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.