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.


150 Years Without History Are Enough!

It’s not a “conservative” thing, really.  Or a “progressive,” “liberal,” or “traditionalist” thing.  But I’ve mounted up on my high horse in the pages of History News Network to complain about the sad state of American history education.

Specifically, I’m stumped and saddened by the continuing prevalence of neo-Confederate histories in America’s public schools.  Or, at least, by the continuing desire of some activists and authors to keep neo-Confederate histories alive.

In the HNN essay, I argue that there are clear parallels between this sort of history education and the long campaign against the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.   Just as in that case, I think there are plenty of conservative intellectuals who will agree with me that neo-Confederate myths shouldn’t be taught as real history, just as there are lots of conservative evangelicals who dispute the young-earth style of creationism peddled by Ken Ham.  Just as I wouldn’t want history teachers to use Zinn’s woefully slanted leftist People’s History of America in their classrooms, I bet there are plenty of conservatives who don’t want American kids to learn that the Civil Rights Movement was no big deal, or that lots of slaves fought FOR the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Take a look and offer your comments over there.  Bonus points if you can make sense of my oh-so-clever title BEFORE reading the essay on HNN!


Should Adults Lie to Children?

I’ll say it: Lying to children is a vital part of a good education.

Adults lie to children all the time.  Santa Claus. Easter Bunny. Tooth Fairy. Daddy will eventually come home again…

But can such lies be considered “education?”  Our attitude toward this question might tell us a thing or two about the continuing culture wars over American education.

The question came up again in Professor Jerry Coyne’s review of Jonny Scaramanga’s Salon article.  For those of you who just joined the party, Professor Coyne is an irascible atheist and scientist.  He is an inveterate campaigner against creationism and delusional religionism.  Scaramanga is a recovering fundamentalist, blogger, and sometime contributor to these pages.  Scaramanga’s Salon article decried the repackaged fundamentalist curricula that are being taught in some publicly funded charter schools in Texas.

In response, Coyne thundered,

Adults have the right to be as stupid as they want, but I don’t think they have the right to tell lies to children. Those lies include not only religious dogma, but the antiscience attitudes that come with it. How sad that a group of bright and curious children can become ignorant, superstitious ideologues simply because they were born into the wrong families.

Professor Coyne is not the first science pundit to take this position.  In his 1964 anti-creationism book This View of Life, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson blasted the lies that had thwarted evolution education.  “Even now,” Simpson argued,

a hundred years after The Origin of Species, most people have not really entered the world into which Darwin led—alas!—only a minority of us.  Life may be considerably happier for some people in the older worlds of superstition.  It is possible that some children are made happy by a belief in Santa Claus, but adults should prefer to live in a world of reality and reason.

But as anyone involved with education knows, adults lie to children all the time.  Doing so is a vital part of every good education.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

1.) “This is what we believe.” 

Every education, in every culture, whether it means formal schooling, apprenticeships, or informal instruction, includes the passing along of central ideas.  Professor Coyne meant that adults should not tell young people things that are untrue.  But what if the adults believe it fervently?  Is that a lie?  Or, to complicate the matter, what if the adult isn’t sure if she believes it fervently, but is convinced that it will be good for the young person to believe?  For example, in the world of religious faith, an adult may have had serious doubts about her faith, but decide that a young person is not yet mature enough to consider those gray areas.  She might then tell young people that certain religious mysteries are simply truths, knowing that later the child will and should wrestle with the more complicated questions about it.

2.) “You can do this.”

This can be a flat-out lie.  Teachers and parents often work to inspire confidence in their children and students, even when the adults are very unsure of the truth of their statements.  Adults may have serious doubts that young people can, indeed, accomplish certain goals.  Yet the adults might tell the children that such goals are definitely, absolutely, 100% achievable.  It’s a lie.  But it is something good parents and teachers do.

3.) “I hate phonies.”

In our culture, many of the biggest truths are best understood through lies.  I’m no Salinger fan, but I still remember reading Catcher in the Rye in high school.  I remember Holden’s struggle with phonies.  It taught me important truths about the ways people interact with one another.  None of it was “true,” of course.  It was all fiction, all lies.  But my teacher taught me those lies.  And I’m very glad she did.

Our attitude about lying to young people can tell us a lot about our positions on key educational culture-war issues.  Professors Coyne and Simpson think it is not okay for young people to learn creationism or other religious falsehoods.  But that position doesn’t include room for the complexities of real education.  Adults lie to children all the time, for the children’s benefit.  Sometimes they do so deliberately.

But more often, adults tell children things that the adults think are true.  Creationists don’t set out to deceive their children; they hope instead to protect their children from the deceptions of mainstream science.

But what if we don’t agree that creationism is true?  Are those creationists guilty of lying to children?  Professor Simpson said yes.  Professor Coyne says yes.  Jonny Scaramanga, I’m guessing, would say yes.

I disagree.  Teaching children our core beliefs is not lying.  Even if I think those beliefs are untrue (and I do think young-earth creationist beliefs are untrue), parents who teach such things to their children are guilty of nothing more than educating their offspring.

There is no parental right more fundamental than that.