“The Talk:” Evolution Edition

What do young people need to know about evolution?  A recent commentary from University of Washington professor David Barash has sparked a new round of debate.  For us at ILYBYGTH, it sparks a different question: When and how should ‘resistant’ students learn about evolution?

We all know that some religious students get uncomfortable when the subject of evolution comes up.  “Until recently,” Barash wrote, “I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine.”  They should be uncomfortable, Barash concluded.  There were foundational ideas in many religious traditions that science simply made untenable.

For example, students who really understood evolutionary science would have a hard time maintaining a belief in a fundamentally good and all-powerful deity.  As Barash put it,

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

Also, students who hope to maintain a belief in the special nature of humanity will be in for a rude awakening.  Humans, evolutionary scientists have demonstrated conclusively, are “perfectly good animals,” but not anything specially created.

Finally, the old watchmaker argument just doesn’t hold water.  Though life might seem irreducibly complex, modern evolutionary science has demonstrated that, as Barash put it,

an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness.

Not surprisingly, creationists have reacted with outrage.  Stephen Meyer of the intelligent-design bastion Discovery Institute blasted Barash as “willfully ignorant” of recent scientific developments.  Other creationists have called Barash “intellectually dishonest.”  Even Catholic writers berated Barash.  As one Franciscan blogger put it, “His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence.”

Such reactions, it seems to this writer, accomplish Barash’s goals perfectly.  With his insouciant attitude toward religious perspectives and his history of anti-religious polemics, it’s hard not to conclude that Barash and the editors at the New York Times hoped for exactly this sort of outraged response.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we want to ask different questions.  For instance, we want to know if students from anti-evolution homes can be taught about evolution without simply rejecting it.  We want to know if our deep culture-war trenches over evolution education can be bridged by a different approach.

As we’ve learned from scholars such as Dan Kahan, what people say they know about evolution tells us about their identity, not their knowledge base.  As Kahan puts it, it tells us about who they are, not what they know.  There is not a significant difference between evolution-supporters and evolution-deniers when it comes to knowledge about evolution.  That is, people who say they believe in evolution or agree with evolutionary theory don’t actually know more about it than people who say they don’t.

And, as ethnologist and science-education guru David Long has demonstrated, “evolution” is tied to a bundle of non-scientific meanings for many resistant students.  Knowledge of evolutionary theory was not a problem for the creationist students Long studied.  Instead, acceptance of the idea of evolution presented identity challenges to these students.

Perhaps more shocking to culture warriors like Barash, creationists WANT their children to know about evolutionary theory.  But they want their children to be protected from attitudes like his; creationists want their children to learn about evolution from people who understand and respect their religious qualms.

How do we know this?  Because many conservative religious schools INSIST that all students take a course on evolutionary science.  Liberty University, for example, has made an evolution/creation course a requirement for graduation.  And here at ILYBYGTH, I have been educated by creationist parents who earnestly hope to teach their children about evolution.

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

In an upcoming book, philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue that the way forward in evolution education is to promote an “understanding-not-belief” approach.  Public schools must teach students the best available science.  And right now, that includes the modern evolutionary synthesis.  But public schools must also refrain from imposing religious (or anti-religious) ideas on students.

It’s a tall order, and many smart commentators have pointed out the difficulties with our prescription.  As David Long has suggested, our book might just be a “red herring” in these discussions.

But imagine how very different our version of “the talk” would be from David Barash’s.  Like Barash, we want teachers to tell all students that evolution is the best current science.  It is.  But that doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t have good reasons for speaking out against it.  Students should be allowed, no, encouraged, to separate their personal identities from their knowledge about evolution.  Knowing evolution makes them educated, not evil.

Perhaps most important, a teacher’s attitude can make all the difference.  If a teacher hopes to make students “shift uncomfortably in their seats,” then Barash’s approach will work.  But a good teacher recognizes the world of difference between a healthy, growthful intellectual discomfort and an antagonistic, coercive one.  Barash hopes to jolt creationist students out of their intellectual blinkers.  But his approach will only weld those blinkers on more securely.

A better “talk” will be one that helps students understand that evolution is an idea, not an identity.