is, people of different sectarian backgrounds often embrace or reject creationism.  At times, people go against the teachings of their own denominations, without even knowing it.  Due to this splintering effect, assumptions about the numbers of creationists based on denominational affiliations must be viewed very skeptically.

At one point, an audience member suggested that creationism can be eliminated by the teaching of “critical thinking.”  Dr. Long replied diplomatically but correctly that we can’t assume too much about the meanings of teaching “critical thinking.”  After all, ardent creationists have long insisted that their programs are the only ones teaching critical thinking.  Young-earth Guru Ken Ham, for example, insists that creationists are the only ones resisting the intellectual bullying of evolution.  Only young-earth creationists,  Ham argues, don’t merely parrot the shibboleths of intellectually empty evolutionism.  Only young-earth creationists, Ham says, are doing any critical thinking when it comes to evolution.

So, in the end, what should we do to teach evolution better?

At the very least, we can take an hour or so to watch this presentation and discussion.


Leave a comment


  1. In his presentation, Long made the incorrect claim that: “Many US religious denominations (The Southern Baptist Convention for example) have no tradition or Biblical criticism-the text is truth; not metaphor, or something to be interpreted-ever.” Is that why the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has one learning objective as “interpret Scripture’s original meaning”? [ ]

  2. One atheist speaker claims to have asked and not obtained an answer to the following question: What stops micro-evolution changes from becoming macro-evolution? What’s the barrier? The answer: design constraints on the initial simple organism to accumulate micro-mutations while keeping the organism alive AND imparting novel beneficial functionality AND resulting in an overall increase in genetic information.

    He then says that if the barrier could not be identified then micro is macro. That is stupidity. Micro COULD be macro, the onus is on those who believe that it is to show how it did occur, not assume that it did occur.

    • As the Sensuous Curmudgeon would say, “It’s the old micro-macro mambo.” At the SC and respondents have many times discussed this constructed dichotomy, e.g. The fossil record indicates that new species arose from previous species, and scientists have observed speciation in real time. Design proponents have zero data about the designer, how the designer acts, when the designer acts, etc and thus simply say it looks designed so by golly there has to be a designer.

    • The fossil record may be interpreted as showing that new species possibly arose from previous species. Speciation is micro-evolution. This is not about what design proponents “have” but they can infer that the designer (if existent) is an expert engineer. To state that there is zero data is illogical as everyone has the same data: nature. Differences arise in interpretation. Rather, the issue at hand is what evidence is there for macro-evolution. While micro-evolution is clearly testable, all we know would indicate that macro-evolutionary changes are highly improbable unless guided by an intelligence. While I dislike ID, they never make the simplistic claim that something that looks designed has to be designed. So you have committed the following fallacies: simplification for misdirection, conflation and straw-man.

  3. David Long

     /  September 8, 2013

    ChazIng: You point out a distinction well taken, but we’re likely to disagree on an evaluation of the history of American Christianity. Sure–everyone interprets. My comments come from a position, one in print that I stand by, setting more theologically liberal Christianities (something like Marcus Borg describes) against Biblical inerrancy (something the vast number of SB lay ministers practice). That the Seminary teaches a class does not mean that the faithful follow their direction. For this point, I agree wholly with Howard Blooms 1993 description of actual SB practice in “The American Religion”, that the greatest number of SB are “neo-Gnosticists” who make the interpretation fit their immediate, almost always a-historical half-cooked understanding of religious text. The issue for someone like me, both in describing the social field of people interacting with science, as with faith, is describing accurately what’s going on. Pointing to a course listing isn’t exactly a good representation of what SB are actually doing with their text. That would be like pointing out doctrinal positions about reproduction by the Catholic church, and then finding out the laity is overwhelmingly using birth control.

    • Dr. Long, you clearly stated that you were referring to the denomination as in the theological tradition. What the people do is irrelevant since you are speaking about exclusivist theology. If a self-described Catholic does not conform to official theological positions, they are not Catholic but nominally Catholic. Even ‘inerrant’ traditions interpret scripture. It does not matter if their interpretation is such that it fits their immediate (such a claim could also be applied to the atheist panelist who implicitly claimed that macro-evolution is “truth”), all that would do is make their interpretation simplistic at best, and wrong at the worst. Also, literalists afford large chunks of the bible as metaphor and that the SBTS teaches hermeneutics contradicts the “… or something to be interpreted-ever.” As for a more accurate description, you might consider dropping the term “ever” and specifying that you are referring more to the laity than the clergy. And should that not be Harold Bloom?


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