Want to Teach Evolution? Ditch THIS Baggage!

It was never going to be easy. But if we want to do a better job of teaching evolutionary theory in America’s public schools, there is a simple, easy, and obvious step that we should start with. For a long time now, evolution mavens and science pundits have blithely adopted a missionary zeal. It’s not at all necessary and it makes teaching evolutionary theory much more difficult. This week, we notice another example of this awkward tradition.


Do students see God at work? Or not? We don’t need to care!

The recent whoopsie comes from Michael Dixon, director of the London’s National History Museum. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, Dr. Dixon and I are generally in agreement about the nature of science and of science’s role in a healthy democratic society. We agree that public schools ought to teach evolutionary theory and only evolutionary theory in science classes.

In a recent editorial, though, Dr. Dixon repeated the old mistake, the missionary supposition that has hindered evolution education for no good reason.

In his article, Dr. Dixon wisely pointed out the creeping dangers of anti-evolution teaching. In Israel, Turkey, and India, Dixon notes, the political power of religious extremists has led to woeful watering-downs of evolutionary theory in schools. Dixon asks,

So how should we respond to overt or insidious attempts to undermine this vital scientific concept?

He offers three good answers and one bad one. As he puts it,

We must – of course – teach it in schools as the core part of any science curriculum. And we must speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate. But more than these things, we must inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature, and ignite their curiosity in the world around them.

Teach evolution in schools? Yes!

Speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate? Yes!

Ignite children’s curiosity in the world around them? Yes, yes, yes!

But should those of us who want to teach more and better evolutionary theory “inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature”? Sorry, but no.

Of course, it is not a bad thing to inspire children, but these days, phrases like this are packed with unnecessary and unhelpful religious importance. If we want to teach evolution in creationist nations, we need to get over our tendency to over-reach our true educational goals.

There is nothing religious about evolutionary theory. In spite of what so many radical young-earth creationists say, evolutionary theory does not function as a kind of crypto-religion for secular people like me. Children can earn a thorough knowledge about evolutionary theory and a deep understanding of its premises whatever their religious beliefs.

Phrases like Dixon’s, however, echo an old religious zeal among some exponents of evolutionary theory. There has long been an unhelpful tendency among science pundits to pooh-pooh religious thinking, to assume that people need to pick between their religious beliefs and their knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory.

For example, in the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Darwin exulted in the religious implications of his theory of natural selection. Did it make for a bleak and loveless universe, as critics charged? No, Darwin argued. Once we really understood it,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.

In later editions, Darwin made that statement more creationism-friendly, but Darwin’s followers did not. Fast-forward a hundred years, and we see the same sort of irrelevant speculation by science pundits. In the 1960s, for instance, one of America’s leading evolution propagators was George Gaylord Simpson. In his book This View of Life (1964), Professor Simpson went out of his way to bash religious belief. Instead of understanding the universe with “reality and reason,” Simpson lamented, instead “higher superstitions [were] celebrated weekly in every hamlet of the United States.”

These days, the unnecessary and unhelpful tie between atheism and evolutionary theory has been preached most famously by Richard Dawkins. As Professor Dawkins wrote in his book The God Delusion (2006), the goal of evolution educators is to free people from the travails of religious belief. As Dawkins wrote,

a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically—and inadequately—usurped.

Like Dr. Dixon’s, the assumption here is that evolutionary theory can perform the vital task of inspiring us, of making us grasp the infinitude of reality and our own humble place within it. I don’t get invited to their parties, but I would guess that people like Dr. Dixon, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Simpson, and Dr. Darwin himself believe that young people need to be inspired by evolutionary theory in this sense.

They don’t, and the sooner we can separate out the good goal of promoting real science from the bad goal of interfering with private religious belief, the better off we’ll be.


Penn Puzzles

Can anyone REALLY teach students how to know and understand something without believing it? That’s one of the questions that sharp students brought up yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania.penn gse logo better

Some context: I headed down to Philadelphia yesterday to talk about evolution, creationism, and the goals of public education. My friend and hero Jon Zimmerman had asked his class to read Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

As usual, readers were generally more interested in the philosophical arguments of my co-author Harvey Siegel than with my historical chapters about evolution education. Is it really possible, students wondered, to teach students to know evolutionary theory in a deep way, to understand it, without insisting that they believe it?

Harvey and I make the case that it is, but as yesterday’s lively seminar proved, it is a difficult distinction to imagine in many cases.

For example, think about the reverse. What if a public-school history teacher wanted to teach students that American history should be understood as the triumph of “JudeoChristian” values? What if the teacher assured secular parents that he was not trying to force students to “believe” in any particular religious values, but only to “know” and “understand” the importance of Christianity in the forming of United States government and society?

Or consider the challenge for any person—especially a young person—of separating out her desire to please an authority figure from her personal religious beliefs. Is it really practical to tell teachers that they don’t want to influence students’ religious beliefs? That teachers should somehow be able to separate out such closely related concepts?

Most challenging, we considered yesterday other sorts of student belief that teachers DID want to challenge. What if a student in history class, for example, argued that her racist beliefs were acceptable, because they were her personal beliefs? Could a teacher really not challenge them?

I think a teacher not only can, but must. And I think a teacher can do that without therefore insisting that he must challenge every student belief with which he disagrees. As Harvey and I argued in TECN, and as I’m elaborating in my new book about creationism, even though such real-world challenges are intense, it is still vital to clarify our goals and our mission when it comes to creationism and evolution education.

Should the Scientists Say It?

Okay, so you know about the ongoing frouforole in Arizona over its new science standards. Recent developments in the case leave us wondering: How should scientists make their case? Why wouldn’t they make it in the strongest way possible?

dobzhansky quotation

…here’s the most famous Dobzhansky line:

In case you’ve been napping, here’s a quick update: The political landscape in Arizona has led to some woeful watering down of the state’s science standards. Concerned scientists have weighed in, pleading with the state board of education to reject the shoddy new standards.

In their letter, the American Institute of Biological Sciences warns,

The proposed standards fail to properly address important aspects of evolution science and remove climate change science from the high school curricula.

Right on. Thanks to AIBS for weighing in. There’s no doubt that Arizona should maintain high-quality science standards.

This morning, though, we have to ask a question. To back up their point, AIBS offers two compelling reasons, but they leave out an obvious third one. Why?

I don’t think it’s because AIBS chose to stick only with science, their area of expertise. After all, one of their main points is economic. If Arizona wrecks its science standards, it will be shooting its economy in the foot. As AIBS puts is,

Arizona has made important investments in its universities. This has enabled companies throughout the state to hire skilled graduates who can leverage the knowledge generated by scientific research to create new products and expand existing markets. Importantly, in coming years, a growing number of jobs will require scientific expertise, even when those jobs do not require a college degree. Thus, it is important that science be properly taught to all students and at all grade levels.

According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, “Bioscience and health care in Arizona are thriving industries, treating patients and conducting groundbreaking research that will change the world. Arizona research institutions, industries and clinical care facilities collaborate in unique ways to create new products and improve care and outcomes.” The Authority reports on its website that bioscience and health care industries generate $21.4 billion in annual earnings for the state, and in 2015 were responsible for about 320,000 jobs in Arizona. Arizona will jeopardize its prior investments and future economic opportunities if it waters down science standards by eliminating essential scientific concepts and fields of study to placate political interests.

Exactly true. The economic knock-on effects of clamping down on mainstream science and science education will be huge. But that’s not the only reason AIBS gives for keeping good science standards.

As they argue, good education itself demands it. All of us should insist on the best for our kids, including the absolute best science education.

They cite the famous words of leading scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky,

“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky offered these words decades ago, but they still ring true. Evolution is required to understand biology . . .

So far, so good. AIBS is 100% correct. Good science education is good in itself, and to be good it must include real evolutionary science. It’s also good for practical reasons, such as booming economic benefits.

But why, oh why, did AIBS leave out the other, screamingly obvious, part of their argument?

Dobzhansky meme creationisst

…Why not use the second-most famous Dobhansky quotation, too?

They could easily have added that evolutionary science does not deserve its reputation as an attack on religion. They could have simply added that Dr. Dobzhansky himself identified as “a creationist and an evolutionist.”

Why would AIBS do so? Consider their audience. If they want to stick to the science, fine. But clearly they don’t. They use economic arguments to speak to all Arizonans. Why not use the obvious religious argument as well? Why not point out that lots and lots (and lots) of creationists have absolutely no religious problem with real evolutionary theory?

Red Hen Creationism

I’ll bet we don’t agree about this one. As you’re sick of hearing by now, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely kicked out of a DC-area restaurant. Sanders complained about the fundamental incivility of her political foes. Whatever we think about defenestrating Sanders, we need to consider the implications of this dust-up for our creation/evolution discussions.


Kicked out for Trumpism…

You’ve likely read them all by now: Progressive types have argued that it was okay to be rude to Sanders, because Sanders was personally responsible for defending a horrific, hateful public policy. Conservative pundits call this episode an “appalling” example of the totalitarian mindset of the left. My favorite analysis came from someone I don’t usually agree with who laments the dangerous situation we are all in.

What does any of this have to do with creationism?

Like Sanders, a lot of creationists feel “kicked out” of public schools. They insist that schools teaching mainstream evolutionary science without any creationist science are not welcome places for their creationist kids.

So here’s the question: Do creationists have a right to feel welcome in public schools?

The ILYBYBTH answer: Yes, absolutely. But there’s a ‘but.’ As savvy creationists should want just as much as the rest of us, public schools need to avoid teaching any religious ideas in a devotional way. That is, public schools need to teach kids about religion, but they should never preach any particular religion.

Creationists have never been ejected from public schools. What WAS ejected—and very properly—was the idea that any religiously inspired science should have an equal voice in science classes.

As I’m arguing in my new book, the biggest disagreement in our continuing creation/evolution battles is not actually about creation or evolution. Rather, the problem is a breakdown of trust. If we hope to teach mainstream science in a way that welcomes all people to our public schools, we need to be much clearer about the things that we do and don’t disagree about.

For example, we should all agree on this: All creationists are always welcome in public schools. If they feel otherwise, we need to fix that. But creationism itself is not welcome, at least not as part of the official curriculum. If anyone feels otherwise, we need to fix that, too.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Jesus on dinosaurs, teachers on strike…it was another busy week here at ILYBYGTH International. Here are a few stories that caught our eye. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips…

“Jesus Rode a Dinosaur:” Christian conference seeks to help youth pastors do a better job talking about science, at RNS. HT: GB.

jesus rode a dinosaur

Where your Templeton money is going…

Could it work? Arne Duncan calls for a school boycott to change gun laws. At TP.

The wrong answer to school shootings: Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at CNN.

The latest on teacher strikes:

President Carter gently mocks Trump at Liberty commencement, at RNS.

Proof: AZ changed science standards to make room for creationism, at 12NEWS.

Science missionaries confront hostile creationist locals, at BioLogos.

Christian college administrators tend to censor student newspapers, at IHE.

Why do conservatives hate public schools? One conservative’s argument at AP.

The Right Recipe for Science Missionaries

Thoughtful exposition? Or bacon ‘n’ eggs? Rick Potts is trying to spread the word about evolutionary science to America’s creationists. Is he taking the best approach?

As described in the Smithsonian Magazine, Potts hopes his traveling exhibition can reach those “rural, religious, remote” places that the Smithsonian “deemed ‘challenging’—places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject.”


Too much for some…

To this observer, Potts seems to be on the right track. I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism that the problem is not knowledge but something else. No amount of yelling or state standards will puncture resistance to mainstream evolutionary science. Rick Potts seems to agree. As the Smithsonian article describes,

Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

Could it work? One disgusted local from Ephrata, Pennsylvania felt offended from the get-go. She was freaked out by a statue of a naked early-human mother and baby at the entrance to the library hosting the exhibit. As she put it,

Library abortions would probably be more offensive . . . but that would probably be it.

If even this most diplomatic attempt at spreading the word about evolution is too much for some creationists, then are all attempts to converse with creationists doomed to failure? Are some people and some communities so firmly set against mainstream science that even a friendly, caring outreach project like this is too much?

Writing for BioLogos, Brad Kramer points out the obvious problem and suggests a difficult solution. As he explains, no matter how big the smiles were, the science missionaries were still obviously missionaries. And nothing is easier to resist for religious people than sermons from another religion.

So is there no hope? The problem is bigger than science, bigger than religion. The root of the difficulty is TRUST. What can be done? As Kramer argues, the answer isn’t very attractive for those of us who want quick solutions. Kramer suggests bacon and eggs:

If all Rick Potts had done in Ephrata was spend a month eating breakfast with people at local diners, introducing himself as an evolutionary scientist, and explaining that he doesn’t hate Christians, an enormous amount of good would have been accomplished.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I spent the week buried in the Philadelphia archives, but somehow the world kept on turnin. Here are a couple of stories this week that have nothing to do with Joseph Lancaster.

Defending Kanye at NR.

pence at hillsdale

Do they care that we’re conservatives?

Pence at Hillsdale commencement—the conservative collegiate long game, at Politico.

A Canadian university wonders: Can only Indigenous professors teach about First-Nations history? At CBC.

Peter Greene tees off on Florida’s standardized tests for five-year-olds. At Curmudgucation.

Should fans of Wendell Berry forsake social media? Matt Stewart makes the case at FPR.

  • “We can rest assured, bonded by our faith in each other’s commitment to at least forsaking Twitter, that we are closer to being localists than to being hipster localists. The distinction is simple: a localist does not have to keep the Big Ether informed of one’s commitment to localism at all times and in all places.”

Get em young: Sarah Pulliam Bailey rides along on a Christian-nationalist kids’ tour of DC. At WaPo.

Gaza protest

Signs of the apocalypse?

Apocalypticism, Trump, and Jerusalem:

School revolts hold the key to stopping Trumpism: Henry Giroux at BR.

Standardized tests…what could go wrong? The fallout from glitchy tests in Tennessee, at Chalkbeat.

Arizona tried to edit evolution out of its science standards, at KNAU.

Asking uncomfortable questions at SMU—“Why are Black people so loud?”—“What is the difference between white trash and white people?” At CHE.

We Don’t Disagree about Evolution—We Just Hate Each Other

Why can’t we stop fighting about evolution and creationism?  As I put the final touches on my new book about American creationism, one obvious but counterintuitive point keeps presenting itself: Creationists love science and want their kids to learn evolutionary theory. So why the endless battle? This morning at Heterodox Academy, Musa Al-Gharbi makes some points about culture-war confrontation that help explain the problem.


We all love science, we just hate each other.

Al-Gharbi reviews some of the literature on the futility of culture-war shouting matches. We might think a reasoned, sensible argument will convince anyone who isn’t absurdly prejudiced. It seems the opposite can be true. Studies have found that stubbornness and intractability can increase when people are moreintelligent, educated, or rhetorically skilled.”

Why? Intelligent, informed, sophisticated people are more likely to be committed to ideas and ideologies. They are more experienced at the kinds of mental gymnastics that can help justify and rationalize seemingly illogical positions.

What can be done? Al-Gharbi suggests three general suggestions for improving real communication:




Could these suggestions help creationists and non-creationists talk to each other more productively?

Consider a few obvious points.

First of all, it may seem like a tired old idea to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but some people out there still don’t get it. Creationists aren’t anti-science. Not even the most extreme sorts of young-earth creationists are. As we’ve seen in these pages, young-earth creationists spend millions of dollars to give their creation museums the look, feel, and intellectual heft of mainstream science museums.

And, as trenchant critics Bill and Sue Trollinger point out, the Creation Museum doesn’t oppose science. To the contrary, the creationists at Answers In Genesis took pains to create something that looks like a “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art natural history museum.” In Kentucky, at least, radical creationists might not agree with me about the definition of good science, but they definitely love science itself.

righting america at the creation museum

We don’t have to agree with creationism to do a better job of understanding it.

Even when it comes to the science of mainstream evolutionary theory, creationists and non-creationists agree on big questions. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve heard from creationist homeschool moms who read Richard Dawkins to help teach their kids about evolution. And we’ve noticed ardent Texas creationists who want schoolkids to read the latest evolutionary science.

If we all want the same things—though maybe for different reasons—why do we keep fighting about evolution?

At least in part, we non-creationists need to take a good hard look in the mirror and see if we’ve been following Al-Gharbi’s advice. Have we tried to lower the perceived stakes of our conflict? Have we tried to really understand creationism and creationists? And have we spoken civilly and humbly to our creationist neighbors?

Too often, the answer is an angry no.

Consider just a few of the most famous examples.

Our most famous evolution mavens tend to speak angrily and ignorantly about creationism. They tend to do what they can to increase the stakes of our disagreements.

Richard Dawkins, for example, repeatedly blasts creationists as nothing but ignoramuses or worse. He tells anyone who listens that a profound understanding of modern evolutionary theory is the best way to cure religious people of their “god delusion.” As he promised about his book of that title, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

It’s hard to imagine a better way to raise the perceived stakes in our creation/evolution disagreements than to insult all creationists and promise that evolutionary theory will lead them to atheism.

It’s not just the irascible Dawkins, though. The friendlier Science Guy Bill Nye also tends to muff his chances at better communication. In his recent book Undeniable, for example, Nye lambastes creationists as people “casting doubt on science and unbelievers.”

As we’ve seen, though, creationists love science. It’s the unbelievers they’re chary about.

What’s the takeaway here? When it comes to our creation/evolution battles, those of us who want more and better evolution education will be wise to avoid these sorts of unnecessary and unhelpful blunders. We should work hard to understand creationism better. We should try to build on our vast areas of agreement instead of focusing on the things we won’t agree about. And we should avoid preaching to our own choir with gratuitous and inaccurate insults of our creationist neighbors and friends.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?

Wait…ARE Creationists Just Dumber?

If you ask the Richard Dawkinses and the Bill Nyes of the world, creationism is a pretty simple problem. Those who won’t accept the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory must be “ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked…)”. Those of us who know better have always pooh-poohed such simplistic science chauvinism. We argue instead that creationism is not mainly a question of knowledge, but of identity. A new study from the UK seems to challenge our assumptions. Maybe people who don’t accept evolution simply aren’t understanding it.

Here’s what we know: A group of researchers at the University of Bath studied over a thousand teenagers. Unlike studies in the USA, these teenagers showed a strong correlation between academic knowledge and acceptance of evolutionary theory. That is, students who understood evolution better tended to accept it more readily. Students who didn’t understand it as well tended to dismiss evolution or to say that both mainstream evolutionary theory and creationism could somehow both be true.

Here’s how the authors describe their conclusions:

before teaching, students with low acceptance had lower understanding of both evolution and of genetics; the low-acceptance students sat disproportionately in the foundation (rather than higher) science classes; low-acceptance students showed lower increments in the understanding of genetics; and student gain in the understanding of evolution correlated positively with gain in the understanding of genetics. We find no evidence either for a role for psychological conflict in determining response to teaching or that strong rejectors are more commonly of a higher ability.

We don’t want to jump to any grand conclusions of our own, but it seems for these students at least, better understanding and knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory really did lead to greater acceptance.

understanding evolution

T’aint natural…

Does this mean UK creationists just don’t get it? I don’t think so. But I think it does underscore the notion that mainstream evolutionary theory is not a particularly intuitive thing. It is difficult for us to comprehend central notions of deep time and population genetics. As people such as Kostas Kampourakis have pointed out in detail, our intuitions seem to point us away from a thorough understanding of concepts such as natural selection.

Are creationists dumber? No. For these students, though, a passing acquaintance with mainstream evolutionary theory apparently led them away from it, not toward it.