Do You APPRECIATE Evolution?


I don’t often wish I went to Yale. To my provincial mind, Yale = The Bad Guy from Back to School. Me, I’m more of a Thornton Melon type. But Professor Dan Kahan’s class on the science of science communication at Yale has me wishing I was there.



Happily, Professor Kahan is sharing his current syllabus and reading list on his Cultural Cognition blog. This week, he asks probing questions about the relationship between “knowing,” “understanding,” “accepting,” and “believing” evolution. I’m starting to wonder if we need to add a new word to this list: “appreciating” evolution.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book on the subject coming out soon. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue that science teachers need to be aware of Professor Kahan’s questions. Specifically, teachers need to be aware that there can be an important difference between “knowing/understanding” evolution and “believing” evolution.

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

In a nutshell, we argue that teachers must insist on student knowledge and understanding, but remain intentionally and explicitly neutral on the question of student belief. As sharp critics have pointed out, this might be an impossibly delicate task for classroom teachers who have their hands full with more prosaic questions. As a colleague of mine put it, the most common question most real-world teachers ask is not “Am I crossing a line into ‘belief’ when I should be more concerned with ‘understanding’?” Rather, most real-world teachers are asking questions like, “Is Bob sleeping back there?” and “How can I make this more accessible to students?”

Professor Kahan’s blog reminds us of another difficulty with these distinctions. The belief/understanding split has one meaning among mainstream scientists, but it has a very different meaning among the regular joes in K-12 science classes.

Time and again, smart science types have pointed out that NO ONE ought to “believe” in evolution. That’s not how science works. As FrankL commented on Professor Kahan’s recent post (scroll down to the first comment):

I think it’s entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me “do you believe in evolution?” is, in my mind, like asking me “do you believe in your hammer?” or “do you believe in your computer?”. The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or “believed in” or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don’t use my computer to hammer nails, and I don’t ask my hammer for my email. That doesn’t mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is “smarter” is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that’s the approach that the partisans take.

FrankL is not alone in pointing out the central undesirability of “belief” in evolution, even among evolution’s most fervent supporters. A few months back, Keith Blanchard offered a similarly smart argument in the pages of The Week:

So if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t.

To my mind, Blanchard and FrankL have offered wonderfully clear articulations of the difficulties of “belief” from the perspective of mainstream scientists. But that is not the perspective in which we are really interested. What we really care about are the resistant students who fill America’s K-12 public-school science classrooms.

What do we want from those students? We agree with Blanchard and FrankL that no one wants to push “belief” in evolution. But we mean it in a different sense. We are concerned about students for whom the central ideas of modern evolutionary theory have an intensely religious meaning. For those students, to “understand” evolution in the Blanchard/FrankL sense would roughly equate to “believing” it. That is, if creationist students “accept” that evolution is simply the truth about what is unquestionably happening, they must wrestle with a theological crisis.

We hope instead to allow students for whom evolution presents a religious problem to sidestep questions of belief.  Or, to be more precise, we want to move those questions of belief out of public schools and into homes and churches. We want students to “understand” what FrankL and Blanchard are saying. We want them to “know” why evolution has become the intellectual coin of the realm in modern science. But we also want to protect their right in public schools to dissent, to say to themselves, “But it’s not really the truth of existence.”

And perhaps for that we need a different word. A recent lecture by a colleague about the history of literary appreciation got me thinking. Maybe we want to push for student “appreciation” of evolutionary theory. The word “appreciation” might be closer to our educational goal for K-12.

After all, we want something more than for students to just parrot back, “Scientists say that species evolved from a common ancestor. [But only because scientists are deluded.]” We want them to “know” why scientists embrace evolution. We want them to be able to “understand” the idea of evolution well enough to see why it has come to dominate modern thinking in biology.

Do you "understand" this?  Do you "appreciate" it?

Do you “understand” this? Do you “appreciate” it?

When my co-author Harvey Siegel uses the term “understand,” it includes these meanings. Professor Siegel does not argue that students should be encouraged to skate by with a surface knowledge of evolution—one that is enough to pass any state test, but does not properly engage with the idea. Rather, for Professor Siegel, “understanding” evolution must mean grasping the deeper implications of evolution as well.

Perhaps “appreciation” would be a better match for the way most people think of these things. After all, we can all “appreciate” a painting, even if we don’t like it. We can understand where it’s coming from, understand why it has become a famous work of art. We can do all those things—get a profound understanding of the painting—and then say equally truthfully, “I don’t think it’s good.”

Isn’t that what we mean when we say we want students to “know” and “understand” evolution, but not (necessarily) to “believe” it?

“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.

Bad News for Everyone

Have you seen it yet?  The new Gallup poll on creationism and evolution is out.  The numbers are about the same as they have been for the past thirty years.  But beyond those numbers, the backgrounds of Gallup’s respondents has some bad news for creationists.  It also has bad news for evolution-lovers.

Stable Numbers Since the 1980s

Stable Numbers Since the 1980s

Since the 1980s, Gallup’s pollsters have been offering respondents three options about the origins of humanity.  This time, 42% chose the young-earth creationist option: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  In contrast, 31% chose “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process.”  A whopping 19% selected “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process.”

Those numbers have remained fairly stable for the past generation.  But another result of the recent poll numbers needs some examination.  The young-earth position is much more common among less educated adults.  For those with less than a high-school diploma, 57% selected the young-earth option.  A far smaller proportion, only 27%, of Americans with a college degree chose the young-earth explanation.

"Organized Ignorance?"

“Organized Ignorance?”

This is bad news for everyone.

For creationists, these numbers suggest that more education means less creationism.  Throughout the lifespan of American creationism, creationist intellectuals have fought a rearguard action against accusations of ignorance.  In 1927, for example, Minneapolis fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley told a reporter,

Every time I hear the argument that this is a controversy between experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other, I smile.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Riley’s smile grew more and more strained as the 1920s wore on.  And later generations of creationists found it even more difficult to take the intellectual high ground.  These numbers mean bad news for them.

But the numbers mean bad news for evolution mavens, too.

Though more college grads embrace a non-young-earth understanding of the origins of humanity, 27% is still a significant number.  It means that over a quarter of adults who have been to college—educated adults, that is—select a young earth as the best explanation.  Over a quarter!  Some of those, to be sure, may attend what young-earth creationists embrace as “Creation Colleges.”  Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis, for example, publishes a list (and a map!) of schools that he views as faithful to the Bible’s obvious meaning.

But many of those college-educated young-earth creationists likely attend non-creationist colleges as well.  As anthropologist David Long demonstrated in his study of creationists at a large public university, studying biology at a secular university does not tend to shake the faith of creationist students.  Of his interview subjects, only one abandoned her creation faith as she majored in biology.  And it wasn’t the science that convinced her.  She had already begun to move away from her faith in high school, due to an early pregnancy and the sour reaction of her church community.

As I argued a while back in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, anti-creationists are too fond of calling all creationists “ignoramuses.”  Certainly, some folks must embrace creationism because they just don’t know better.  But many educated adults DO know about evolution.  They simply choose young-earth creationism instead.  That is a troubling fact that anti-creationists have always had a hard time dealing with.








Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?


Why Do Evangelicals Doubt Evolution?

For outsiders like me, it can seem an utter mystery why intelligent, informed American adults remain skeptical about the truths of evolutionary science.

The BioLogos Foundation recently re-posted a 2010 video by evangelical scientist Jeffrey Schloss to help people like me understand evangelical skepticism.

Professor Schloss offers two main reasons why evangelicals oppose evolution.  The video is short and worth watching.  But the message is misleading.

Schloss argues that evangelical faith depends on the reliability of Scripture.  Accepting any ideas that challenge that reliability, he points out, would force evangelicals to make profound changes in their core religious beliefs.

Also, Schloss notes that some visions of evolution force evangelicals to doubt the omnipotence and benevolence of God.  If evolution implies a purposeless development of life, it must be rejected by evangelicals.

Such insights are important, but in the end they suggest misleading conclusions.

The vast majority of evangelicals who reject evolutionary science do not do so primarily for theological reasons, as Dr. Schloss suggests.  Rather, evangelicals who doubt evolution mostly do so due to their complex cultural identities as members of communities who doubt evolution.  In other words, evolution skepticism should not be understood as one rational decision among others, made by evangelicals (and others) based on reasoned theological considerations.  Rather, those who doubt evolution do so as members of communities reliant on authoritative statements about the theological impossibility of evolution.

In other words, people doubt evolution because they come from churches, families, towns, and denominations that doubt evolution.  They explain their doubt in theological terms, and such explanations are immensely important.  But they are not the primary reasons why people doubt evolution in the first place.

Perhaps this problem will make more sense if we try an analogy.  Historically, some economists suggested that people tend to make rational economic decisions.  By plotting a rational economic forecast, the thinking went, economists could predict the ways homo economicus would behave.  Unfortunately, real people don’t act often enough like homo economicus to make those predictions useful.  Some people do, naturally, but not enough to make homo economicus a useful explanatory tool.

I suggest that Professor Schloss is crafting a similarly misleading picture of homo theologicus.  Professor Schloss suggests that American evangelicals deny evolution due to two important theological considerations.  Doubtless there are some American evangelicals who have done so.  But more people make decisions for other reasons.  The theology is important, but it is not the place to start if we want to understand evolution skepticism.

Professor Schloss is doubtless fully aware of these sociological and cultural reasons for evolution skepticism.  He notes the many factors that go into evolution skepticism.  But by describing two theological ideas as the most important reasons for opposing evolution, he grossly mischaracterizes the nature of American evolution skepticism.

For those of us who hope to improve evolution education, this matters.  If we think of evolution skepticism as a rational theological belief, then we may decide that the best way to spread evolutionary theory is to explain evolutionary theory rationally and repeatedly.  We may be led to believe that reasonable independent actors have chosen evolution skepticism, and may thus be open to rationally and reasonably changing their minds.

That’s not how it works.  As my grad-school mentor Ronald Numbers has shown, the boundaries of acceptable “creationist” belief among evangelicals and other creationists have changed over time.  Such boundaries have not been something each individual evangelical creationist has reasoned out for him- or herself.  Rather, the meanings of evolution skepticism have themselves evolved.  And, as David Long’s ethnographic studies have demonstrated, personal commitments to evolution skepticism are not often changed by exposure to evolutionary theory.

Evolution skepticism is a complex cultural identity.  Americans do not choose to believe in either evolution or creationism in a sort of cultural cafeteria.  Rather, they are born (or adopted) into communities of belief.

Those of us who hope to spread the acceptance of evolutionary science must begin with a thorough and nuanced understanding of evolution skeptics.  Professor Schloss’ overemphasis on homo theologicus does not do that.




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.


Easy but Painful: Converting to Atheism

What would it mean for religious people to abandon their faith?

Yesterday we saw an example of this process from Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True.

As “Matthew” describes, leaving his conservative Christian faith was not very difficult.  But it was painful.  And it can teach us some important lessons about conservatism and education.

First, Matthew’s story confirms the fears of many young-earth creationist activists.  Folks at organizations such as Answers In Genesis and the Insitute for Creation Research have long argued that learning about evolution can (or will) lead to atheism.  According to Matthew, that was exactly his experience.  For Matthew, evolution was a “gateway” idea for rejecting Chrisitianity in toto.  For young-earth creationists, this must come as proof of long-held fears.  For evolution educators, this must demonstrate that young-earth creationists have a point when they lament the atheistic implications of evolutionary theory.

Also, Matthew’s story shows how difficult it will be to improve evolution education in the United States.  For many resistant students, as sensitive science-ed types such as Lee Meadows and David Long have pointed out, evolution is not just one idea among many.  Evolution is word that provokes profound cultural, psychological, theological, and even existential anxiety among some students.  As Matthew’s story demonstrates, only when a student from this background actively seeks an alternative way of understanding the world can such evolutionary theory take hold.

Finally, though, Matthew’s story shows how important evolution outreach efforts are.  Matthew started his odyssey away from conservative religion by browsing internet sites and podcasts.  The educational work of organizations such as the National Center for Science Education has been a leading source for such evolution content online.  Matthew’s story shows how important that work can be, even if it must seem frustrating at times.


Call Me, New York Times

Did you see it yet?

All of us who follow creation/evolution debates have likely read by now the “Room for Debate” essays in the New York Times the other day.

The jumping-off point, it seems, was Virginia Heffernan’s recent claim that she is a creationist.  The editors asked contributors, “Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creationism?”

Each essay is short and pithy.  Certainly worth your time.  They include fourteen cents altogether, two each from an evangelical physicist, a liberal theologian, an evangelical apologist, a Muslim pundit, a political scientist, a law professor, and a theologian/environmentalist.  All in all, an interesting and idiosyncratic collection of opinions on the subject.

But here’s my beef: Where is education in all these voices?

Other scribblers, I’m sure, will ask other questions.  For example, where is atheism?  Or any sort of strong argument that it is, indeed, a big problem to believe in biblical creationism?

The editors would not have had to work hard to find a good atheist to contribute.  Even outside the big names such as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, plenty of articulate atheists could have offered a strong opinion about the dangers of believing in biblical creationism.

More directly relevant to readers of ILYBYGTH, where is the voice of education?

IMHO, the issue of “biblical creationism” would not be nearly as controversial if Americans did not have to decide what to teach in our public schools.

As Professor Giberson noted in his piece, “The brouhaha about ‘biblical creation’ is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”

Well put.  But that proxy war is fought primarily in boards of education, in classrooms and PTA meetings, in state textbook meetings, and in thousands of other school-related battlefields.  The evolution/creation controversy is not primarily an issue simply of scientific or theological disagreement about epistemology and ontology.  There are plenty of other issues on which people do not agree that have not had the tumultuous career of the creation/evolution debates.

In short, the brouhaha over reality of meaning is only a brouhaha because we need to decide on what sorts of meanings we will teach our children.

It would have helped this discussion enormously, I believe, if someone had pointed this out; if at least one contributor made education his or her primary intellectual interest.  I’m not only saying this because I wish the NYT had called me.  Though I do work for peanuts.

In the bigger picture, leaving an “education” voice out of a creation/evolution debate has long been a problem for those of us trying to understand the issue.  Too often, creation/evolution is framed as an issue of science and religion.  Science and religion only.  As if the truth of life’s origins remained the primary source of controversy.

That makes it difficult to understand the real issues.  As thoughtful scholars such as Randy Moore, Lee Meadows, Michael Berkman & Eric Plutzer, and David Long have pointed out, creation/evolution is not only about “the reality of meaning in the world.”  The rubber hits the road in this culture-war issue with individual students, in specific classrooms, day after day, decade after decade.

Unless we recognize the importance of the way creation/evolution plays out in such real-life environments, we will not move forward.

So, for the record, the next time any editor wants to corral a herd of scholars to comment on creation/evolution issues, please be sure to include someone with a primary interest in evolution.

It doesn’t have to be me.  But I’m always available.

I will also talk about creation/evolution at Labor Day cookouts, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, awkward crowded elevator rides, or any other event.  Just call me!


Not Jesus OR Evolution, Jesus AND Evolution

What dead-end questions do we keep asking in our continuing creation/evolution debates?

  • What does real science say?
  • What does real religion require?
  • What does the Bible mean?
  • How does the evidence prove the claims of Darwin?

As we’ve seen recently, smart people can bump heads endlessly on these questions without ever convincing one another.  As I argued in my 1920s book, these go-nowhere debates have been going on for almost a century.

More evidence today that the real question we should be asking is different.  Instead of asking about true religion or true science, it seems the real question is simpler:

  • Who am I?

A piece on the BioLogos Forum recently demonstrates the centrality of this basic question to attitudes about evolution and creation.

Geochemist Steven M. Smith relates his story.  For followers of the creation/evolution controversy, it is a familiar one.  An earnest young Young Earth Creationist sees the scientific evidence for a young earth.  This evidence brings on not only a scientific or religious crisis, but an existential one.  As Smith relates, his young self felt forced to choose between his Christian identity and the unassailable evidence of science.

For Smith, it was Christian support, including the “Christ-like” model of a Christian academic mentor that convinced him that he could be both Christian and scientific.

Smith’s story is not an outlier.  As anthropologist and science educator David Long argued so convincingly in his book Evolution and Religion in American Education, the central question for most students is not one of scientific evidence or religious belief.  The real question is one of identity.  Evidence that contradicts deeply held beliefs can trigger an existential crisis.  Though a few extraordinary individuals might pull off a wholesale revolution in their understandings of their selves, most people reject the evidence and stick with their well-established identities.  In the case of Long’s study of biology students at a large secular public university, most students from creationist backgrounds did not “convert” to belief in evolution.

As Steven Smith’s story suggests, simply pouring more science on people will not make much of a difference.  If we want to promote more and better evolution education, we need to consider the profound implications of evolution for the identities of many creationists.  An acceptance of evolution, for many, is not simply an acquiescence to evidence.  Instead, unless and until they find a way to construct an identity consonant with both their religion and the scientific evidence, it would entail a wholesale revolution in their understandings of themselves.

If we want more people, more creationists, to accept the evidence for an old earth and common ancestry of species, it makes sense to support those religious folks who can help create and promote such identities.


Liberal Education or Left-Wing Indoctrination?

What is college for?  Should students stretch their minds by considering all sorts of competing, even conflicting ideas?  Or should young adults learn to intone the hackneyed, ideologically purified phrases of a single viewpoint?

Many conservative pundits these days insist that too many colleges have become left-wing reeducation camps.  But does that match our experience?

In a recent review of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton heartily agrees that too many institutions of higher education have slid into the heavy mire of politically correct intellectual conformity.

unlearning_libertyA self-proclaimed “liberal,” Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has led a campaign to open college campuses to true intellectual controversy.

As Thornton notes, Lukianoff’s book chronicles example after example of over-eager campus authorities cracking down on students’ free speech rights.  For instance, one Yale student was punished in 2009 for wearing a t-shirt that quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The offending shirt proclaimed—in the run-up to a big football game—that “all Harvard men are sissies.”

These and a host of other speech clampdowns are led by an army of humorless, vindictive student enforcers, whom Thornton calls “sensitivity commissars.”  The problem, as Thornton relates, is that “in orientation programs, only one point of view, the progressive-leftist one, is allowed a hearing, and students who resist it are subjected to sanctions and shaming exercises worthy of religious cults.”

The pattern of repression, Thornton insists, is not applied equally.  “Christians,” Thornton writes, “are particularly singled out for censorship, as are Republican organizations and other conservative groups, especially pro-Israel ones, whose publications are often vandalized, campus events attacked, and speakers shouted down.”

These notions of an oppressive left-wing campus Red-Guardism seem widely shared among conservative writers.  But do they match our experience?

I teach at a large public university in the northeast.  Perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to it, but our sprawling campus seems to welcome a real variety of speech, student and otherwise.  We have student groups for a variety of religious viewpoints, some of them resolutely conservative.  Self-identified “conservative” students with whom I talk report that they do not feel particularly shut out or victimized.  The campus is peppered with outside speakers who promote a kaleidoscope of ideas, from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism.

Colleagues report similar experiences.  One science-education academic from a large public university in the Southeast tells me his education colleagues repeatedly indoctrinate their pre-service teachers with a message of Christian religiosity.

These are admittedly sketchy and anecdotal reports, but some more careful research seems to back it up.  David Long’s ethnography revealed a host of creationist students and faculty at public, pluralistic colleges.  Amy Binder’s and Kate Wood’s study of two leading schools revealed plenty of opportunity for conservative students at such schools, even if some students reported feeling victimized or shut out of campus life.

Perhaps the answer lies in broadening the lens.  Elite schools such as Yale might have rigid thought-police regimes.  However, we must remember two important facts: not many college students go to Yale, and even Yale produced William F. Buckley.