Is Evolution Education Doomed?

I could see how Bill Nye might be bummed. An example from my local paper this week shows that creationism might be a nearly universal American trait. If we speak clearly enough, though, we can see that this isn’t really a problem for evolution education.

First, a little background. Evolution wonks like me tend to feel flustered when pundits and scholars use the term “creationism” when they really mean only radical young-earth creationism. Gallup, for example, has long called young-humanity beliefs “creationist,” and other creation-ish beliefs not creationist. That doesn’t make any sense.

gallup creationism poll may 2017

It’s not sensible to call only the #3s “creationists.”

In practice, most Americans have vague, heterodox ideas about both evolutionary theory and creationism. (Don’t believe it? You’ll have to wait for my new book for my long demonstration of this counter-intuitive point.) If we use a sensible definition of “creationism”—like the idea that life must have had some sort of active creator at some point in the past—then the label could work for almost everybody.

Exhibit A: In my local newspaper, a guy named Rick Marsi has a regular column about nature and outdoor living (for some reason, it was not posted online. I have no idea why not.) In a recent essay, Marsi advocated heading out on a kayak instead of sitting around complaining. When you do, he says, and you catch a beautiful fish, you’ll have no choice but to

Drink in that raspberry stripe [and] . . . marvel at perfect design.

Well, of course we DO have a choice. We can recognize that—speaking scientifically—there was no “design” involved at all, perfect or not. The “raspberry stripe” wasn’t put there to wow kayakers. According to evolutionary theory, it wasn’t put there at all.

So what are the Bill Nyes and the Josh Rosenaus of the world supposed to do? Wail and gnash their ties at the widespread dunderheadness of American culture?

Not at all!

If we have a sensible attitude toward evolution education, then the “intuitive theism” we see so often shouldn’t bother us at all. As Harvey and I argued in Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation and I’m fleshing out more fully in my new book, there is absolutely no reason for evolution educators to fret if their students retain a quasi-theistic idea about the origins of life.

Our goal in public-school classrooms should never be to encourage or disparage specific religious ideas. If students want to agree that trout stripes are a “perfect design,” so be it. We can and should cultivate a beneficent indifference when it comes to students’ religious thinking. All we want to do is help people know and understand what evolutionary theory really says. What they choose to believe about it is absolutely up to them.

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