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Teaching Evolution in Oakland: Are You Saying We Came From Monkeys?

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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?


19 Comments

I read the same article, and would like to bring up one more idea that I think would serve teachers well. The instructor in the article said that students do not have to accept or believe evolution, but they have to be able to explain the idea and describe it's various aspects/elements. That's a great lesson in tolerance - appropriate to any academic work. When I get to a controversial piece of literature in an English class, students don't have to like it, don't have to agree with it, don't have to approve of what the characters say or do - but they have to show they understand.

I like your point about different rules in different settings. I might also apply that to the content. The Bible is a complex work that has generated a wide variety of interpretations that are beyond the scope of my expertise, and beyond the curriculum. I am an expert in the curriculum, and will proceed with that in mind, leaving the Bible to others.

"Evolution is the central organizing principle that guides our understanding of living things on Earth, so it is very important." This arrogant statement, which typifies the attitude of evolution proponents, is what will ultimately destroy your erroneous belief. Oh, you will indoctrinate many students with your philosophy, but logic will prevail in the end.

Steve,
Would you care to share your own belief?

My goal is not to indoctrinate, but to equip students with the tools to understand the natural world, and the theory of evolution has proven to be crucial to understanding how species arise and change over time.

Anthony, what a sane way to approach the topic. The rules for science are different. I use a grid called the CONPTT grid in which I ask kids to examine the pseudo science of phrenology to see if it follows the rules for science. CONPTT stands for Consistent (are the results consistent in support), Observable, Natural (are the results based on natural phenomenon or supernatural), predictable, testable and tentative (subject to change in light of new evidence). What I find in lots of students is that they look only for confirmatory evidence and do not subject their ideas in science to examination from evidence that challenges what they think makes the world work.
With different rules for faith and science we can still respect the rules by which we approach issues of faith and ask them in science class to use the rules of science to examine the world of scientific principles and theories.

Well, first off, let me apologize. I read my earlier post (written just after I woke up) and I think you could make a good case that I sounded arrogant also. This is an emotional issue for me because I see the damage caused in the world by the widespread acceptance that people are merely higher thinking animals. By all means, teach natural selection, breeding, and genetic mutation which do explain how species change over time, but leave out statements like the quote I used in my earlier post. That was a statement of your personal philosophy not empirically supported science. Please don't use the argument that a majority of scientists believe the same. It would not be appropriate for me to tell a class that the world was created in 6 days by GOD would it? At least it wouldn't be appropriate in science class. That's what I believe and so do millions of others including PHD scientists in all disciplines. By the way, a friend who is head of cardiology at a local hospital and my son's pediatrician both seem to have a pretty good understanding of biology without believing in your so-called "central organizing principle."

Steve,
Thank you for coming back and engaging in dialogue. That is what I had in mind when I named my blog.

So let's explore this a bit. You seem to be saying that evolutionary theory is not supported by empirical evidence. Then you allow for natural selection, breeding and genetics, which are the ways we understand evolution to work. Your disagreement seems to focus on the creation of the Earth and all its creatures, which you believe occurred over the course of 6 days. Do you have any empirical evidence for this?

I will agree to not argue based simply on what the majority of scientists believe, but the point of my post was to suggest that the rules of science say we need to follow the evidence.
thanks,
Anthony

Mutation is observable and reproducible. So is natural selection. It is a giant extrapolation to suggest that these mechanisms account for all life on earth starting with some mythical proto-cell that cannot be observed. You don't have a time machine do you. I have nothing you would call scientific evidence to prove the Earth was created in 6 days. That's why I wouldn't mention it in a science class. There is a lot of evidence of a worldwide flood however. That suggests to me, among many other things that the Bible's other historical accounts are more accurate than the more recent hypotheses suggested by modern scientists in the last 200 years or so. You and I have probably seen much of the same evidence; we merely interpret the evidence differently. Our worldviews are different.

Last post was me. I just forgot to put my name in.

No, I do not have a time machine. But we have fossil evidence from the Earth approximately 3 billion years ago that reveals the dominant forms of life then were cyanobacteria. I do not know exactly how these life forms arose, and would leave that an open question, because while scientists have various hypotheses, there is not much evidence or consensus.

I still am struggling to understand what you object to, and what you believe in. Do you believe a great flood caused the extinction of dinosaurs? Do you believe Noah managed to rescue all the progenitors of modern life? Do you believe the Bible to be literally true? Do you believe the Earth to be less than 6,000 years old?

I don't know if the Earth is less than 6000 years old. It might be a little more. Noah may have brought some dinosaurs with him on the Ark. I believe everything incapable of surviving a worldwide flood was preserved aboard the Ark. What I object to in public school science classes is the way certain aspects of evolution and the age of the Earth are presented as fact. The age of the earth and the universe (my position and yours) are guesses based on how we see the world and interpret evidence.

In general, science should be presented as evidence, but strongly held conclusions can be reached if the evidence is strong enough, as any criminal prosecutor will tell you. There is strong evidence that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. There is strong evidence that dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago, and that the ancestors of modern humans diverged from other primates about six million years ago. This blog is not the place to go into detail about the specifics of this evidence. In my class I take several months to develop this evidence, using real fossils, learning about radioactive dating, the law of superposition and what DNA reveals about the historic relationships between species. I have not seen any compelling evidence that contradicts these interpretations. I have seen the argument made from a place that starts by assuming the Bible to be accurate, and the works to make evidence fit. That is not the approach of science. That is an approach based first and foremost on faith, which has a different set of rules.

This issue was litigated in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005, and an impartial judge reached the conclusion that it was inappropriate to present creationist theory alongside evolutionary theory as if they were both equally viable and equally supported by the evidence. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District

My position is that your beliefs are only possible when you first look at the evidence from a point of view that already accepts the idea that the world is billions of years old and all life is the product of evolution. You believe your reasoning is inductive when in fact it is deductive. I agree that my approach is "based first and foremost on faith." I believe yours is too. I don't want non-believers to teach creationism, but I don't want science teachers to make broad unsupported statements about life origins either and don't believe for a moment that the judge in the Dover case, or anyone in the world for that matter, is impartial on the issue of the origin of life. It is impossible not to have one framework or another when evaluating data. I once believed in millions of years and evolution also because that is what I was told in school and many of the books I read. I always had a cognitive dissonance about the whole subject though. What "DNA reveals about historic relationships between species" only suggests evolution if you already believe in evolution. If you are interested in these issues the answersingenesis.com website exhaustively explores the differences in our worldviews .

Steve,
I explored the website to which you referred us, and I have arrived back where we began, with the fact that we are starting from different places in our assumptions.

The creationist site which you referenced states:

If one agrees to a discussion without using the Bible as some people insist, then they have set the terms of the debate. In essence these terms are:”

1. ‘Facts’ are neutral. However, there are no such things as ‘brute facts’; all facts are interpreted. Once the Bible is eliminated in the argument, then the Christians’ presuppositions are gone, leaving them unable to effectively give an alternate interpretation of the facts. Their opponents then have the upper hand as they still have their presuppositions — see Naturalism, logic and reality.

2. Truth can/should be determined independent of God. However, the Bible states: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111:10); ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7). ‘But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14).

A Christian cannot divorce the spiritual nature of the battle from the battle itself. A non-Christian is not neutral. The Bible makes this very clear: ‘The one who is not with Me is against Me, and the one who does not gather with Me scatters’ (Matthew 12:30); ‘And this is the condemnation, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19).
Agreeing to such terms of debate also implicitly accepts their proposition that the Bible’s account of the universe’s history is irrelevant to understanding that history!

I am afraid this conclusion is what I suggested at the start. The faith-based system and the scientific framework are not comparable. I agree that scientists have working suppositions, but unlike those of the creationists, these suppositions are open to challenge. That is why I responded by asking for credible evidence for alternative theories. I do not believe "creation scientists" have offered such evidence. As I said, I do not privilege the bible as the ultimate reference. Since we live in a society that says public schools are not the place for state-sponsored religious instruction, I will leave that out of my science lessons, and teach what scientists have learned over the past few centuries.

The problem is that evolutionary scientists teach not just what they know but what they merely believe. They can no longer distinguish between the two. You know natural selection and mutation are real phenomena. I know that too. You believe they (and other tenets of the evolutionary model, some real some extrapolation) explain life. I don't.

My belief is that we cannot, at this point, be sure how life began. I stated earlier that I would leave that an open question, allowing that there are various hypotheses, but little in the way of concrete evidence. When I teach, I do my best to respect my students' beliefs, and I respect yours. As I have said, I think there are different reference points in effect, and perhaps we can agree to leave it at that.

You've been very respectful. Have a good school year.

Steve,
I appreciate your comments. I am a science teacher who would like to see both theories presented...not as a means of indoctrinating anyone, but instead as a means of letting students understand that evolution does not explain the beginning of life and that there is a difference between observable science and historic science that is always based on interpretation, whether you are a creationist or an evolutionist. Presenting the actual theory of evolution, that one being evolved into another, is not observational science. Natural selection and genetic mutation are observable science. Those subjects can be taught as fact. Thanks for voicing what many of us who love science believe.

I do not agree that we lack convincing evidence supporting the evolution of species over time. I also am troubled by the idea that we would present "both theories." What would be the other theory that would be presented alongside evolution?

I regret coming late to this discussion because I wonder, if one believes that dinosaurs may have been on the ark then what ultimately led to their demise? Were they hunted to extinction?

Comments are now closed for this post.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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