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.