Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!





Friday Night Lights: Evolution in Schools

How can evolutionary ideas help education?  This Friday, biologists and evolution mavens David Sloan Wilson and Richard Kauffman of Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program will be giving a talk about using evolutionary theory to improve education.  And you’re invited.

Professors Wilson and Kauffman will not just be talking about teaching evolution as a subject, but about ways to use evolutionary ideas to help increase learning in all subjects.  As they put it,

Evolutionary theory is highly relevant to education in ways that go beyond the need to teach evolution in public schools. We will make two additional evolution-education connections in our talk. First, evolutionary theory can be used to design social environments that are maximally conducive to learning all subjects. Second, evolutionary training can increase general cognitive thinking skills, including the ability to transfer knowledge across domains. We will illustrate these points with two studies, involving a program for at risk-high school students and a college course that teaches evolution across the curriculum, respectively.

The talk will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Friday, May 9, between 5-7 PM, in room 124 of Academic Building B.  All are welcome, but the talk will be targeted toward graduate students and science educators.  There is no need to register and the event is free.

For those of you who are unable to travel to Sunny Binghamton, the presenters will be talking about two academic studies: “A Program for At-Rish High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science,” and “The Evolutionary Biology of Education: How Our Hunter-Gatherer Educative Instincts Could Form the Basis for Education Today.”



Required Reading: Who’s Afraid of Evolution?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.  I started this blog when I discovered many of my secular, liberal friends and family shared my ignorance about the complexities of life in Fundamentalist America.  One academic acquaintance once asked me regarding young-earth creationists, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She didn’t mean to be patronizing, but she dismissed a huge group of Americans with one sarcastic comment.

As we’ve noted here before, American creationists embrace a wide variety of beliefs.  Calling oneself a “creationist” doesn’t necessarily mean one believes in a six-thousand-year-old planet, or a literal six-day creation.  But it might.

Venema. Image source: Trinity Western University

Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University recently shared some of his experiences teaching evolution at an evangelical Protestant university.  Writing on The BioLogos Forum, Venema discusses the thrill he experiences when he shares his evidence for evolution with his evangelical students.  As he describes, some of his students resist accepting the evidence.  Even when they do recognize the power of chromosomal similarities, students still reach individual conclusions about how this science impacts their faiths.

Venema’s reflections demonstrate the complexities of creationism within the borders of Fundamentalist America.  We outsiders must be careful not to lapse too glibly into a simple evolution/creation binary.

As Venema relates,

“For me personally, the most difficult circumstances to watch are students who feel torn between the evidence and their faith. In some cases these are extremely bright students, who easily see the strength of the evidence, but feel the need to remain unengaged and uncommitted because they fear a backlash from their churches, or (especially) their parents.  While an evangelical university can be a wonderful, safe environment for students to explore these issues, that environment doesn’t follow them home. These struggles are painful to watch, and I’ve spent more than a few hours in prayer for students facing them.”

This experience is different at an evangelical university than it would likely be at a mainstream school.  For starters, the assumptions about students’ home lives would not be the same.  No matter how caring and sympathetic a professor might be at a mainstream college, he or she would not likely assume that evolution would cause such struggles for his or her students.

Students who learn about evolution at my institution, for example, would do so under the auspices of David Sloan Wilson’s EVoS program.  This is a wonderful and powerful academic experience for undergraduates.  But the students in the program generally assume that anyone who does not embrace the science of evolution is trapped somehow in a bizarre and archaic subculture.  My chat about the intellectual culture of creationism with a group of bright and talented students in the EVoS demonstrated the intense secular bias of the program.  (You can listen to a podcast of that conversation here.)

As Venema continues, at an evangelical college, the situation is vastly different.  Many students come from churches and families in which the word “evolution” has long been associated with every sort of rank sin.  At Venema’s school, for instance,

“evolution matters. That intensity of student engagement is invigorating, and the students feel it too. Regardless of where students ultimately decide to “land” on the issue, many report that they enjoyed the process – the exchange of ideas, the discussions and debates, and the new understandings gained.”

So who’s afraid of evolution?  Many of my secular friends and family would likely assume that students at evangelical colleges are taught simply to hate and fear the truths of modern science.  As Venema shares, the real experience is a much more complicated thing.

Evolution and Creation: One Historian’s View

The Evolutionary Studies program at Binghamton University has published some audio from my talk last week about creationist thought and its history.  I’d like to thank the EVoS folks for the opportunity to address the seminar.  The interview beforehand and the questions and discussion afterward were very lively and provocative.  The students, faculty, and other audience members raised terrific points and mind-expanding challenges.

An audio recording of the talk, ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Huckabee:” Creationism in Historical Perspective’ is available here via EVoS’ website.  You can also listen to a podcast of the interview with David Sloan Wilson’s students.  A sharp bunch!

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Huckabee

All readers and commentators of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell are invited to a public talk about the historical development of creationist thought in the United States.

The talk will be Monday, November 7, 2011, at 5 PM in room AA G-008 on the campus of SUNY Binghamton, in sunny Binghamton, New York, USA.  It is free and open to the public.

The host is David Sloan Wilson’s Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University. David Sloan Wilson Logo

The speaker will be Adam Laats, Assistant Professor at Binghamton.  His talk will focus on issues familiar to readers of ILYBYGTH:  How do creationists cling to their beliefs when surrounded by such overwhelming scientific evidence for creation?  How can evolutionists understand them without simply dismissing them as ignorant or misguided?

For more info, see the EVoS announcement.