Should Everyone Be Forced To Learn Evolution?

I admit it. I love evolutionary theory. I think evolutionarily. Like my colleague David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University, I want to encourage Evolution for Everyone. Does that mean that public schools should force every child to learn evolution? Recently, friend of ILYBYGTH Praj Kulkarni made his case to the 14 billion readers of Dan Kahan’s blog that public schools had no legitimate purpose in shoving evolution down every student’s throat.

I’m a big fan of Kahan’s work. As Kahan argues, much of what people think about evolution reflects who they are more than what they know.

Praj is a big fan, too. But in this recent post, Praj challenges Dan’s notion that our society should insist that every child learn the rudiments of evolutionary theory. As Praj put it,

Not only is it illiberal to insist students profess “belief in” evolution, it may be illiberal to force them to learn it in the first place. It’s not obvious–to me at least–why learning evolution is mandatory.

For folks in the creation/evolution trenches, this might sound like window-dressing for creationism. For decades, as historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so well, creationist pundits have explored disputes between mainstream scientists and philosophers about the nature of evolution. In order to make the case for teaching creation science in public schools, for example, smart creationists have argued that the boundaries of science are not at all clear. And if not, how can public schools rule out one form of (creation) science?

Praj is no creationist. As you’ll see when you read his full post, he’s more interested in figuring out what interest society has in insisting on this particular brand of knowledge for all students. Some things, such as literacy skills or basic mathematics, make a stronger case. Every person in our society needs these things to flourish. Therefore, public schools have a responsibility to provide them.

Does evolution fit into that same category? Praj is most interested in the intriguing possibility: What if it doesn’t?

Dan wants to give Praj an answer. A good answer; one that recognizes the legitimacy of the question. Check out the comments at Cultural Cognition. Do they provide the answer Praj is looking for? Can we offer one?

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Do YOU Need Evolution?

Our intrepid editor sat down this week with Prajwal Kulkarni, the genius behind Do I Need Evolution?  Praj agreed to offer some reflections on his recent career as culture non-warrior.

Does He Need Evolution?

Does He Need Evolution?

ILYBYGTH: Why do you care about creationism?

Praj: Thanks for agreeing to interview me Adam. I’m quite honored.

I actually care about creationists much more than I do creationism. They are real people, and many of them are among the smartest, kindest people I know. Also, contrary to popular belief, not all of them want creationism in public schools.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers, once described how he did not want more “positive” writing about black Americans. Instead he simply wants to portray them as complex human beings: “I do not wish it to show us “in a more positive light.”…I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.”

I’m not suggesting an equivalence between media bias against Christians and African-Americans. But I do think we should have a similar goal for evangelical Christians. Creationists can be as complicated and contradictory as all of us, and they are not merely a problem to be solved. The media and scientific community, to put it mildly, do not realize this. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in various church communities. As I’ve gotten to know evangelical Christians as real human beings, I now see that rejecting evolution is not necessarily something to worry about.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me finally answer your question about creationism. There are two big reasons I care about the issue.

First, as a (former?) scientist, I’m horrified at our irrational, unscientific arguments. Where did we get the idea that believing in creationism will prevent someone from becoming a doctor or a physicist? Scientific thinking and rationality cannot be modeled as an on-off switch, and suggesting otherwise is unscientific.

Second, I think creationism is really a proxy for deeper disagreements about public education, scientific literacy, scientific authority and expertise, democratic decision-making, religion, etc. I’ve always found those deeper philosophical issues fascinating, and I can’t think of another topic that touches on all of them so strongly.

ILYBYGTH: Can you tell us something about your intellectual background and education?

Praj: Growing up, I think there was an implicit expectation I would be a science person. Both of my parents are doctors, and pretty much everyone on my mom’s side of the family studied science in some way. But even when I was very young, I was attracted to philosophical issues. I also always had somewhat of an unorthodox streak in me. I remember arguing Hindu philosophy with family and friends.

At Penn State, I initially thought I would get a bachelors in engineering of some form and then work in industry. But I fell in love with a modern physics class at the end of my sophomore year. I did my undergraduate thesis in numerical relativity, one of the most abstract and theoretical branches of physics. I thought I wanted to do physics the rest of my life.

Pretty early in grad school, however, I realized that I did not want to do physics research my whole life. I started realizing that I’m much more of a breadth rather than depth person. And so I started studying policy and politics in my spare time. After grad school I worked in Washington, DC in science policy for two years.

I look at my current obsession interest in evolution and creationism as an extension of those previous interests in philosophy, politics, and policy.

ILYBYGTH: As a trained physicist, what’s your opinion on the relationship between “creation science” and “mainstream science?”

Praj: Oh boy…you just opened an ugly can of worms. Philosophers have been debating the “demarcation problem” (how to demarcate science from non-science) for literally thousands of years. You can spend a lifetime reading the scholarship. I’ve just spent several weeks myself!

The short, cop-out (but honest) answer is that I actually don’t find the question very interesting. I realize it’s the question for most people. But suppose tomorrow everyone agrees that creationism isn’t science. The deeper issues I raised above would still exist. That’s where the action is as far as I’m concerned.

But to not cop out and give a real answer…creationism is not science. I do think the science/not-science distinction is a lot more complicated than typically portrayed in the media (you can give yourself a headache reading the debates on naturalism), but that’s true for lots of issues. Since I don’t want to swim in afore-mentioned can of worm, I’m going to leave it at that for now!

ILYBYGTH: Okay, now for the hard one: If there is a creation/evolution culture war going on, aren’t you a traitor?  That is, doesn’t your work with DINE offer aid and comfort to creationists?

Praj: I really don’t think there should be a war. If there is one going one, I guess I’m a conscientious objector. I don’t view either creationists or scientists as the enemy, and it’s problematic to conceive of our fellow citizens this way.

And if I am giving aid and comfort to creationists, then I’m quite happy and proud of myself! I want everyone to be engaged in science and feel they are a part of it. A single belief doesn’t disqualify anyone. I find this with-us-or-without-us mentality is grotesque. Dick Cheney should not be our role model.

Stuff It, Perfesser: The DINE Response

Cross-posted from Do I Need Evolution

What do we do when we can’t agree?  Evolution, US History, sex, prayer . . . there’s a lot we can’t agree about.  A few days back, I asked what a historian like me should do when challenged and insulted.  Should we fight back? Or try to understand why we’ve been insulted and make some connections between disagreeing sides?  Prajwal Kulkarni of the must-read Do I Need Evolution has offered a response:

I can understand why both historians and scientists get angry and feel they must fight. But to fight or not to fight is not the only question. How we fight matters as whether we fight. It’s possible to fight fairly and treat your opponents with respect, something sorely missing with creationists.

Scientists and educators themselves disagree which topics in science are critical for people to learn, and especially non-scientists. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that there are many paths to science literacy. Since the experts don’t think evolution is absolutely necessary, and since there are many different ways to cultivate science appreciation and literacy, “fighting” over evolution seems particularly inappropriate.

History is different. Adam can comment more authoritatively, but I get the impression historians agree on a canon that everyone should be exposed to. There also aren’t easy substitutions in history education. You can’t legitimately teach mid-19th century US history and avoid the civil war. But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution. “Fighting” might actually be a more appropriate response for history. And even then, we can make sure to to fight fairly and respectfully.

Living in a democracy requires us to draw these types of lines. When it comes to public education, it may be okay to concede on evolution but not history.