Should Everyone Be Forced To Learn Evolution?

I admit it. I love evolutionary theory. I think evolutionarily. Like my colleague David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University, I want to encourage Evolution for Everyone. Does that mean that public schools should force every child to learn evolution? Recently, friend of ILYBYGTH Praj Kulkarni made his case to the 14 billion readers of Dan Kahan’s blog that public schools had no legitimate purpose in shoving evolution down every student’s throat.

I’m a big fan of Kahan’s work. As Kahan argues, much of what people think about evolution reflects who they are more than what they know.

Praj is a big fan, too. But in this recent post, Praj challenges Dan’s notion that our society should insist that every child learn the rudiments of evolutionary theory. As Praj put it,

Not only is it illiberal to insist students profess “belief in” evolution, it may be illiberal to force them to learn it in the first place. It’s not obvious–to me at least–why learning evolution is mandatory.

For folks in the creation/evolution trenches, this might sound like window-dressing for creationism. For decades, as historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so well, creationist pundits have explored disputes between mainstream scientists and philosophers about the nature of evolution. In order to make the case for teaching creation science in public schools, for example, smart creationists have argued that the boundaries of science are not at all clear. And if not, how can public schools rule out one form of (creation) science?

Praj is no creationist. As you’ll see when you read his full post, he’s more interested in figuring out what interest society has in insisting on this particular brand of knowledge for all students. Some things, such as literacy skills or basic mathematics, make a stronger case. Every person in our society needs these things to flourish. Therefore, public schools have a responsibility to provide them.

Does evolution fit into that same category? Praj is most interested in the intriguing possibility: What if it doesn’t?

Dan wants to give Praj an answer. A good answer; one that recognizes the legitimacy of the question. Check out the comments at Cultural Cognition. Do they provide the answer Praj is looking for? Can we offer one?

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7 Comments

  1. Everyone should know evolution at a broad big picture level. They should know how it explains biodiversity. Note that this is mostly what should be general knowledge as seen from outside of science.

    But maybe everyone should also know something about creationism at a broad big picture level. And this, too, should be general knowledge from outside of theology.

    It seems to me that being a citizen requires this kind of knowledge. It does not require belief in either evolution or creationism. Belief should be left to the individual.

    At the level at which science studies evolution — say what an undergraduate biology major should know — no, I don’t see any reason for that to be required of all.

    Those are my opinions on this question.

    Reply
    • I agree 100%. But why? WHY does being a citizen require this kind of knowledge? It seems to me we need to back it up to a more general question about the purpose of public education. The government, I think, has a responsibility to do more than make available the best current knowledge in math, science, literature, and history. It is the government’s job to make sure every child is taught the best current knowledge in these fields. In science, that means evolution. Like you, I don’t think the government has any role in requiring belief about evolution. But I do think the government has a compelling interest in enforcing compulsory schooling for all, and that means compulsory evolution for all. My hunch is that plenty of intelligent people out there disagree with that attitude. Praj’s question is helpful because it forces people like me to articulate WHY we think every child should be forced to learn the theory of evolution, if not forced to believe anything in particular about evolution.

      Reply
      • WHY does being a citizen require this kind of knowledge?</blockquote.

        These are issues that come up regularly in public discourse. So a reasonably well educated member of the public should at least have enough perspective to know roughly what it is about, and to know where to learn more.

        On the other hand, a typical person can live a good life with only a sprinkling of knowledge on evolution. So this is why I would not require more than a general broad background knowledge.

      • Exact-a-mundo. However, though I don’t want to put words in Praj’s mouth, I imagine he might object that we’re only reasoning in a circle. Everyone knows about evolution. Therefore everyone must learn about evolution. Why? Because everyone knows about evolution.

  2. the Modern Synthesis of Evolution is defunct – it’s become obvious that “selection” is overrated, probably trivial – yet MS is still taught in college, which means most people like this author do not have any idea what they’re talking about

    Reply
    • willbell123

       /  December 30, 2014

      The Modern Synthesis is one (as you say, defunct) explanation of the evolutionary process. Even assuming the author has any idea what the Modern Synthesis is, it doesn’t really matter that much, the ‘how’ of evolution does not really effect the principles involved.

      Reply
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