A New York Times article this week describes the challenge Florida science teachers face in teaching evolution to their students. Evolution is the central organizing principle that guides our understanding of living things on Earth, so it is very important. You might think Oakland, California, would be a place that would welcome the teaching of evolution in the science classroom, and for the most part, you would be right. But I learned the hard way that not everyone here is in agreement. Oakland has its share of students who attend fundamentalist churches of one sort or another. When I first introduced evolution to my classes, I was surprised to find many skeptics. They asked “Are you saying we came from monkeys?” Some had even heard that Darwin was a racist, who believed in the superiority of whites.
It took me a while to sort out how to confront their beliefs. The first few times I debated the facts with students I kept running into dead ends. Ultimately, they believed as they did because it was the word of God, as revealed by the Holy Bible. They had trouble understanding why I did not consider this “evidence.”
Then one day I saw an episode of the PBS show, NOVA, that gave me an angle. Retired magician James Randi had helped create a 1993 documentary entitled “Secrets of the Psychics” that revealed how things that seemed somehow scientific, like astrology, palm reading and mind reading, were actually unlikely to be accurate. (Unfortunately this NOVA episode is no longer available.) He did this by duplicating the feats of the psychics, and in some cases devising experiments to test their validity. In one remarkable sequence, he exposes that the faith healer Peter Popoff is using a radio transmitter to receive information from his wife in the wings, as he roams the audience providing miraculous cures. In another, he travels to Russia, where he devises a careful experiment to test the telepathic powers of a supposed psychic.
Here’s the process I’ve developed, drawing on the Randi documentary. At the start of the year, before evolution had even comes up, I show them this video and asked the students to watch for the scientific method. What was the hypothesis being put forward by the astrologer or psychic? What was an experiment to test that hypothesis? What can we use as solid evidence to decide if it is true?
We discover that there are “magical” explanations that rely on some form of supernatural intervention, and there are explanations based on hard evidence. The rules of science are that we work with the evidence we get by experimenting and observing. If someone makes a claim, there must be a way to test it before we can accept it as scientific fact. Of course we also rely on what others have learned before us, but those findings are always subject to challenge and revision by new generations of scientists.
I leave that lesson simmering. Then, a month or two later, when I begin to teach about evolution, students begin to raise questions. “What about Adam and Eve?” “According to the Bible, all the animals went on the ark with Noah.” My response is to remind them about our lesson from a month or two before. What are the rules of science? We base our conclusions on evidence: what we can actually observe occurring, or what direct evidence can we gather of what has occurred in the past? What are the rules in church? There, everything is based on faith. You do not go up to the preacher and demand that he prove that God exists, do you? You have faith. That means you believe it without demanding evidence. I promise them I will not go into church and demand the preacher prove the existence of God. I accept that those are the rules in his place of worship. But we are in a science classroom, and the rules here are different. Here, we look for evidence, and just because something is written in a book -- even a science book -- does not mean it is evidence. That is why scientists constantly challenge one another, and why, in my class, we do as many experiments as possible, to find things out for ourselves.
As the teacher featured in the New York Times, Mr. Campbell, points out, there are questions that are clearly outside of the domain of science. Questions such as “does God exist,” and many more. We happily leave those questions aside when we enter the science classroom. That does not mean we discredit anyone’s religious beliefs. I make it very clear that I respect my students’ beliefs, and my goal is not to deny them. But I do want them to understand there are different ways to look at the world, and science is one of the most useful ways we have.
Then our study of evolution actually begins, as we look into evidence of past life on Earth, studying the fossil record. We examine fossils of ancient animals now extinct, such as the trilobite, and learn they once swarmed in the seas. We discover how scientists make inferences about the social lives of dinosaurs by looking at fossilized footprints and nest sites. We explore genetics and begin to see the evidence used to group animals together with common ancestors. Science is all about evidence, and the evidence of evolution is so vivid and real that students become intrigued in this story of life, even if it is different from those stories they have heard before.
In the end, the lesson of the science teacher is that we have strong evidence that living creatures have gone through an evolutionary process. How that fits into one’s personal beliefs about God, spirituality and religion is still up to each of us as individual learners.
What has been your experience teaching evolution? Do you have ideas on how to respond to the controversy science teachers face in this area?